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Shaq, Nash, Moses — Sixers allowing Jimmy Butler to walk is now one of the all-time free-agent blunders

“Tobias Harris over me?” Somehow Joel Embiid hasn’t demanded a trade yet, despite the ongoing fallout from that fateful summer of 2019 when the Sixers helped their now bitter rival Miami snag Jimmy.

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Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler is back in the NBA Finals for the second time since 2020. He led the Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals (or beyond) three times in the four years since the Sixers opted to let him walk during the summer of 2019. The now five-time All-NBA superstar gears up Thursday to win his first-ever championship.

Butler’s status in the league (and on the all-time list, really) has only continued to grow in the seasons since he donned the red, white and blue.

By now, you may be exhausted from the Jimmy Butler was a Sixer and now he is not storylines. I get it. This team may never have won a thing even had they somehow retained him. Maybe they simply didn’t have the #culture to keep him happy long-term.

But it’s about the process of the decision, right?

Sure, you may have mourned it and then put it away, long ago. You may have even settled upon one of our more popular local copium cocktails:

  • Blame Brett Brown bloody mary
  • Simmons did it Gimlet
  • Elton Brand blew it Old Fashioned
  • They had to choose Ben Bellini
  • Jimmy always wanted Miami Mojito

How it really played out

Philadelphia 76ers Introduce Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton - Press Conference Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

But if you sober up and delve back into the weeds of everything that was reported then, and everything that has come out since, the truth is that responsibility here should begin and pretty much end at the top with Philadelphia ownership.

“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.” - Adrian Wojnarowski

“But on June 30, there was no five-year maximum offer for Butler, multiple sources say.” - Zach Lowe

Sixers’ managing partner Josh Harris deserves the lion’s share of the blame for basically forming and leading a “collaborative” front office that reportedly huddled up and decided against dropping a five-year max on “Himmy Buckets.”

In that tweet above, you can hear old clips of Yaron Weitzman (now with Fox Sports) tell Lowe on his pod that Josh Harris basically decided “the Hinkie thing came out, Colangelos, that blew up, okay, I’ll do it now.”

ESPN’s Zach Lowe, who (like many of us) recommended the team keep Butler, added back in 2020 about ownership: “they’re private equity guys, they like to make trades, that mindset has permeated the whole organization in the time that they’ve been here.”

That fateful decision, the Sixers working to willingly facilitate a sign-and-trade to a rival Miami Heat team, who didn’t even have the cap space to acquire him outright, to take back Josh Richardson, opening up cap space to drop $108M on the 33-year-old Al Horford... (sighs) all before maxing Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, it’s the totality of it all that’s shaping up to be one of the worst outgoing free-agency moves this side of the century mark.

Somehow miraculously, Joel Embiid never asked for a trade (that we know of), but rivals are surely checking his temperature as Jimmy continues shredding the East.

But is this an all-timer? In no particular order, let’s look at a few of the worst outgoing free agent blunders of all time.

The Letting Stars Go Hall of Shame

Orlando Magic: Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

A Dallas, Texas Trio of Tragedies

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once made the horrific decision to allow center Tyson Chandler to walk in free agency back in 2011. Chandler signed with the Knicks, eventually winning a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. It was a fatal blow to Dallas’ already waning title window.

Next up in Dallas was Cuban failing to retain current Knicks’ star Jalen Brunson. Cuban denies he ever had the true chance to lock up the former Villanova star, long-term. But Brunson’s father, a Knicks’ Assistant, tells a more compelling version, where they could have worked something out prior to summer ‘22.

Golden State Warriors v Dallas Mavericks - Game Three Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Ringer’s Bill Simmons even called the Mavs’ not retaining Brunson a bigger mistake than the next even more infamous tragedy: lowballing and allowing an eventual back-to-back MVP in Steve Nash to depart for Bryan Colangelo’s Phoenix Suns.

“Probably letting Steve Nash go. Yeah, I regret that. It’s been almost 20 years now, and I still regret it,” Cuban admitted last September.

I’m not as sure about Brunson and Luka, but Nash and Dirk definitely might have won a couple so that decision has to rank up there with some of the biggest mistakes ever. But if you wanted to argue the Sixers’ decision was even worse because at least the Mavs recovered and won a title in 2011? I’d hear you out.

Phoenix Suns v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

The dark side of the sun

Another epic all-timer that comes to mind is the story of Joe Johnson leaving the Suns. During the 2003-2004 season, Johnson wanted former Phoenix owner Robert Sarver to cut him a $50M deal, spanning six seasons. The now disgraced Sarver reportedly drew a hard line about $5M shy of Johnson’s desired mark.

Phoenix later offered Iso Joe $30M less than Atlanta would and eventually granted him his wish by not matching the Hawks’ bid for the then 24-year-old guard who would go on to become No. 83 on the All-Time NBA scoring list, earning seven All-Star bids.

A Suns team, who would make a Western Conference Finals in 2005-2006, led by the league MVP in Nash, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, could certainly have used the extra ammo to topple their rivals, the Mavs and Spurs. Just $5M more and who knows, they might have won a ring or two.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

A true Oklahoma City Calamity, the big Thunder blunder

Clay Bennett’s ownership group that once turned the Seattle Supersonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder, would apparently bank half a decade’s worth of checks during a precursor-to-The-Process style rebuild. Amazingly, they paired up Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Jeff Green all before crying poor when the idea of paying the luxury tax hung over them.

They didn’t even want to shell out for a predictably budding dynasty fresh off a Finals berth, while their core trio was all still 22 or 23 years old!

