The Sixers were defeated on their home floor in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second season in a row. They fell 4-2 at the hands of Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat. It was a familiar face, a former Sixer Jimmy Butler, who inflicted the most damage.
JB put on a clinic, averaging 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.5 dimes in the series. Because of Joel Embiid’s injury situation, the 2022 KIA MVP runner up (for the second season in a row) couldn’t sustain the level of dominance fans had grown accustomed to while playing through a fractured orbital bone, and torn shooting thumb. While Tobias Harris was stellar in round one defending Pascal Siakam, neither Tobi nor any other Sixer was a match for Jimmy Buckets.
The hardest part about it all is wondering what might have been had the Sixers found a way to sign Butler long-term three summers ago.
The Sixers traded for Butler back in the beginning of the 2018-2019 season.
But they didn’t do enough to convince him to stay, even failing to offer him a max contract, making him the post-Process era’s biggest “what if?” The team instead executed a sign-and-trade bringing in Josh Richardson, and spent remaining cap space on Al Horford. It was evident that awkward 2019-2020 season how demoralized Embiid was to have lost his best (and favorite) teammate ever.
After the season ending defeat, the ESPN broadcast caught up with Butler who had just shared a moment with his former teammate. Jorge Sedano asked Butler what message he had just had for Embiid, following Miami’s 99-90 road win.
Jimmy Butler on what he told Joel Embiid post-game:— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 13, 2022
"I love him. I'm proud of him. I still wish I was on his team. I definitely love the Miami Heat, though. ... I got so much respect and love for Joel Embiid." pic.twitter.com/jeLQme8zjt
“That I love him,” Butler said. “I’m proud of him. Yes, yes, yes, I still wish I was on his team. I definitely love the Miami Heat though. I’m glad that I’m here, but I got so much respect and love for Joel Embiid.”
Butler said he thought Embiid deserved MVP before the series as well. It’s bittersweet to see how much mutual respect exists between those two superstars.
Joel Embiid has Jimmy Butler's vote for MVP. pic.twitter.com/FWoleMuvhP— theScore (@theScore) May 5, 2022
A couple of days ago, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne sneaked this nugget of intel into a report on this Sixers-Heat series about the 2019 offseason:
“Eventually it got to the point the organization felt it needed to choose between [Butler and Ben Simmons], according to team sources, and it chose Simmons. He was younger, and at the time, seemed to have a higher ceiling....
How different would the NBA look if the Sixers had chosen Butler over Simmons? Could they have just kept both after a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to Toronto and forced them to coexist?”
The key here to me is that the Sixers felt they needed to choose between Butler and Ben Simmons. I have my doubts that had the team rolled out the red carpet (I’m talking serious wooing, your choice of head coach, a point forward role, etc.) and a $200M max for Jimmy and he signed it that then suddenly Simmons would have turned down his own $170M offer to play out his $8M rookie deal. All you had to do was convince them to give it a shot and if they’re unhappy, promise to explore trades in a year. Take our money, please, we’ll figure it out.
Joel Embiid on Jimmy Butler: “I still don’t know how we let him go.”— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) May 13, 2022
But the Sixers’ front office was a bit of a mess in those days. The big buzz word they used was doing things “collaboratively,” and we even saw reports like this:
The #Sixers interviewed former #Cavs GM David Griffin for the vacant GM job this summer, but felt he wasn’t a good fit for their front-office structure, according to an #NBA source. They want to make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say. pic.twitter.com/xEXRGLMiTj— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) September 6, 2018
Somehow or another, the Sixers ultimately committed the cardinal sin and didn’t empower Embiid with more say in roster construction. Joel likely lobbied to keep Butler and Redick, but it never felt like they did all they could to try to appease him and keep his All-NBA caliber guy.
It’s small consolation to know that Butler still loves Embiid and wishes he was his teammate. But it’s at least something. Knowing how JB feels might make it a bit easier to root for him to defeat other villains in future series who may not respect Embiid as much.