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March 11, 2020

Jimmy Butler on season with Sixers: 'I didn't know who the f*** was in charge'

Jimmy Butler and the Sixers parted ways last summer, and it still feels like we haven't collectively reconciled with the reasons behind him leaving, any inner turmoil from his time with the team, or any issues that continue to plague the Sixers following his departure. But after Butler sat down for a podcast interview with JJ Redick on Wednesday morning, that may have changed.

Butler and Redick spent around 15 minutes of an extensive interview talking about Butler's time in Philadelphia, in which he touched on the infamous film session in Portland, his relationship with Brett Brown, his reasons for leaving in free agency, and much more. What will follow are some lightly edited sections of the podcast, along with some commentary from yours truly on those pieces of information.

This all comes from Wednesday's episode of The JJ Redick Episode, which you can listen to here.

The difficulty of last season for Butler

From Minnesota to Philly, Butler had a turbulent year last year. But he put how difficult it was into plain words on Wednesday.

JJ: Was last year difficult for you? Not just getting traded, but the whole shit in the summer, preseason? 

Butler: “Hell yeah it was difficult. It was so different and on any given day, me as a person, as a player I didn’t know who the fuck was in charge, that was my biggest thing. I didn’t know what the fuck to expect whenever I would go into the the gym, whenever I would go into the plane, whenever I go into the game, I was as lost as the next mother fucker. 

JJ: Meaning there was a lot of voices.

Butler: Yeah. There was so much going on on every given day, I was like yup, guess I’m just here to work I didn’t know who to talk to.

To say the least, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen in Philadelphia. And last year may have been the worst year on that front — after a summer of "collaborative" front office work and the elevation of a first-time GM with a murky power structure to begin the season, there was no clear delineation of power at any point, save for Joshua Harris presiding at the top.

Hold this thought for a second.

The film session in Portland...and another awkward meeting before it

Everyone knows about the incident involving Butler in a film session in Portland last season. All parties involved have downplayed it publicly from the moment it was reported, but it doesn't seem to have gone away anyway.

To let Butler tell it, that may not have been the most telling meeting of his time in Philadelphia:

JJ: When did you realize did you realize [you didn't know who to talk to]?   

Butler: In that fucking meeting in the office, I told you that! 

Redick: So Brett brings me, [Joel Embiid], and [Ben Simmons], this is pre Tobias [Harris] trade. 

Butler: And we are all sitting in there and nothing got accomplished at all. So I was like, and I told you this when I walked out, ‘JJ why would I ever go back in there again? Nothing is getting accomplished, nobody is saying nothing to anybody and we just sitting in here watching film’ and you can literally hear the thing just clicking and we are all just looking around.”   “Now I may have just been 2 or 3 weeks there tops. So you know what, I’m sitting back and I’m watching, I ain’t saying nothing because don’t nobody know me like that. If you go by what you read what do you think about me? I am sitting there relaxing, these guys think I’m an asshole anyways, let me be quiet. I am hearing the click click, looking around. Click, click. ‘Alright guys let’s go practice.’ Why did we just go through this? That’s literally what’s going on in my head. 

So I come to you, I say ‘JJ why would I go back in there again? We didn’t do nothing, nothing got accomplished.’ 

This doesn't reflect well on just about anybody in the situation. If Brown is not getting engagement from Embiid and Simmons in this sort of meeting, that's a huge problem, and confirms a lot of fears people have had watching the team sputter this year. 

If Simmons and Embiid are checked out of a meeting trying to bring together the important pieces of a new-look team, that's a huge problem. 

And while Butler can skate by on the excuse of being a new guy, JJ Redick's veteran voice is supposed to be part of his value, and he should be prompting the young guys to get involved if nobody else is.

That all leads to the Portland meeting, where Butler allegedly felt it was time to put his foot down. 

Butler: So now we fast forward to how many weeks is over there and we are in Portland and then that happens during the film session because once again, wasn’t nobody saying nothing. So who was the individual who decided to finally say something?”   

Redick: Here’s the fucked up part. You did one thing wrong. Nothing you said about the team was wrong, I thought your interaction with Brett that day was a normal interaction I don’t know why it got reported the way it did. You were coming off whatever happened in Chicago and whatever happened in Minnesota, I get it. Nothing was weird, but basically he was like ‘There are some tweaks to the offense I think some other guys fell the same way’ and who did he throw under the bus? You threw the nicest guy under the bus, you threw TJ McConnell under the bus.

