I have a dear friend who says I should preface my long articles with a summary so people can get the point even if they don’t want to read the whole thing. I don’t do this because my feeling is that the “point” of my articles is the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t really matter all that much whether I conclude the Sixers should or shouldn’t draft Mikal Bridges; rather, I wrote a like 15-page article about that subject because I had a bunch of things I thought were worth pondering and the draft question seemed to me an interesting framework in which to embed those issues. It’s kind of like going to the circus; you don’t get a set of bullet points in advance summarizing the height of the tightrope guy’s unicycle and explaining that the clown is going to pretend to trip but then execute a barrel roll. Just enjoy the show!
But I’m going to make an exception in this case because I actually think this article matters for the Sixers’ title hopes over the next few years. I mean, obviously it can’t matter that much; after all, who cares what I think? But at the same time, I believe that if this article persuades some people, it would actually help the team at the margins. So, herewith, a summary:
A) Philadelphia fans and media have a history of being overly critical of hometown players and teams; the so-called “Negadelphia” effect.
B) This history is playing out now with the team generally, and with Jimmy Butler in particular
C) If Sixers fans show greater admiration for Jimmy Butler, he is more likely to stay with the team, whereas if they are negative and critical, he is more likely to sign elsewhere this off-season.
D) Jimmy Butler is one of the very best players in the NBA and the team’s fortunes will be far brighter if he stays
E) If Butler was merely good and I called on fans to pretend he is great in order to encourage him to stay around, then even if in some complex way that benefited the team, it would still be silly; I mean, sports aren’t important enough to justify that sort of instrumental self-delusion!
F) But that’s not the situation — Jimmy is incredibly good and is being treated like he’s merely solid, and the result is that we are seeing the world in a way that is simultaneously inaccurate and self-defeating.
G) So, let’s all appreciate Jimmy Butler — because it’s the right thing to do, and because it will help us win a championship — it’s time for Posidelphia!
Or is that “Posadelphia”? Doesn’t matter I guess. OK, ready? It’s circus time!
Bring The Noise
The single greatest frustration of being a fan is our inability to impact the game. Ben Simmons is either going to make or miss that crucial free throw, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. All my hope and desire isn’t going to change the trajectory of the ball. The one exception that is sometimes discussed is the matter of crowd noise. The most compelling argument comes from football, where a noisy crowd can make it hard for the offensive team to communicate the play call and snap count. I haven’t seen clear evidence on the effect of such attempted disruption; my guess is that, as with most things, it is legitimate but rather smaller than commonly perceived. After all it only really comes into play on a few plays in the average game, and offenses do have countermeasures (silent count, etc.). Still, there’s probably some edge you can add if you scream loud enough at the key moment when your team is on defense, and enough others join you. NBA fans attempt a similar distraction technique during crucial free throw attempts, waving ThunderSticks and so forth; my best understanding is that this does very, very close to nothing.
The best place to find research on this sort of question compiled is in the superb book Scorecasting, by Yale University economist Toby Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. Toby and Jon are friends, but I can say with confidence that I would adore the book just as much if I didn’t know them. While I’m at it, I’ll mention that John’s book Running the Table, about Kid Delicious, the Last Great Pool Hustler, is one of the best books I’ve read, ever, on any subject.
The research cited in Scorecasting, assuming I remember it correctly, suggests there is no home-court advantage in NBA free throws. Indeed the book has lots of research on home-team advantage, across many sports, and the results are rather stunning. Studies consistently find little or no correlation between home-team advantage and distance traveled, for example. Indeed in places like the Dutch professional soccer league, where everyone sleeps in their own bed, we see a home advantage just as large as in leagues where teams fly cross-continent and get to party late-night away from their significant others when on the road. I originally wrote “cross-country” there, but then I remembered the Netherlands is a country, too. Indeed that reminds me of a favorite joke. The comedian recommends cross-country skiing, but then explains you shouldn’t be too ambitious in the early days; start with a really narrow country, like Chile!
Anyway... it seems as though a whole lot of things people think matter a lot, don’t have much if any impact. There’s really only one thing that is documented to create an edge for the home team, and its impact is enormous. Kevin, put an ad or photo or something in here so folks can see if they can guess it before they scroll down and see the answer.
