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The post Process era’s biggest “what if...” Jimmy Butler makes his return to Philly

Fans will have the chance to boo a former Sixer in Heat star Jimmy Butler (and hopefully cheer for Joel Embiid).

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Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

A couple years ago in early 2020, the Philadelphia 76ers hosted Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls. The team was 32-21, solid but a bit disappointing. They won the game but the team played uninspired ball. They drew some boos from the home crowd. And when Joel stepped his game up and put Chicago away, he shushed the grumpy hometown fans a few times. Just a few days prior, Embiid had reminded us (though we didn’t need reminding, we could tell) he wasn’t having much fun that season.

Then the following day, there was some noteworthy social media flirtation between Embiid and a familiar face in Jimmy Butler. It wasn’t hard to piece together why Joel was disappointed:

We’ve deserved to see Joel Embiid vs. Jimmy Butler in the playoffs ever since Butler left for Miami in 2019. Now if Embiid can suit up, and there’s some optimism for his return, we’ll finally get that chance.

Fans often point to a few post Process decisions that had the most impact on this Joel Embiid era. 1) The Markelle Fultz trade up, 2) failing to retain Butler on a max 3) overpaying wildly for Al Horford and Tobias Harris instead.

We’ll focus on the middle one here as the Sixers find themselves trailing 0-2 to Miami in the Eastern Conference semis. That’s the one where the process of that decision bugs me more than the others.

Remember Butler’s first return to Philly as a member of the Heat? He was booed at intros, and basically every time he touched the ball, in an electric atmosphere at The Center:

I’ll be curious if we see that type of atmosphere or if the energy will have dissipated with the passing of time.

The Sixers traded for the now six time All-Star and four time All-NBA caliber wing out of Marquette back in early 2018.

As Yaron Weitzman wrote in “Tanking to the Top:” “[Managing Partner] Josh Harris had been more involved in the team’s basketball operations than ever before. He’d negotiated the [Jimmy] Butler trade. He often met with [Elton] Brand after games.”

Out went Process legends Robert Covington and Dario Saric, out went Bryan Colangelo recruit Jerryd Bayless, and a second round-pick to the Timberwolves in exchange for Jimmy Buckets. Covington was and is under appreciated. But otherwise that trade looks almost as lopsided as any swap in recent memory. What a tremendous coup by Philly to obtain JB and his Bird-Rights for so little.

(Credit to Harris for playing his best Sam Hinkie on that one, as the 76ers’ owner now looks to purchase the football team Hinkie once consulted for a couple seasons ago):

At first there was a honeymoon phase. Butler used the side step jumper to beat a couple teams. He still didn’t seem to mind shooting threes back then, did he?

Marc Zumoff memorably declared “Jimmy Butler you are a 76er!”

Of course, like any Jimmy Butler experience, the honeymoon phase did not last.

Remember this?

Butler was caught on camera after a one point loss to the Bulls sharing his feelings about the botched switch: “I told you that ‘s—t’ don’t work man.” Guessing he wanted to check Zach himself and was proving some sort of passive aggressive point by treating Robin Lopez as if he were peak MJ.

But he was well on his way to having a statue erected by playoff time in May:

Round two of 2019 had its moments. Butler helped the Sixers steal Game 2 on the road up North and that’s when we got this gem:

Embiid quoted “The Dark Knight Rises” when he talked about heroes and villains. With a playoff road of Pascal Siakam’s Raptors and now Butler’s Heat, with Joel aiming to play in a Phantom of the Process Mask, it sort of feels like a Batman or Marvel movie here, doesn’t it? Exorcising old demons, taking on former allies turned enemies, the hero arc on full display.

The 2019 Sixers fell to the eventual champs, in Toronto.

Many fans, like some of us at LB, were clamoring for the team to “run it back,” terrified of alternative scenarios.

After reports all season about how the team was willing to pay the luxury tax to keep the league’s best starting five together, it didn’t happen. The Sixers collaborative front office reportedly never even offered Butler a max. They ran Philly Special on 4th and goal but couldn’t even get the snap off without a false start penalty.

The more we unpacked, the more it sounded like the Sixers originally intended to make JB a $197M offer for five years, but then something changed.

Tom Haberstroh reported for NBCS-Philly that the Sixers did indeed offer Butler a full five-year max offer. Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice reported that the Sixers “were willing to” offer Butler a five year deal.

Zach Lowe of ESPN’s view appeared to support Woj’s version: “But on June 30, there was no five-year maximum offer for Butler, multiple sources say.”

Perhaps when Al Horford, then a Celtic, was suddenly open to a new home, perhaps when Miami entered the fray dangling an (at the-time at least to the Sixers) enticing player in Josh Richardson, they suddenly felt a bit hesitant maxing the mercurial and combative Texas native.

Many speculated then that the team wanted to build around and empower Ben Simmons as a ball handler. Simmons had recently shared with ESPN that he felt he was more than a “dunker spot,” dude, the place Brett Brown placed him in order to unleash the suddenly lethal Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll.

When Simmons signed his max deal shortly after Butler landed in Miami, folks reasonably connected the dots as to the Sixers (and Ben’s) thinking. It was used in part as further justification for letting Butler walk. They had to or Ben wouldn’t have signed!

