Note: The stats and figures below are as of January 31, prior to the team’s win over Golden State.
Point Jimmy Butler hasn’t appeared too often since he joined the Philadelphia 76ers. He has spent most of his minutes with Ben Simmons, one of the NBA’s premier passers and the Sixers’ lead ball handler. And when it comes to running pick-and-roll, it’s hard to execute smoothly when non-shooting threats such as Simmons or T.J. McConnell are off ball, making it easy for a defender to sag off into the paint to tag the roller or help on Butler’s drives.
Since joining the Sixers, Butler has spent a measly 18 of his 927 minutes with both Simmons and McConnell off the floor. On January 29 against the Los Angeles Lakers, though, Point Butler had more free rein than ever as a Sixer.
Butler had pretty much the best spacing the Sixers could offer him. He spent seven minutes with neither Simmons or McConnell on the floor, and had a chance to lead the offense with lineups featuring Joel Embiid and three shooters (well, at least more of a shooter than Simmons or McConnell in Corey Brewer’s case).
In the second quarter, a lineup of Butler-JJ Redick-Brewer-Wilson Chandler-Embiid made its first appearance. Butler had a host of touches to create as the only lead ball handler on the floor, letting him read the floor and pick apart the defense.
Brewer missing the initial 3-pointer here is a nice reminder that someone such as Landry Shamet (or a new player, such as the soon-to-be-bought-out Wesley Matthews, perhaps) taking his place would improve spacing even further. Nevertheless, it was easy for Butler to draw in two defenders, wait for the help to shift over onto Embiid’s pop to the arc, and instinctively fling the ball to the open man (Brewer) on the wing:
To close the third quarter, the Sixers ran with a Butler-Redick-Chandler-Mike Muscala-Embiid lineup. Here, once Butler drives past Embiid’s screen and has his man, Brandon Ingram, recovering, Josh Hart starts edging over towards the paint. With so much attention on Butler and JaVale McGee shifting up the lane, Muscala makes a smart cut behind the back of the defense. Butler is comfortable making good reads at speed, and fires the quick bounce pass to set up Muscala for a foul and a pair of free throws:
On the next play, the Sixers went right back to Butler and Embiid. The set up is identical to the previous possession. And yet again, Butler brings the entire defense with him. McGee hedges slightly in case Butler pulls up from the elbow, Ingram struggles around the screen, and Butler collapses the defense in a hurry with a burst to the basket. From there, he shows off his playmaking with a pin-point kickout pass to Embiid in acres of space and the Sixers have a wide-open 3 (Embiid just opts for a shimmying pull-up jumper over Ingram instead):
What was the result of the very next possession? Yet another open look from 3. Butler pulled in the defense and calmly kicked the ball back out to Embiid, who, after a stumble with McGee, drew a foul and another trip to the free throw line:
“I think he did an amazing job just getting everybody open, especially on the side pick-and-roll with me and him,” Embiid said of Butler’s play, per The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann.
Sure, Butler’s outing against the Lakers wasn’t a shocking development and plays like those above — whether shots missed or plays ended in clunky fouls — weren’t showstoppers. We know Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls can be effective based on their talent alone. But this game showed Brett Brown’s willingness to experiment by giving Butler solid run at point and employing lineups that make spread pick-and-roll easier.
Less McConnell was a good start. He can be bullied by anyone on defense and his lack of 3-point shooting ruins spacing on offense. Any time he’s left off ball next to Simmons or Butler, the offense can bog down. Against the Lakers, McConnell had his 13th-lowest minute game of the season at 19:11. When he was absent in these stretches with Butler left as the main ball handler, it was easier for Butler to drive into more space and scramble the Lakers’ defense.
Shamet, in particular, could benefit from McConnell’s role decreasing. He’s shooting 40.4 percent from 3 for the season, with 93 made triples, second on the team only to Redick. But on top of that, Shamet has handled the ball more himself lately, which is encouraging to see, even if some of it’s in garbage time. He has experience playing point guard from college, too, and he’s looked pretty comfortable showing off his adequate handle and ability to make swift, simple passing reads. Shamet is capable of handling more, and it makes complete sense to give Shamet some of McConnell’s minutes.
Again, bringing in another shooting wing like Wesley Matthews to take Brewer’s place in the lineup examined above would help. The Sixers are a perfect fit for what Matthews offers as a career 38.3 percent 3-point shooter, and they’re already interested in acquiring him when he’s bought out by the Knicks, per Philly Voice’s Kyle Neubeck.
The more Butler can play with groups like those he did against the Lakers, the more he can do what he does best with the ball. And he doesn’t have to do this a ton, as staggering him with Simmons to maintain overall talent and perimeter defense is still important (this is where using Simmons as a roll man becomes so intriguing). At the very least, Point Butler is an option that should be developed, another weapon that can be unleashed against a specific matchup or playoff setting that warrants it.
“I’m not even stunting — I was hype,” Butler said when recalling how Brown told him he’d be leading the offense more against the Lakers, per Hofmann. “He came to me two days ago and told me I was going to be bringing up the ball a little bit. I told him I was comfortable with it.”
With plenty of games left before the playoffs, the Sixers have time to continue honing their chemistry and tapping into the new skill set they have in Butler. They can experiment, add new wrinkles to their offense, and inject pick-and-roll heavy spells with Butler.
The Sixers still have plenty to work on and obvious holes in their roster to address through buyouts and trades, but one thing is certain: they have plenty of top-end talent and variety at their fingertips.