OK, did you figure it out? It’s the referees. I won’t go through all the research, but it’s truly compelling. I’ll just mention one study: they show professional refs soccer plays on video, and ask if there’s a foul. Massive edge to the home team even though the officials are just watching it on TV. Then they show the same set of plays to refs but with the sound turned off so they can’t hear the crowd reaction. And, you guessed it, the home-team edge in the calls disappears. To state the obvious, they don’t just show the same refs the same plays again, they mix up who sees what so it’s fair. So anyway, this is the one way that you as a fan can, provably, affect the outcome: attend games and scream like a lunatic at every call that gets made against the Sixers, or, probably even more important, that should be made but isn’t immediately called. Referees are human and that stuff does have an impact on them.
Brave New World
So, by all means do that! But this article is about something else, something I don’t have the proof for but truly believe fans can do that will have an enormous impact. I won’t keep you in suspense: I want us — you, me, everyone reading this and everyone you all know and every media figure you can influence via Twitter and email and yelling at them when you see them at a restaurant — I want all of us to get behind Jimmy Butler. Actually I want us to get behind the whole team, behind Ben, Joel, Tobias, JJ — all these folks, and the rest too, have a choice. They can leave and sign elsewhere or stay with Philly. If they are under contract long-term like Joel, nevertheless they have the choice to make it clear they plan to be here forever or, alternatively, get more news coverage by acting, Kyrie-style, like they’re itching to leave. They have the choice to be super-positive about the team and recruit others, or to act as though this is just their current job. They have the choice to give 100% in practice, in the weight room, when deciding what to have for dinner, or to slack off. And we as fans have, I believe, a profound influence on those decisions.
And, look, we’re at risk of blowing it. I am just constantly shocked at the negativity that explodes among Philly fans and media every time we win by less than 20 points. And God forbid we lose! It’s “fire Brett,” “trade Ben,” “release Jimmy.” I personally think the team is doing a tremendous job this season, and by “the team” I mean the front office that put this group together, the coach who is molding them into a unit despite a major overhaul, and the players who have won almost two-thirds of their games despite being led by two guys who each have only around 2 seasons each worth of NBA games under their belts. Go check your all-time favorite players and see how many of them were doing this well, this early in their careers.
But, look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Brett Brown isn’t the excellent thinker and motivator I see him as, but is rather a mediocrity who will always lose the big one by being out-coached in crunch time. Maybe Ben Simmons, rather than being far ahead of where anyone I read projected him to be in his second NBA season, is a lazy celebrity hound who refuses to work on his game. Maybe! But there are still two things I think everyone should understand and agree on.
If you slag the players, there are potential benefits. You might motivate the player to try harder, that’s one. And you might motivate the team to bench or trade or release that player, that’s the other. And historically in sports, those may well have been the dominant effects. In the mid-1970s I went to a summer camp that had a hand-painted sign on one of the buildings that said Ozark; for Phillies manager Danny Ozark. The “O” was gigantic and the purpose of the sign was that we all spit in the middle of the big O. That sort of thing, spread across 100 camps and 1000 bars and restaurants may indeed have hastened the team’s firing of Ozark, eventually leading to Dallas Green and the 1980 World Championship. I recall less fondly the booing of Greatest Phillie Of All Time Mike Schmidt around the same time, but, who knows, maybe it motivated him. And, after all, it’s not like he had much choice; he couldn’t leave and play elsewhere, and there weren’t any other comparable-paying non-baseball job opportunities for him to pursue.
But if, like me, you grew up in that world then you, like me, need to understand that we’re not in that world anymore, at least not in the NBA. Look around the league; team after team has a superstar that they obtained because he was unhappy elsewhere. If it’s Durant or LeBron out West, they left in free agency. In the East all four top teams have a key player — Kyrie, Bledsoe, Kawhi, or Butler — who is on his current team because he was miserable at his old spot and created company for his misery, as the miserable tend to do. It can happen here!
