In the aftermath of May’s postseason defeat to the Boston Celtics, Brett Brown was adamant that his Philadelphia 76ers needed one more elite talent to compete for an NBA championship.
"I feel like another high-level free agent is required," Brown said at his end-of-season news conference. "And I think we have the ability to attract one."
The subtext of Brown’s comments, at the time, was that Philadelphia were smitten with recruiting either Paul George or LeBron James to join Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in a Sixers big-three.
Their attempts proved fruitless. George returned to Oklahoma City, James went west to California and the Sixers were left holding the bag. Their offseason was highlighted by the acquisition of Wilson Chandler – a fine move, sure, but a relative disappointment given the momentum these post-process Sixers had built over the preceding 12 months.
The energy of an imposing first attempt from the Simmons-Embiid tandem carried into the current NBA season, despite a lack of new talent on the roster. And a turbulent start to the campaign – one that brought defeats to Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto; the three consensus contenders to Philadelphia’s Eastern Conference dreams – merged with the lofty expectations to create a overwhelming theme for many around the franchise: more help was needed.
That leads us to Saturday, where the Sixers pushed their chips into the middle of the poker table. Facing another free agency period in which elite talent were (i) seemingly non-committal to the Sixers program, and (ii) spoilt for choice in the face of wide spread cap space around the NBA, Philadelphia decided it was time to make their big splash.
Cue Jimmy Butler’s entrance music.
Philadelphia sent Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second round draft pick to Minnesota in exchange for Butler and Justin Patton.
Patton, Bayless and a second round draft pick are essentially surplus items to make the trade work. When you strip away the superfluous elements, the Sixers are essentially upgrading from Covington to Butler, with Saric being the price of doing business.
Covington and Saric are reliable starters, both currently playing on team-friendly contracts, but the allure of a perennial All-Star was too much for the Sixers to ignore. That’s what Butler is.
Despite all the nonsense that led to this point, Butler is one of the few legitimate two-way stars in the league. He is a go-to scorer - Butler has averaged at least 20 points in each of the last five seasons - who doubles as an All-NBA defender.
He was a top five MVP candidate before getting injured last season and, theoretically, fits seamlessly around Simmons and Embiid. Above all else, that is why Philadelphia made this move. Not only is Butler a top 20 (at minimum) player in the league; he offers a set of skills that complements Simmons and Embiid. Butler has been a 36% three-point shooter over the past three seasons and it’s fair to describe shooting as one of his relative weaknesses.
For Simmons, the by-products of this trade are almost all positive. Covington and Saric are nice players, but they are not Butler. The four time All-Star is a All-NBA calibre wing player who increases the talent around Simmons. In his brief NBA career, Simmons has already proven his intellect on the basketball court and that tempers any fears that he and Butler won’t mesh together. The future of Markelle Fultz is less clear.
I struggle to see how Simmons, Butler and Fultz can co-exist in the same line-up. As we have covered to death, Fultz needs the basketball in his hands and is a liability when spaced out away from the action. Butler and Simmons do what Fultz does, and they do it much better than the former Washington Huskie.
If Philadelphia wants to improve upon their second round playoff outing, then Simmons must be the sole non-shooter when leveraging heavy playoff minutes. Fultz's presence would only serve to place a glass ceiling on what this group can achieve. A five-man unit that places J.J. Redick and Landry Shamet alongside the Sixers' new big three would be one of the most versatile in basketball. In fact, it could be the best five-man unit in the Eastern Conference.
Simmons and Butler can provide enough playmaking, while Butler and Embiid could be the infrastructure for an upper echelon defence. It’s just a question of creating offensive spacing.
If the Sixers were feeling ambitious, then packing Fultz and draft capital for a wing player who can shoot could be the next move. For all his faults, Fultz has currency around the league, but he needs serious developmental minutes to spread his wings. These don’t exist with the Sixers, so it could benefit both player and franchise to explore options. Even if a Fultz trade doesn’t eventuate, the Sixers will almost certainly make further changes to their roster before the playoffs arrive in April.
Back to Simmons quickly. It’s true that this move comes with limitless potential for what Philadelphia can achieve as a team, but it will bring greater pressure to all involved, especially Simmons. He is now the starting point guard of a team that has a conference finals appearance as the baseline for success.
If the Sixers fall short in the playoffs, Simmons, and specifically, his lack of a jump shot will not just be a beacon for criticism. It could be seen as the key element holding the Sixers back. The magnifying glass will intensify, now that the Sixers have deliberately accelerated their timeframe. The trade for Butler signifies that Philadelphia thinks they are championship contenders. Perceptions and expectations will mirror this sentiment.
Butler will be a free agent after the season. While NBA rules forbid Philadelphia and Butler from agreeing to an extension right now, something drastic would need to happen for Butler to be playing elsewhere next season.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN has reported that both parties have “every intention of formalizing a long-term agreement” after the season. In other words, there is a wink-wink agreement in place that shall remain hidden until July 2019. Philadelphia gave up two lofty assets, because they see Butler as more than a single-season rental.
The Sixers would be able to offer Butler a five-year max contract worth $190 million (USD), while other teams could offer four years and a projected $141 million (USD).
Butler will almost certainly receive a long-term contract extension from the Sixers. There is a chance this contract could prove troublesome as Butler ages into his thirties. This is a problem for 2021, not the present. And if Philadelphia wins a championship with Butler, any amount of dead money on the back end will be worth it.
Philadelphia just made a move that will define their franchise for the next few years. Days of Sam Hinkie’s process are well and truly over. With Simmons, Embiid and Butler, the Sixers have the talent required to win an NBA championship. Regardless of whether that actually happens, things just got a whole lot more interesting in the Eastern Conference.