Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick — the package the Philadelphia 76ers dealt for Jimmy Butler was widely seen as fair. It’s the price you pay to star hunt.
The start of the Butler era was electric. He hit two game-winners in his first seven games, both in the form of a step-back 3, the kind of pull-up shot that no one could create before he joined the team. He was producing offensively unlike anyone else on the roster, while providing some brilliant defensive playmaking at the same time. This was highlighted early on by his remarkable block and recovery on Kemba Walker to set up one of those memorable buzzer beaters.
There's no doubt Butler made a big impact on the team. He averaged 18.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game with relative ease, while ranking 18th in RPM as the Sixers were 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (he only spent around half his minutes with Joel Embiid, so plenty of that is on Butler).
However, his acquisition and regular season performance wasn’t without criticism. For surprisingly long stretches he lost an interest in taking spot-up 3s. He seemed overly passive at times. His defensive effort was generally disappointing after some strong play early on. As expected, it wasn't easy to maximize Butler's on-ball strengths while he was playing off an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons' playmaking talents.
Put everything together, not to mention Butler’s age at 29 and his high-minute history, and there were concerns about his future and impending free agency. Many were questioning whether he should receive a max contract. Why not re-sign the easier fit in Tobias Harris instead, and use the extra cap space on a deeper bench instead of overpaying for Butler?
But even as uncertainty over Butler's ceiling — and his likelihood of re-signing — in Philadelphia grew, he knew he'd be ready to step up in the postseason. While Butler had a couple of bad performances in the 12 games he played in Philly’s playoff run, he showed up at the higher gear he seemed to be saving himself for. He proved his ability to close on multiple occasions, too.
Butler’s numbers increased from the regular season across the board with averages of 19.4 points (including a team-high average of six in the fourth quarter), 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, while finishing the playoffs with the second-best net rating on the team behind Joel Embiid at +12.6. Butler upped his scoring, maintained excellent possession of the ball (62 assists to only 22 turnovers), greatly lifted his defensive intensity, and thrived in his role taking over backup point guard responsibilities before largely operating as Philly’s lead ball handler against Toronto.
It’s the latter change that’s particularly intriguing when projecting Butler’s possible future with the Sixers. Brett Brown finally made the wise shift to ditch TJ McConnell from his rotation, enabling Butler to show what he can do at point. Butler is the team’s best pick-and-roll creator, and that needs to be utilized. After operating as a pick-and-roll ball handler on just 4.4 possessions during the regular season, Butler ran 6.2 in the playoffs.
Sure, Philly may not be set up perfectly for Butler as a lead guard. Embiid isn’t the most high-flying or skilful roll man, and possessions where Simmons is stationary off ball in the dunker’s spot can be clunky. But Butler and Embiid started showing some early signs of improving chemistry as Butler’s usage increased against Toronto. Butler can attack the basket and get to his spots as a scorer, drive and kick to shooters (which was on full display in the playoffs) or pull in the defense before hitting Embiid on rolls down the lane.
We know Butler can close when he’s allowed to lead the offense. He came up with multiple clutch moments through the season, from the buzzer-beaters mentioned above, to his dagger to defeat Boston on March 20, to some pivotal fourth quarter buckets in the playoffs. In fact, out of 45 players who attempted at least 50 shots in the clutch (in the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points) during the regular season, Butler’s True Shooting Percentage of 60 ranked fifth.
Butler honing his pick-and-roll connection with Embiid and sharing more ball handling duties with Simmons (which will ideally coax out some more cutting, screening and rim rolling action from Simmons) are two valuable adjustments that could help the Sixers grow next season.
Now, after so much concern as to whether Butler would even want to re-sign in Philly in his altered role, with second-fiddle status behind Embiid, he sounds like a man who may want to stay put. “What hurts more than [the Game 7 loss] is the fact that we had a great group of guys that was riding for one another,” Butler said during his exit interview. “It was special. We enjoy playing for each other. You couldn’t mess with anybody on the team because somebody else was always going to be there in your face. To think that this roster may not be the exact same next year, that’s what really hurts.”
When considering Butler’s on-court production and stylistic changes in the playoffs, to his interactions with teammates and glowing exit interview remarks, it certainly feels like there’s a much better chance of him re-signing than there was a couple of months ago. Sure, players can say what the media want to hear. But there’s no need for Butler to emphasize how special the team is after their season, and how disappointing it would be if they didn’t stay together, if he himself is planning a swift departure. At the very least, it’s encouraging for Philly.
His presence has made a positive impact on his younger co-stars as well. Ahead of Game 7 against the Raptors, Embiid credited Butler for improving his leadership ability. “I know to become a better leader, you’ve always got to watch and learn,” Embiid said. “Set a better example, I guess. Him being here has taught me that he’s always on top of everything, basketball-wise. It’s helped me a lot, to become a better man. Just being on time, showing up every game.”
Big 4’s don’t come cheap, but Sixers owner Josh Harris has said he’s willing to go into the luxury tax if need be to keep Butler and Tobias Harris. Butler said in his exit interview that he believes he can receive a max contract wherever he goes. Fortunately for the Sixers, they have full Bird rights on Butler which allows them to exceed the salary cap and offer him a five-year, $189.7 million contract, providing an extra year and close to $50 million more than any other team can offer with a four-year, $140.6 million deal.
Butler has earned his money. With his elevated play at both ends of the floor in the playoffs, it became crystal clear how valuable a perimeter creator like Butler — the second-best player on the team — is to the Sixers. They can’t replace what he has to offer, even if the idea of his decline in the latter years of a max deal are concerning. Besides Butler’s skill set, the need for roster continuity can’t be overstated either. This team was only eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals after four bounces of a Kawhi Leonard miracle shot. Building on that momentum, with a full offseason for the team to develop chemistry, is essential to taking another step forward.
The Sixers’ starting five went 8-2 in 10 regular season games, earning a +17.6 net rating. In the playoffs, their monstrous +24.9 net rating is the best of any five-man lineup with at least 50 minutes played. And it didn’t just take over against Brooklyn in the first round. The starters still recorded a +8.7 net rating against Toronto. As much as you can talk about suboptimal fit with Philly’s starters, this group has been elite so far. The downfall has been a poor bench. Add a reliable backup center into the mix and any improved depth, and this team’s biggest weakness will be addressed.
To be an integral part of this core, compete with the best teams in the East, and do it all with more financial security than he can find anywhere else, there are plenty of reasons for Butler to re-sign. All the Sixers can do now is offer the max and make their case.
If Butler and the Sixers stay together and arm themselves with a deeper second unit, there’s no reason they can’t make a push for the NBA Finals next season.