Now, of course the main job of keeping our players happy falls to ownership, who have to pay them, to management, who need to surround them with well-fitting talent, to the coach, who needs to coax wins out of the group, and to the other players, who have to make playing for the Sixers a fun and winning experience. As fans all we can do is fill in around that. And yet, I claim that’s a lot! Now, am I asking everyone to pretend JJ Redick is a great defender when he clearly isn’t? Of course not, if we couldn’t say what we think it would take a lot of the fun out of rooting for a team. But what I am saying is this: let’s be at least as positive as the facts warrant. Let’s not take an ultra-promising young player like Ben Simmons and act like he’s a loser because he still has one major weakness in his game in the middle of his second season. Let’s not react to every live-ball turnover as if it was Ernest Byner blowing it for Cleveland once again! Let’s not respond to a down-to-the-wire loss to the Celtics as if it proves our team is hopeless, when one or two lucky bounces would have meant that, despite the squad being exactly as good as it is now, we’d have been winners.
So that’s the first point; in this new world, criticism has costs that can far outweigh any potential benefits. I could go on and on, but instead allow me to come to my second point: Jimmy Butler is an incredible basketball player, and I fear that the unbelievable negativity of some fans and media members may drive him out of town and massively reduce our title hopes. In order to make my case I need to be persuasive on three claims:
X) Fan and media negativity significantly increase the chance JB chooses to sign elsewhere next year
Y) Jimmy is a fantastic player
Z) Jimmy’s future is bright enough that we should be thrilled to sign him despite the concerns some have about his age and mileage.
I think I’ve covered X) above. Look, I don’t know Jimmy Butler and neither do you. Maybe he doesn’t care at all what the fans think; maybe he only cares about money, or winning, or what his family says, or how much he likes the guys he plays with, or his scoring average. But I do know that Jimmy Butler is a human being, and I know enough about human nature to say confidently that if he doesn’t care about the feeling of being in a home where he’s loved, he’d be a very, very unusual individual. So what I’d say is, with high probability the fans loving him will make him more likely to stay. And after all we don’t need certainty here; remember Pascal’s Wager. Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously pointed out that if God exists, then believing in him means an endless time in a blissful heaven while not believing means an eternity of fire and poking. So, Pascal noted, if it’s even 10% likely God exists, you should go ahead and worship him. Blind Loyalty’s wager says that if supporting our players might help us attract and retain talent, and being supportive really can’t hurt, then, um, Go Sixers!
Jimmy Eats World
Let’s talk about Y). I am absolutely confounded that observers are so negative on Butler’s play. Well, not absolutely, I mean, he has always been underrated, as everyone who plays good defense is. People like to talk about defense winning championships, yadda yadda, but then in the end they tell you about how Jimmy Butler isn’t worth max money and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have Bradley Beal instead. Yeesh!
And if there’s any kind of player more underrated than good defensive players, it’s players who are good at team defense. Fans will actually overrate a guy like Avery Bradley who focuses completely on dogging one guy,; year after year Bradley’s teams fail to be meaningfully better defensively when he’s on the floor, but many still think of him as defensively elite. But give them a guy like Butler, who is and has consistently been a devastatingly disruptive defender, and they’ll whine that they saw Kyle Lowry blow by him once. In truth JB hits the trifecta of underrated. He’s very good at defense, something people give credit for but not enough. He’s especially good at team defense. And he is very good at a lot of things — driving, shooting, passing, rebounding, defending small and big — which always gets less credit that being great at one thing. Put it all together, and you have a player who has superstar impact on the court but whom most people think is “merely” a star.
Pluses And Minuses
Historically we really didn’t have good stats to judge players’ defensive ability. Jahlil Okafor’s block/steal numbers were perfectly solid for a young center. Now, in Jahlil’s case, his D was so obviously, historically terrible that we really didn’t need stats to know, but in a more subtle case, it can be quite hard to judge who is getting it done defensively. And within any short period of time we still have that problem. But across longer stretches of a season or so in length, we really can tell, and the old trope about how there are no good defensive statistics is no longer valid. What we have are adjusted plus-minus numbers. I have written about these many times over the years, as have many others. Suffice to say that:
- Plus-minus numbers tell how the team does with and without you on the court
- Adjusted plus-minus means that your numbers should not, in general, be either helped or hurt by playing with/against good or bad players — that’s the exact thing the figures are “adjusted” for! So if JJ gets to play mostly with Joel and TJ mostly doesn’t, the fact that the team gives up more points with TJ out there is adjusted for Joel’s presence, or lack thereof. JJ doesn’t get extra credit just because Joel is a stopper, nor does TJ get blame if Boban can’t match Joel’s effectiveness.