They were comfy paying upwards of $70M for the duo of Serge Ibaka ($48M) and Kendrick Perkins ($25.4M) but when Harden asked for a $60M max, they underestimated and insulted their third future MVP with a chintzy $52M bid.

James rightfully declined, a trade went down, Harden went to Houston, it turned Daryl Morey and later Sam Hinkie into legends, but this legacy-shaping Thunder blunder may well have shifted a dynasty from OKC to... Golden State.

But okay, at least the Thunder got a pile of assets out of that, I guess?

2001 NBA Finals Game 1: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Debacle Down in Disney

The worst one of all is probably the Orlando Magic’s historic, dynasty shifting (directly from Orlando to L.A.) cataclysmic mishap, allowing Shaquille O’Neal to escape to Hollywood.

The Magic could have offered more money than any other team to a 23-year old Shaq, pairing him with Penny Hardaway, simply closing the door on any potential bidding wars. But they reportedly started haggling, lowballing, and even criticizing (!?) their phenom, trying to get him to accept a hilariously low sum. The details of this one are absolutely insane!

This one takes the cake. If Shaq stayed and Hardaway picked up the injuries that limited his career, maybe Allen Iverson and co. could have broken through. You never know.

Our own beloved Texas tragedy

Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone, 1983 NBA Championship Parade SetNumber: X28573 TK1 F22

Ahh! There was the Houston Rockets, in 1982 looking to save a few bucks with a pending ownership change, dealing reigning MVP, Moses Malone, to YOUR Philadelphia 76ers in order to spark a rebuild. Moses won his second of back-to-back MVPs in Philly, along with the NBA Finals MVP, the very next summer. This led to a parade down Broad, the organization’s last, now 40 years ago.

Houston looks bad trading a reigning MVP who’d go on to win a title. But their rebuild did help them to back-to-back titles just over a decade later since they found Hakeem Olajuwon atop that upcoming 1984 draft.

And somewhere in there among those, and surely others I forgot about, there’s Jimmy.

A Collaborative Philly Fiasco

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

“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,” wrote Yaron Weitzman.

So Josh Harris personally negotiated one of the greatest trades in history (the irony) acquiring Jimmy plus Bird Rights for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-rounder.

But months later, even when several of the premier execs around the NBA (e.g. Morey, Pat Riley) were trying to move heaven and earth to pilfer then max Jimmy, Philly somehow missed the signals!?

Before FA opened, I pleaded the run-it-back case for maybe the seventh time that spring.

“Surely in this modern game of tempo and transition and shooting they don’t want to spend almost all of their cap space on a point-forward, a stretch-four and two centers right!?...If somehow Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris all went to the team’s front office and requested, nay demanded, that Jimmy Butler not be back because he is simply insufferable, it’s probably still worth trying to work out.”

We can piece together that once they learned Al was on board, they approached negotiations with Butler not from a place of desperation, but like a team that wouldn’t be crushed if he left.

“I was as lost as the next m——a f——r,” - Jimmy Butler, reflected on his time in Philly.

Per Redick’s pod, in Butler’s own words:

“...a main reason that I didn’t go back was because somebody asked: ‘Can you control him?’ Like: ‘Can you control Jimmy? If you can control Jimmy, we would think about having him back.’ I was like: ‘You don’t gotta worry about it. S—t, can’t nobody f—king control me.’

Like Orlando with Shaq but to a lesser degree, this called for the red carpet treatment, not the list of demands, and they simply botched it.

Elton Brand later admitted the collaboration days didn’t really work too well; about as close as we may get to a mea culpa from ownership. No matter how much they valued Ben Simmons or Tobias, they could have and should have just thrown the full bag at Jimmy, then tried to smooth things over with everyone else later.

Promise Jimmy a new coach, promise him the ball, promise Ben and his agent Rich Paul someone will be traded down the line if it all fizzles, whatever it takes. Simmons wasn’t turning down their subsequent $170M, c’mon. If he did, trade him for the megaton he was likely worth at the time.

It didn’t take any hindsight to know this was the way to play it.

Can they ever recover?

All in all, I think most of the tragedies above came down to cost-cutting measures and underestimating a superstar.

But I do not think this one should be grouped as an ownership group being cheap like the others. I’d classify this one instead as a crime of hubris.

After Colangelo was let go from his burner-gate ordeal, Philly’s ownership group really thought they could run the show with Colangelo’s former assistants, all without a Daryl Morey-type, experienced exec.

Josh Harris once referred to The Process as a “science project.” But this 2019 front office was the true zany experiment. Mercifully, post-bubble, they disbanded the collab and hired Daryl by fall of 2020. He used second-round picks to flip Richardson for Seth Curry. He used a first to dump Horford. He drafted Tyrese Maxey. He used two firsts and Curry to turn Simmons into James Harden. He recently canned the former leadership group’s coaching hire in Doc Rivers, tapping Nick Nurse, and next, he may soon deal Tobias Harris.

Over Morey’s three seasons, the Sixers have continued coming up short, as Morey still continues trying to win while simultaneously digging out of that gigantic crater the team voluntarily dug four years ago.

Jimmy Butler may or may not beat Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in these Finals. He’s a huge underdog. If you were a Sixers owner what would you root for: Miami wins, producing even more painful reminders of your mistake as JB hoists a Finals MVP? Or the Heat lose, you perhaps save a modicum of face, but risk Jimmy texting Joel: “bro, come help us get over the top?”

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