The team also got to push back the luxury tax fees for a time with that shake up.

Yaron Weitzman would later offer more breadcrumbs for us:

“In a meeting discussing the deal, sources say Alex Rucker, the Sixers’ executive vice president, was asked by colleagues what the team’s plan was for closing playoff games. Even Brown, who made his frustrations with Butler known throughout the season but in the end had handed him the keys of the team’s offense, eventually made it clear he’d be OK with bringing him back, according to a source.”

Rucker has since been fired, so perhaps we can deduce he advocated for the Horford-Richardson version of things.

As Jake Fischer said just a couple of days ago on the “Please don’t aggregate this” podcast “the Sixers, a couple years back, they straight up chose Ben Simmons over Jimmy Butler. That rift was real.”

Maybe Joel agrees, per NBCS-Philly’s Noah Levick:

“Even going back to the reason we signed Al,” Embiid said in Sep. 2021, “we got rid of Jimmy (Butler), which I still think was a mistake, but [Simmons] needed the ball in his hands and that’s the decision they made.”

Having read and listened to everything on the subject here’s my final analysis....

Woj is right, the Sixers never made a formal offer. If they had rolled out the red carpet, a full five year max, a primary initiator on-ball roll, some say in who the next head coach might be, then the chances Butler would have stayed are actually quite good.

Shams Charania had made clear before FA that Butler’s camp was focused on finally getting (what for him had been an elusive) five-year offer:

“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?”

A source at the time told us at LB that Butler would have taken a max offer to stay.

There’s just enough evidence from the top reporters Butler wanted a fifth year to narrow your eyes at those Butler wanted Miami all along narratives we were peppered with once the sign-and-trade was official. They did make many of us feel better about the Sixers handling of it all though. They never had a shot is easier to take then they botched the pitch.

So, yeah I think they could have made it work. Maybe keeping Butler would have lit a fire in Simmons to find ways out of the dreaded dunker spot. Maybe he’d get disgruntled. Whatever. Trade one later. Or don’t. Contend either way.

I understand worrying Simmons would make the rare decision to decline a rookie-max extension and become disgruntled. Still, I believe the best championship winning move was to throw all of the money at both of them and hope they take it, doing anything and everything to woo them until the ink was dry.

(I think if there’s one thing we learned about Simmons over the last few years, he’s willing to ask for a trade if he’s not happy, so I think he would have taken Philadelphia’s max and given them a year or two to make things work... he also seems to like cars and he’d have a lot less of those if he snubbed their $170M).

But when the Sixers saw the opportunity to land Horford, fix the Sixers’ newly traumatizing backup big issues, grab an arbitrage Butler (or so they reasoned) in Richardson, all while keeping Ben happy and keeping total costs way down, they then began to actually prefer that path.

So then that feeling emboldened them to approach Butler, not with a red carpet and keys to the kingdom approach, but instead with terms and conditions.

Instead of a massive “Butler We Love you” banner on 17th and Walnut, perhaps they asked if he’d be willing to sacrifice X, Y, and Z.

Months later Butler revealed the following to JJ Redick by 2020:

There is a reason that James Harden, earlier this season, said he wants to experience for the first time, unrestricted free agency; it’s fun to be wooed. Butler may have wanted some of that, plus the extra money. Miami likely sounded a lot different when making their all-in pitch than the Sixers sounded in their feel-him-out mode. Imagine that contrast?

And that was that. Butler had no interest in engaging with the Sixers’ inquisition about his willingness to sacrifice, and they hadn’t even formally made an offer yet. So he bounced.

Well the thing is...we’re a little worried that you might-

Oh you’re worried about me, you don’t gotta worry about it.

Fine, we’re out of the Jimmy Butler business anyway!

And in just a matter of hours, Joel Embiid had lost JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler, his favorite and two most complementary offensive teammates he’d ever played with. As soon as the reports trickled in, Embiid took to social media:

So it wasn’t entirely shocking when Joel, now flanked by a new and super weird group, seemed kind of mopey that 2020 season. Now you have full context for this type of stuff:

He’d lost his best chance at multiple titles and he knew it. And what’s worse, he had to hear Woj report his team didn’t even make the offer... in part to empower Simmons, who later didn’t even want to play?! Sheesh.

Butler led his new team, the one many joked he was retiring to, to the NBA Finals in the bubble. And after a down year in 2021, the Heat are still working to prove that their bubble run was no fluke.

And now here we are. You may want to hate on and boo Butler with all of your heart. Maybe you stopped caring years ago. It’s certainly fun to crack jokes when he pushes his “I practice hard at 3:00 am” #HeatCulture agenda bits.

But it’s also not entirely simple because you know in your heart of hearts that Joel wanted desperately for the team to keep this All-NBA caliber dude and you know Joel’s instincts were 1000 percent correct. The right move was to throw all of the money and promises in the world at Butler and dare him to leave. Banners fly forever, and seeing Butler lead the 2020 Heat to the finals, seeing how good the Sixers were in 2021, you can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t be going for a second ring right now had things shook out differently.

The Sixers and our hero have successfully cleansed their souls from the icy demons from up North. Now they have to defeat a former ally down South and stamp out these nagging what ifs. “A blunder or chance presents itself. The hero must cross the threshold and conquer.”