Now, no statistic is perfect, and of course adjusted +/- stats aren’t either. In particular they can be affected by luck — if the opponent misses two free throws while you’re on the court, you get credit for that as the team did better with you out there, even though of course you didn’t cause the miss. That stuff washes out over large samples, but for a month or sometimes longer a player can have an excess of good or bad fortune of this type and hence be overrated or underrated. This really isn’t any different from a player getting some lucky rolls for a month or two and being overrated by traditional stats like points and FG%.
There are a variety of adjusted +/- stats out there, but the most commonly used is ESPN’s RPM because, although the RPM website seems to employ only the finest technology available in 1997, nevertheless RPM is easier to access real-time and historical data for than RAPM and other versions of the stat.
Anyway, here’s what RPM has to say about Jimmy Butler’s contribution to his teams in recent years; this is the overall RPM, including offense and defense both:
2015-16: +4.01, first among shooting guards
2016-17: +6.62, first among shooting guards
2017-18: +5.91, first among shooting guards
This season: +4.17, first among shooting guards
If you go back a year earlier, Jimmy was right around +4 back then too, third at the position behind Kyle Korver having a fluke year. Jimmy Butler is a tremendous, and consistently tremendous, NBA player. There is approximately a 0% probability that Jimmy is merely a good player and looks excellent on adjusted +/- by luck. It’s just not going to happen that across all these seasons, with different sets of teammates, different coaches, different roles, etc. — he wouldn’t be outstanding over and over simply due to coincidence. He is the best shooting guard in the NBA, and it’s not really close. If you place him at small forward instead, then of course he’s up against stiffer competition, with LeBron, PG, Kawhi, and KD in the mix (Giannis is generally seen as a PF these days). If we mush the SGs and SFs together to make a “wing” category, Butler is fourth among NBA wings this year, fifth if you want to throw in Giannis. If you average over the past three years... well, I’m too lazy to look it up, someone else do it and put it in comments please. Hey, I’m blind, and the RPM website is brutal, cut me a break, OK! I believe if we average over the past three years Butler would be ahead of every wing with the possible exception of LeBron.
Now, obviously there’s a more negative way to view this data, which is to look at the trend — over +6, under +6, now under +5. It’s a reasonable concern. But here’s the thing: although I don’t have a way to get RPM data from earlier this year, I feel confident in my memory that Butler was around +3 a third of the way through the season, a period which included his stormy games in Minnesota and his getting-acquainted games in Philly. Since then the figure has been rising; i.e. he’s been around +5 for the second third of the season; we’ll see how the third third goes. My best guess is that Butler, like most players, peaked around ages 27-28 and is now early in the decline phase of his career. He was probably a +6 player at his peak and is probably more like +5 now. Maybe I’m wrong and he’s “only” a +4. Do you realize how incredible +4 is?! Here’s a complete list of wing players who’ve had +4 or greater RPM both this season and last:
Paul George is having an MVP-level season this year, over +8, truly spectacular. Last year he didn’t even manage +3. Take a look, the only wings even close to +4 consistently are LeBron, KD, and Butler. You can try to indict the stat with that — how can it be legit if it doesn’t even think Kawhi has been +4 this year? A more accurate view, I think, is this: +2 is damn good! Ben Simmons is a +2, and Ben is a hell of a player. +4 is a very special level, and very few players can deliver it year after year. Joel Embiid is one, and Jimmy Butler is another, and we are incredibly fortunate to have two such players, because there really aren’t a whole hell of a lot of them in the Association. Maybe we’ll be even luckier and Ben Simmons, only 22 after all, will be one in his prime, that would be amazing. But meanwhile, we seem to have half the fan base and media calling for us to throw away something, someone, so rare so we can clear cap space to sign a couple of journeymen. People, this is insane!
