Sixers Head Coach Brett Brown described on numerous occasions last season the different “teams” he had. The Sixers core morphed several times over the course of the year. As far as basketball goes, it feels like a lifetime ago that they were gearing up for training camp with players like Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington and Dario Saric all preparing for starting roles. Fast-forward through the pair of blockbuster deals that brought in Jimmy Butler last November, Tobias Harris in February, past the heart-breaking playoff loss in May to the eventual champs, past the 2019 NBA draft in June and whirlwind free agency and it feels like a crash course in just how unpredictable the NBA can be.
Well it appears that all of that turnover did not deter the team’s brass from embracing even more change in order to get what they believe is the best balance of players (and personalities) per dollar onto the final roster. According to a person with knowledge of the way the front office thinks in Philadelphia, the Sixers were not interested in bringing Jimmy Butler back and did not offer him the five-year offer he was seeking from them. According to the source, Butler would have taken a five-year max offer to stay, as securing the final year of a long term deal was one of his priorities.
According to the same source the core players mostly liked and got along with Butler. This team insider did not suspect that retaining Butler would have impacted the ensuing contracts signed by Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons. “I think [the core players] were down to run it back. [The team] wanted to go another way.”
When pressed if there was any tension in the locker room that may have led to the Sixers decision to move on, the source suggested that there did exist some tension at times between Butler and the coaching staff, not between Butler and his teammates. “There was sometimes tension. [Butler] and the coaches, yes.”
A second source supports this perspective and mentions that the now infamous December film-session incident (when ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Butler “aggressively challenged” Brown) may not have been the only incident last season. This source contends that there was also a minor incident related to a team shoot-around last winter when Butler was dealing with a right-wrist injury during a January road trip.
What Liberty Ballers has been told meshes with the reports from most of the top voices in the industry regarding Butler’s priorities and Philadelphia’s unwillingness to meet them. Shams Charania of The Athletic wrote the following back on June 29th:
“When Jimmy Butler and the 76ers meet this weekend, one factor that will hold critical importance: The fifth year on Philadelphia’s contract offer, league sources have said. Rival teams interested in the All-Star believe that Butler and his agent, Bernie Lee, will prioritize the fifth year. Could the lack of one open Butler up to further meetings on the market? The 76ers remain fully focused on trying to re-sign both Butler and Tobias Harris.”
And Wojnarowski had this to say following the sign-and-trade that landed Philadelphia Josh Richardson:
Woj on Butler to Miami: “Philadelphia was not giving him that 5-year max he wanted. They weren’t giving him a 4-year max. They were out of the Jimmy Butler business.” pic.twitter.com/LkkZNQFLns— │▌ (@dru_star) July 1, 2019
What about the counter-narratives?
As is always the case with the 76ers, there are a couple of counter-narratives out there.
Kyle Neubeck of the PhillyVoice and Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports both reported via anonymous sources that the Sixers did indeed offer Butler a full five-year max offer. Neubeck wrote the following back in June:
“Multiple sources told PhillyVoice over the last week that the Sixers were willing to give Butler the fifth year he has been said to desire in his contract. One source close to the situation said on Sunday evening that they were willing to offer Butler the full max — five years, $190 million — in order to stay with Philadelphia. PhillyVoice has yet to receive a comment from the Sixers or Butler’s representation on the subject.”
Neubeck has also encouraged his followers on Twitter to “make note of” the fact that Woj stated the opposite of what Neubeck’s anonymous sources contend:
A report by Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports also contends that Butler was offered a full five-year max deal and Butler turned it down.
These narratives paint the Sixers front office in glowing light. NBC’s headline was “Sixers smart to reload with Tobias Harris and Al Horford after losing Jimmy Butler.” Neubeck concluded that: “In the end, the Sixers made the best of a sub-optimal situation by getting Josh Richardson as the return for Butler.” Seen through this alternative lens, a team willing to pay exorbitant tax fees did everything they could do to keep a title-contender together and then when faced with the specter of losing Butler for nothing, somehow turned garbage into gold and wound up with Josh Richardson and a former All-Star in Al Horford.
But if you believe Liberty Ballers’ source (or simply give Shams and Woj some well-earned benefit of the doubt in these types of situations) then the Sixers did not actually pivot on the fly and make the best of a tough spot, but simply preferred the offseason they had as opposed to the “run it back” scenario many had hoped for.
That our source suggests the players got along with Butler and were open to running it back for the right price raises some interesting questions.
If there was some tension between Butler and the coaching staff, was that a significant factor in the front office not offering him a four or five year max deal? Might coach Brown (who served as interim GM two summers ago and likely endorsed Elton Brand’s ascension) still have a major voice within the front office? What would the team have decided to do if Butler expressed that without a max offer from Philly, he wanted to play for a team that had the cap-space to sign him like the Lakers? Would they still have pursued Al Horford and tried harder to bring back JJ Redick? Was punting a year of the luxury-tax (which the current iteration of the roster allows them to do) at least a consideration?
Piecing together all of the available components my money is on the less catchy and boring narrative: it was a combination of different things. Butler’s personality, some tension between he and the coaching staff, his age and injury history, perhaps the ball-dominant style of play he employs, luxury taxes, and probably 10 other things were considered.
Then once they ultimately decided they did not want Butler back for his asking price, the team had the tremendous fortune that Butler happened to be amenable to a sign-and-trade with Miami. Losing him without acquiring Richardson would have really hurt, and watching Butler team up with a potential title contender like the Lakers or Clippers could have been double trouble.
For Brett Brown, he’ll tackle his 7th new beginning at training camp very soon. For the front office, the decision to move on from a player of Butler’s caliber could play a significant part in determining their legacy. As for Butler? He loves Miami and he also likes to play dominoes, a popular local game in Little Havana. This stuff has prompted some good-natured ribbing “like he’s going to Florida to retire” by our own writers and other fans. But once the Sixers decided they were “out of the Jimmy Butler business” as Woj says, lots of dominoes began to fall the Sixers way. If Butler decided he liked Venice Beach as much as South Beach, the Sixers may not have as good of a chance as anyone to win the Eastern Conference today. And they could have been overmatched if they somehow made the finals. The one certainty: with so much parity, and no super-team, with all of this swirling unpredictability, it will be very exciting to see how the dominoes fall this season.