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Jimmy Butler is thriving with the new-look 76ers

The Sixers’ November trade acquisition is quietly having a terrific season

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I have a potential hot take that I’m finally willing to publicize: playing with good players makes other good players better. I know what you’re thinking. Is he off his rocker? What an asinine take! He should be fired from Liberty Ballers!

But in the case of Jimmy Butler and how he’s fared since the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Tobias Harris, it rings true. There were justified concerns about how Butler, a ball-dominant star, would fit into an already-crunched-for-touches starting five. Harris can function off the ball, but he’s still another mouth to feed who had the potential to further marginalize Butler’s role in the offense.

Yet, through six games of the Big Four Era, Butler is averaging 17.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists (0.7 turnovers), and 1.2 steals on 66.2 percent true shooting. The Sixers are 22.5 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor — the second-best on-off net rating swing during this period. I’m no expert but I think these anecdotes support my hypothesis.

Despite shooting just 22.2 percent from 3-point range over that stretch, Butler has buoyed his efficiency with elite marks at the rim (69 percent, 20-for-29) and from mid-range (66.7 percent, 8-for-12). As the latter mark regresses, it should be partially countered by a resurgence beyond the arc.

Over this stretch, 48.3 percent of his attempts are coming at the basket, a significantly higher mark than his seasonal number of 37.3 percent. He’s flourishing in the lane via multiple avenues.

Sometimes, he’s utilizing a methodical cadence and his 6-foot-8 frame to overpower defenders (note how in two of these clips, Harris’ shooting gravity opens up a driving path for Butler):

What’s been most encouraging about Butler’s recent stretches are his flashes of decisiveness. Guys who can puncture the defense immediately off the catch once it’s been titled out of balance are particularly valuable in an ecosystem with five mouths to feed. Plays like these provide hope that Butler can coexist around Philadelphia’s other stars:

Each time, Butler is capitalizing on the fractions of space defenders present him while concerned with ball handlers. He does not take the pass, scan the floor, and let creases of space disappear before moonwalking into his patented contested long two-pointer — though these still flare up from time to time. That quick-witted decision-making is important on a team which lacks ideal floor-spacing.

He’s also doing some improv work as a cutter, recognizing openings on the court or when defenders are overplaying him:

For years now, Butler’s athleticism and shifty start-stop ability have made him a highly efficient cutter, ranking in the 98th percentile with the Sixers this season, (93rd and 63rd percentile in 2017-18 and 2016-17). It’s been the usage that hinders his off-ball talents, registering just 177 cuts over those 173 games. During this six-game stretch, he’s tallied 10 cuts, which would put him on pace for 277 in 177 games. If he’s truly willing to embrace the brand of violent, bruising off-ball slicer, his fit in Philadelphia is less cloudy (granted that sample is incredibly small).

Where Butler has truly shined as a scorer since Harris’ arrival is at the free-throw line, re-establishing himself as one of the league’s higher-volume foul-drawers. Since his rookie season, Butler’s free throw rate had never dipped below .455. Now, it sits at .393 and he’s taking just 5.3 free throws per game (7.1 or more from 2014-15 to 2017-18). Yet over this recent stretch, Butler is taking 7.3 foul shots a night, sporting an absurd .730 free throw rate. Those marks won’t last, but if the All-Star wing can rediscover his marks of yesteryear, the Sixers’ offensive ceiling only heightens, elevated by newfound chances at stress-free points.

Dating back to last month, Butler has been allotted more run as second-string point guard (in role, not name, with T.J. McConnell continuing to handle significant minutes). He’s exiling McConnell to the corners and dominating the ball in certain lineups. Given his economically friendly nature (career-9.1 percent turnover rate), it’s a sound strategy.

And recently, he’s delivering, with 25 assists to just four turnovers in six games. He’s chiseling his way inside and creating for others once defenders collapse on him:

*Tangentially, it’s worth remarking that the Sixers have surrounded their two turnover-heavy stars — Ben Simmons (career-19.6 percent turnover rate) and Joel Embiid (15.2 percent) — with three frugal players: Redick (9.4 percent), Harris (9.1 percent) and Butler. Simmons and Embiid fueling the offense will always lead to inflated turnover totals, but the ancillary starters insulate them to a degree.*

Butler has crept up to 17th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and leads all shooting guards in the metric at plus-4.17 (don’t ask me why he’s classified as such). While it’s a significant decline from his performance in recent seasons — truthfully, I’m willing to attribute some of that to an apathetic 10 games in Minnesota — it, along with this stretch, highlight just how good Butler still is as a player.

I understand some of the hand-wringing about his unwillingness to be a high-volume 3-point shooter, periodic passivity on offense (like in Saturday’s loss), and impending free agency, but let’s not forget Jimmy Butler remains a top-20 star when healthy. He’s a very good player thriving in a star-studded quintet. And that’s enough to absolve me of any hot take artist labels.

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