If you don’t believe in plus-minus statistics, even when they are spread across half a decade so really cannot be driven by luck, I’m not entirely sure what to say to persuade you. Almost every criticism of RPM and similar as tools of player evaluation I read is... how to put this delicately... wrong. Usually the critics ignore the fact that adjusted +/- stats are, indeed, adjusted for the quality of players around them. So it just is not the case that someone has a good RPM because they have good teammates, or because they have a bad backup, or anything like that. Let me lay out for you all the criticisms I know of that are non-trivial and also valid. Because there are some, and examining them in the case of Jimmy Butler is instructive.
1) RPM can be affected, indeed strongly affected, by luck.
This is true but, as I say, not applicable in the case of Butler who has dominated for at least 5 straight years by these measures.
2) RPM is a per-minute stat so can make players look good because they thrive in short minutes.
Valid but the opposite of Jimmy’s situation, he put up dominating per-minute numbers despite playing under Thibs. If you think playing short minutes is a huge advantage for per-minute numbers — I don’t! — then Jimmy is way better than his RPM. So this flaw in RPM means it either slightly underrates Jimmy (my view) or greatly underrates him (the alternate view).
3) RPM can underrate a player if he’s stuck playing with teammates who are good but who are not well-suited to his game.
I don’t know the significance of this effect but the logic is sound; maybe Ben Simmons is less effective playing with Markelle Fultz; in such a case he could put up lower on-off stats than his abilities warrant during a period where he’s on the court with Fultz a lot of his minutes. In theory it could work the other way too; an expert told me that RPM overrated Kyle Korver’s defense when he played in Cleveland as their defense was perfectly schemed to minimize his weaknesses. Since Jimmy has played with multiple teams, coaches, players, positions, etc., and always has great adjusted +/- this can’t be what’s going on with him.
4) Let me add something else here: RPM overrates guys who are in the perfect situation, and underrates those stuck with the wrong coach/scheme/teammates; that’s 3). But some players need the ideal situation to thrive, whereas others are flexible enough to succeed in any situation. Those are the players RPM really underrates — the versatile players, that not only are themselves great, but also enable the coach to use other players to their best effect because they can fit in wherever needed. Ben Simmons has received some fair criticism on this point; he’s terrific, but you have to put the right guys around him for him to be at his best. But Jimmy is the opposite, the versatile one, the one whom a system like RPM is likely to not fully appreciate. He can be the alpha scorer, or lay back, focus on D, and get points in the flow of the game. With his 6’8” frame and catlike quickness he can switch 1-4. On offense he can be superb at PG, SG, or SF. In a sport driven by match-ups, it’s a coach’s dream to have a player like Butler who can be used so many different ways. The more I think about the weaknesses in on-off stats, the more it seems they actually serve to minimize Jimmy’s value, rather than overstate it. And look at the next point:
5) RPM does not give extra weight to crunch time, but maybe it should.
Kyrie Irving has a tremendous adjusted +/- this year, but in prior years his teams did not fare all that much better when he played. However, many argue that to fully appreciate a player like Irving it is necessary to give special credit for his abilities in key moments — when the defenses clamp down, Kyrie can still often get a bucket, while an RPM star like Robert Covington simply can’t be counted on in the same way. An NBA executive told me that his team had done the analysis to correct for this once and that doing so had mostly added noise — after all, there are only so many crunch-time moments in a season, and consequently such an adjustment increases the role of luck. Still, if you tell me that RPM underrates the guys who can get a key-moment bucket and underrates those who can’t, I won’t tell you you’re crazy. But, of course, if this is so, that means Jimmy Butler is, once again, better than his on-off stats suggest — they don’t call him Jimmy Buckets for nothing!
6) Although I suspect these effects are minor, it’s worth mentioning that some players may do things on the court that weaken the opposition even during their off-court minutes. The most obvious example is that some players (let’s say James Harden) are good at getting the opposition in foul trouble. In such a case the opponent will play badly for the rest of the game, including minutes when Harden is off the court. Adjusted +/- will give the Beard credit for this, but not 100% of the credit he deserves. Same thing if Dame Lillard or JJ Redick is such a challenge to guard that he tires out opponents, making them less effective at both ends even when Lillard or Redick is resting. As I say, I am pretty confident that the piece of this RPM misses is small, and of course JB would be on the underrated side of these issues, not the overrated, since he is good at drawing fouls and is probably pretty tiring to defend and to be guarded by.
