The last few weeks before the playoffs begin in any sport introduce new commentary to certain teams or players:
“Will (insert seemingly underperforming team or player) find that extra gear/second wind/etc?”
Let’s face it. It’s cliché. You can set your calendars by when this happens three or four times a year. After the Philadelphia 76ers got bounced by the Boston Celtics in five games last year, the Sixers decided to change some things up.
There was a trade for Jimmy Butler. There was a trade for Tobias Harris. Even though the Sixers had a team that went to the playoffs last year as a 3-seed and won 52 games, there was a bit of a punch missing.
For all their glitz and glamour, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and company had never been there or done that. You may feel a certain way about what you’re about to read, but it’s something I believe in. Experience matters in the playoffs.
It’s why some dynasties in major sports continue to exhibit postseason excellence.
Enter Jimmy Butler.
(For the record, I’m not discounting Harris’s potential in a playoff series, but he’s only gone to the playoffs once with the Detroit Pistons, so I’m choosing to focus on Butler.)
Depending on your personal hierarchy of the current roster, Butler is either the second- or third-best player on the team. I have him third behind Embiid and Simmons. Don’t “at” me on Twitter. It’s just my personal belief structure. Everyone is entitled to it, even if it may be wrong. Ask anyone that lived in the time of Nazi Germany.
Butler added an aspect to the Sixers’ offense that was lacking. He can get his own shot. He can get a basket in isolation or in the pick-and-roll. The Sixers didn’t have that last year. That was supposed to be former first overall pick Markelle Fultz’s role, but that didn’t work out. You all know that story, so I won’t bore you with the details.
This year, the Sixers have that added dimension in Butler. In addition to that, they have a secondary leader/alpha dog-type. As great as Embiid is, every Batman needs a Robin come playoff time. The former Chicago Bull and Minnesota Timberwolf has been that guy before, so it’s easy to believe he can be again if you dig into his playoff performances.
Butler has been a solid regular season player since becoming “Jimmy Butler”. From 2014 to now, he has averages of 21.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.5 apg, .580 TS%, and 35 percent from 3.
Jimmy Butler as a playoff performer has seen some evolution. In 2013-14, the Bulls started that season without Derrick Rose for the second straight year due to knee injuries that began when Rose tore his ACL in the playoffs against the “Show Ya Luv” Sixers. Rose returned for the season opener against the Miami Heat, but only played ten games.
The rest of that season was a weird hodgepodge of characters where there was no clear direction of whose team it was. It wasn’t Butler’s yet. If I had to guess, maybe it was Carlos Boozer’s. Butler did lead the team in minutes per game if that counts for something, but he only played in 61 games.
One year later, the Bulls were becoming Butler’s team. Rose was on the roster, but Butler led the team in PPG and WS/48, and was fifth in usage rate. In the playoffs that year, Butler again led the Bulls in PPG and WS/48, and was third in usage rate.
In 12 games during the 2014-15 playoffs, these were Butler’s averages:
- 22.9 ppg
- 5.6 rpg
- 3.2 apg
- .562 TS%/38.9 percent from 3
Butler also led the NBA in steals per game during the NBA playoffs that year with 2.4, and posted a 100 DRtg, 0.8 DWS, and 0.9 DPBM. The ensuing offseason, head coach Tom Thibadeau was fired and replaced with Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State.
The Bulls went 42-40 under Hoiberg in their first year, but the Bulls had 100 percent become Butler’s team. Rose did play in 66 games (the most since his MVP season), but he was only an empty shell of what he once was. It was almost as if Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat had stolen Rose’s soul.
Chicago missed the playoffs, and Rose was traded to the New York Knicks. Butler returned to the playoffs when the Bulls went 41-41 and got the 8-seed. They were dismissed in the first round by the Boston Celtics, but not because of Butler’s performance, as he averaged 22/7/4 with a .528 TS% and led the Bulls in USG (27.1).
Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves the following offseason as the Bulls decided to go into rebuild mode. He returned to the playoffs with the Timberwolves with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but they ran into James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
One offseason and a tumultuous practice session later, Butler was traded to the Sixers.
Now that Butler is here, he is going to be an integral part in how far the Sixers go this year. (I know. Duh! Bear with me.)
The Sixers already feature the most dominant big man in the NBA in Joel Embiid. In his only playoff appearance so far, he averaged 21/12 in eight playoff games. It would have been more had he not had a busted face for the first few games.
They have Ben Simmons – a 6-foot-10 point guard that is a match-up nightmare on the offensive end and improved defender. In his first playoff run, Simmons posted a 16/9/7 line. They have two wing shooters in Harris and JJ Redick that shoot close to 40 percent from 3.
The Sixers were missing one more dude who you could give the ball to with a minute to go, down by one or two, to either tie or give you the lead in a tight squeeze. Butler has filled that void since he’s been there, and done that previously in the playoffs.
They don’t have a “playoff bench”, but that’s a whole ‘nother problem that is going to need to be addressed, because it’ll be the death of this team. Between this foursome of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, and Butler, this year’s playoff experience should be far more positive.