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Time for a Jimmy Butler Discussion

We can be civil, but let’s face it. Butler hasn’t been the Jimmy we expected.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

You would think that I would feel very good about the Philadelphia 76ers defeating the Indiana Pacers on Sunday to move into third place in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, there is plenty to feel good about with regards to that fact. After another win against Cleveland Tuesday night, if the season ended today, the Sixers would play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. That would be a fun series with maybe … one good game out of five.

Here’s what I don’t feel good about: Jimmy Butler, lately. What is going on with the man whom the Sixers traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for on November 12?

After sitting out Tuesday for planned rest, Butler has played 45 games in a Sixers uniform. His base numbers are solid. He’s scored 18.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game. That’s good, right? In a vacuum, sure, they’re not bad. Yet, they’re not great, nor is it what Sixers fans probably expected when Butler was brought here.

You know that thing about onions – how it’s important to peel layers back when painting a complete picture. Jimmy Butler’s stint with the Sixers thus far deserves a deep dive, and it’s really something that needs to be addressed with 14 games left before the playoffs.

When Butler was brought here almost four months ago, he arrived with much controversy after what happened with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was upset or frustrated or both. He was also in a contract year, so there should’ve been increased motivation to “show out” as the kids would say.

The ex-Marquette star turned down a $110 million extension from Minnesota and had two years left on the five-year extension he signed with the Bulls three years ago. Let’s go back to that extension for a second.

The 2014-15 season was the year that Butler became – well, Jimmy Butler. He had career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, and shot 38 percent from 3. At age 25, he was worth that extension. There’s always something to be wary of when you bring someone in that’s due for a contract extension.

It’s seen all the time. There are two ways that can go down:

  • The player is highly motivated to be great so that he or she can get his or her big pay day.
  • The player plays it safe.

I feel like Butler is in this weird space where he’s trying to do both, and it’s not helpful to either party.

Jimmy Butler wasn’t the best 3-point shooter in the NBA, but he wasn’t completely useless, either. 3PAr% is a measure of the percentage of a player’s field goal attempts from 3-point range. In 45 games on this team, Butler’s is .198. During the last two seasons, that number was over .200, and in his short stint this year before he was traded, that rate was .287.

For comparison, let’s compare one of the players Butler was traded for -- Robert Covington. Butler is shooting .336 from 3 since becoming a Sixer on 122 attempts. Covington’s 3PAr was .658 in 13 games this season as a Sixer. In a straight percentage comparison, Covington’s 37 percent exceeds Butler’s 33 percent on 20 more attempts.

Butler was also efficient with the catch-and-shoot variety of 3-pointer -- another part of his appeal. This season, he’s shooting 36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers on about a 12.4 percent frequency. Again, that’s not terrible in a vacuum, but there’s more to Butler’s game.

Remember that alleged dust up between Butler and head coach Brett Brown -- the one where Butler wanted more isolation and pick-and-roll? How is that working out? It’s funny you ask.

This season on isolation, about ten percent of Butler’s plays are of the isolation variety -- 9.8 percent specifically. He averages 0.99 points per possession (PPP) in those possessions where iso is called. That puts him in the 76th percentile in the league since becoming a Sixer. With the Timberwolves, he was in the 91st percentile with 1.10 PPP.

I guess that’s why he wanted more iso, but as that last paragraph shows, he hasn’t been great in iso as a Sixer. Maybe it’s because of the Sixers’ offensive style (more flow and motion). Maybe Brett Brown can’t fuse him in. Whatever the reason, that isn’t working.

Butler also asked for more pick-and-roll in the Sixers’ offense. Okay, let’s look at that. Since coming over, 23.3 percent of his plays are PnR variety. In those plays, he averages 0.86 PPP. That puts him in the 58th percentile. Whoo, boy. That’s not good. In Minnesota, Butler was in the 92nd percentile averaging 1.04 PPP.

Offensively, maybe Butler wasn’t a great fit. We’ve seen that Tobias Harris has been a much better fit as someone that is more likely (and/or willing) to step into a 3-pointer, instead of causing anger in Sixers fans with plays like this:

(Folks, I play in an adult basketball league in Center City. If I’m THAT wide open, I don’t care if it falls. I’m taking that 3-pointer. Of course, I’ll have to put my sandwich away, first.)

No matter what has become of Butler’s offense, he was first known as an All-NBA defender. He’s a four-time second-team All-NBA member.

He hasn’t been horrible defensively, but against the Pacers, he was routinely getting cooked by Bojan Bogdanović off-ball.

Here is where I shamelessly plug the Sixers Film Room Twitter account. It’s pretty amazing.

The point made is accurate. Before the Sixers locked down on defense in the second half, Butler was getting absolutely abused -- which is not something you expect from a defender of Butler’s accolade. Statistically speaking, he’s still very good: 108 DRtg, 1.8 DWS, +0.7 DBPM, 1.9 steals per game, 3.1 deflections per game. (I should point out that Covington’s DBPM is +2.7 and averages 2.1 steals on the same amount of deflections and the exact same DRtg.)

So, was it a bad trade?

Not necessarily. On one hand, the Sixers got their “third star” to combine with Embiid and Simmons. Because Markelle Fultz never really panned out, the Sixers and new general manager Elton Brand needed to fill a bit of a hole: someone who could get their own shot and kind of be the quote/unquote leader.

On the other hand, it left the Sixers very barren on the bench with Covington, Šarić, and Jerryd Bayless all moving. (I know. Bayless meant nothing, but he’s still a body.) The Sixers re-tooled the bench at the deadline with Boban, Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Johnathon Simmons, but up until about a week ago when Scott started shooting well, no one really moved the needle in a positive direction.

You could maybe put the Butler trade in the “panic trade” category if you’re inclined. I understand why the Sixers did it, but the more I think about it and see Butler play with this team, the more I feel like it was a trade they maybe should’ve thought through just a smidge more.

This offseason, the Sixers will have to make a decision on Butler. It’s hard to sell me on bringing Butler back given how Tobias Harris has been playing considerably better offensively and the Sixers’ lack of a decent bench.

Should the Sixers roll into 2019-20 with a big three of Embiid, Simmons, and Harris with guys like Cory Joseph, Kyle O’Quinn and Al-Farouq Aminu to round out the roster with TJ, a healthy Zhaire Smith and a guy in Jonah Bolden who is really good in spurts but not bunches of minutes? Maybe.

If the Sixers do want to go with a big four, then they’re hoping for a rebound year from Butler, offensively. Yes, a rebound year. 2018-19 has not been good for Jimmy on that end.

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