7) Some players don’t give 100% during the season because they are saving it for the playoffs, so while RPM accurately measures their contribution it will make you think their value in the playoffs is lower than it is.
This is true and, I think, is the one factor on the list where one could make a case that on-off stats have overrated Jimmy Butler in recent years. That is, even though Jimmy puts up on-off numbers that are comparable to the true elites like LeBron and KD, I can’t deny that I’d rather have LeBron or KD for a must-win game than Jimmy. I am guessing that the typical JB performance over the past three regular seasons is closer to his ceiling than the typical LBJ or KD performance was to theirs. Are there other wing players who would move above Butler if the right “effort” adjustment is made? Maybe; Kawhi may not be leaving it all on the court this season and surely wasn’t last year; maybe PG didn’t offer 100% effort the past few years and is finally doing so. It’s possible that while on the numbers Butler was the #1 or 2 wing the past few years, in reality he’s #4 or 5.
But note the flip side to that — maybe the combination of Thibs and crappy teammates forced Jimmy to play all-out every minute in Minny and Chicago, but now with a better team around him he is saving something. Indeed, I think it is somewhere between “likely” and “almost certain” this is the case. And that’s a big deal, because if that is so then maybe he isn’t actually declining after all! Maybe +4/5 is how effective Mellow Jimmy is, and +6/7 is the level of All-Out Jimmy. In which case, a), we have a better shot in this year’s playoffs than people think, and even more important, b), Jimmy has a lot more left in the tank than people think. Which is the perfect segue to Z). So I’m going to skip the part where I throw the old-school types a bone by pointing to Jimmy’s points and rebounds and FG% and such, all of which is basically BS when you have a guy who’s spent his whole career proving night-in, night-out that his team gets far, far better when he is in the game, and go right to the final concern folks express:
Z) Is Jimmy too old/injury-prone/worn-out to deserve a max deal?
I say absolutely not. Jimmy is 29 years old, a bit closer to his 29th birthday than his 30th. He is two years younger than Mike Conley and 3.5 years younger than Kyle Lowry, to name two players who were significantly less good than Jimmy at 27 and who show no signs of being put out to pasture anytime soon. Of course injury can strike any player at any time, and so a five-year deal is always a risk. But Jimmy is only 8 months older than Paul George,probably the most similar player to Jimmy in the NBA in terms of type and quality, and one with an injury history that’s plenty scary. I didn’t hear anyone saying last off-season that we needed to steer clear of PG due to age considerations. I admit I have not studied this rigorously, but I think the notion that players’ ability collapses between ages 29 and, say, 33 is based on players that thrived before the arrival of the latest medical techniques. It’s definitely true that great players of the 1980s and 1990s tended not to stay near the top of their game that long (though of course some did). But I suspect if we take the players from this decade who were in the positive 4-6 range in their late 20s and see what they delivered in their ages 30-34 season, we’d find that it’s pretty terrific. Of course if someone wants to post some data in comments, I will read and, if necessary, adjust my take if the data show I’m wrong.
Often when people worry about JB’s future it’s less because of age and more due to worry about wear and tear — because JB played for years under Tom Thibodeau, who is famous for playing his stars 38 or so minutes and leaving young players to rot on the bench. This is one of those odd situations where what people believe is almost the precise opposite of the truth. Jimmy Butler has low, not high, minutes played for a star his age. The differences can be quite dramatic; Kevin Durant, who is almost exactly one year older than Butler, has played literally just shy of double the minutes. Do you hear anyone saying KD is too worn out to receive a max? No? Well, Jimmy could have a whole additional career like the one he’s had before getting to Durant’s minutes level.
It’s obvious when we think about it. First, Butler spent a long time in college. We could throw in his college minutes of course, but that won’t add up to much as they play so many fewer games, and shorter games to boot. Then, it took NBA teams a couple of years to realize how good JB was, so he played few minutes in his early NBA years. Then, while Jimmy’s injury history is often overstated by skeptics, nevertheless he has missed some games, probably a greater-than-average number for a star. And finally, since he hasn’t spent his career on top squads, he hasn’t logged a ton of playoff minutes. Add it up, and you get Jimmy with a bit over 18,000 career minutes, and Durant at almost 36,000. The stars who’ve played fewer minutes than Butler are generally those who missed entire seasons to injury, but even many of those vastly exceed him. Steph Curry has had serious injuries and a long college career and has still played 1.3x Butler’s minutes even if you don’t count Steph’s playoff time and do count Butler’s! When Dirk Nowitzki was Butler’s age, he’d played around 33,000 minutes. He’s still nailing threes in the All-Star game almost a decade later!
What I’d say is this: if you think Jimmy Butler isn’t worth a five-year max, first, write out the path you think his adjusted plus-minus will follow over the next five years. I think he’s a +5 player right now, so here’s a possible path, starting next year:
That would average +3.2, the level that guys like Kemba Walker have played at in recent years. I.e. easily worth a max. People, me included, are falling all over themselves to give Tobias Harris a max, he’s a +2 player. And remember Jimmy brings the special sauce; he’s not a Covington who people can sneer at despite his killer on-off figures, this is a guy who has been The Man on teams, who can take over, who can dominate at both ends. He’s not a one-way offensive player who is terrific in the regular season but who gets hunted in the playoffs; he’s probably more valuable in the playoffs than in the regular season. Obviously if you think Jimmy isn’t all that great, you’re not going to want to give him a max. But if you think that, I urge you to consider the evidence from the on-off numbers and see if you can think of any explanation for them that doesn’t involve him being fantastically good at helping his teams win. Because I honestly can’t.
Before I conclude I suppose I need to address the issue of Jimmy’s personality. Someone in comments talked about personality ratings given out by Draft Express or at least reported by them. It mentioned that there are two personality characteristics that, as defined by the scouts, rarely go together. They are “confrontational” and “responsible.” I think the claim was that of recent draftees, only Jimmy Butler, Patrick Beverley, and maybe Marcus Smart were rated high in both. My guess is if you have too many guys like that around there is potential for disaster. Heck, maybe that’s why the Sixers ignored my advice and didn’t demand Beverley in the Clippers deal. But it seems to me that having one guy around with that personality type is at least as much a positive as a negative. Someone who will demand the best from everyone, and will not back down if he doesn’t get it. In my experience such people can make the environment more intense and perhaps stressful, and some folks might not enjoy that. But in the long run you achieve more with them present. As I said above I don’t know Jimmy, and maybe I’m misreading him, maybe he’ll be the disruptor who tears the team apart, and we need to shed him quickly before that happens.
But I don’t think so. I think Jimmy Butler is not the precise perfect fit for the Sixers, but is as close as we’re going to come in this imperfect world of ours. I mean, just think about it: he can spend three quarters as a defensive stopper who doesn’t demand the ball but still scores 12 points on 7 shots without really being noticed. And then in the fourth quarter he can run point, drive the lane, force the officials to call fouls, and just generally dominate. If we’re up 20 he can conserve energy and not take over, saving it for when it matters, letting his teammates get their stats so they are happy, too. He can spread the floor, make a three. When the team needs a steal, he seems to just be able to magically conjure one; it’s at the point where my brother and I will just text something like “time for Jimmy to steal the ball” when we’re down 1 with 30 seconds to play. He’s just a hell of a player, able to fit in with different lineups in different roles. Usually to get a guy like that you have to settle for someone who’s not all that good, but in Jimmy you get elite talent plus all that “glue guy” stuff.
Honestly, people, if we can’t get excited about Jimmy Butler... what’s wrong with us? Jimmy is the best wing player Philly has had since, who, Dr. J? He’s basically a better version of Andre Iguodala. Are we really so lame that we can’t appreciate a guy who not only is excellent but also embodies the Philly virtues — plays hard, cares like crazy about winning, overcame unimaginable hardship and an unending stream of doubters to make it to the top, incredibly consistent, regular-guy minivan driver, all that? What, none of that matters unless he also scores 30 points a night like Iverson? Who, let’s be honest, was not as good at helping his teams win as Jimmy. If Philly is half the sophisticated sports town we think we are, we will embrace him. It’s what his play deserves, and by a lucky coincidence, it will also help keep him here, help us win the title we’ve waited so long for. So I say again: it’s time for Posidelphia!