Butler: I did not throw him under the bus, I did not say his name. I did not say that. This is what I did. I did not say TJ. [Brett Brown] said ‘Who all feels a type of way about it?’ Now keep in mind, everyone comes and talks to me because they know I am not afraid to be the asshole. So obviously I talked to [TJ]. Brett asked a great question, ‘Who else feels a type of way about something?’ All I did, I didn’t hear nothing behind me, I just knew somebody was going to speak up because I talked to about five people…crickets. 

So I turned around the first person I just happened to lock eyes with was TJ. So, [assistant coach] Monty [Williams] goes ‘Yo for real, now’s the time.’ TJ was like ‘Now you know...’ and I was like, 'TJ say what you got to say.’ And I love TJ, I talk to TJ all the time, but I just feel like it’s OK to speak your mind, ain’t nothing wrong with it. The worst thing Brett could have said is ‘Fuck you, no,’ and then you go back to being quiet. At least you got to say what you wanted to say.

That certainly sounds like a much less toxic version of events than we would have been led to believe took place, and lines up with what the various parties involved have said about it publicly. But again, it does speak to a weird dynamic in the locker room — if no one felt comfortable speaking up on potential changes before Butler stepped in to facilitate things, that is an issue.

Butler's relationship with Brown, and the team's evolving offense

There were no real shots fired at Brett Brown by Butler during the course of the interview, but Butler did explain the dynamic between the two men, and much to the surprise of this writer, his own pushback on how the offense changed between the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

Redick: You know how I feel about Brett, I love Brett and all that. I know your relationship wasn’t the same 

Butler: Sure was not!

Redick: Toward the end of the year though, as we did sort of tweak how the offense was run, especially in the playoffs, when you were playing on the ball more, did that relationship evolve at all or was it strictly a professional relationship? 

Butler: I would say it was professional, but to this day I don’t think that was fair to switch over like that. Even though we played great basketball like that, I don’t think it was fair because the entire year, Ben had the ball. The entire year, Ben had the ball. So you mean to tell me that in one playoff series you just switch it up like that? I would be — like he was — I would feel a type of way. I would feel a type of way, I would think it’s fucked up to play one way the entire year and then be like you know what, boom, this is how we’re going to do it. 

And I used to tell Brett, I was like Brett, I think we should mix in me handling the ball a little bit. 'No, we do A-to-B, we do this.' Cool! But I would be pissed, and I’m not going to complain about it, but I don’t think that was the best way of doing it, in my opinion.

Butler being dissatisfied with the way he was integrated into the offense is not exactly breaking news, and his transition into more of a high-volume pick-and-roll style this season certainly seems to have made him happy. But if you take him at his word, it is a little surprising to think he would have pushed back on the way the offense was changed, as it best suited how he plays and was ostensibly changed to help the team try to win a championship.

While everyone has assumed Simmons was not happy with the arrangement, Butler outright confirms it here. And that gets into a part of why the marriage didn't last beyond one season — with Philadelphia betting on Simmons to the tune of a max contract last offseason, it may have been hard to find a middle ground that kept both potential max ballhandlers happy. 

Why Butler decided to leave in free agency

Let the transcript speak for itself here:

Butler: I ain’t throwing nobody under the bus since you think I seem to throw people under the bus. Somebody told me a main reason I didn’t go back is because somebody asked, “Can you control him? Can you control Jimmy? If you can control Jimmy, we would think about having him back.” I was like you don’t got to worry about it, shit can’t nobody fucking control me. For one, I ain’t just out there doing no bullshit, but the fact that you’re trying to control a grown man, naw I’m cool, because I don’t do nothing that’s just drastically fucking stupidly crazy. I do not do that, so do not sit here and come at me with, “Oh we got to try and control him.” 

Nah, you good, don’t even have to worry about it. That was my whatchamacallit, you don’t got to worry about me coming. If that’s what y’all worried about it, I think man, good luck to y’all. 

JJ: What point in free agency [did this happen]?

Butler: Oh this was early, super early. 

JJ: So you knew you would have to explore other things?

Butler: Shit, I was knee deep in that already.

The messenger on this one is a lot murkier, which adds to the intrigue. Is this the front office talking to Brown? The front office speaking to Butler's agent, or Brown speaking to Butler's agent? Ownership asking a mixed group of people inside and outside of the organization? There are any number of possibilities here.

In the interest of fairness, I will note there have been times where I have laughed at Butler's public bravado. But I am 100 percent with him on this one. 

Butler being a tough personality to work with at several different stops is a matter of public record at this point, but that doesn't mean keeping him around necessitates "controlling" him. He, like anyone else, is a person who you have to learn how to get through to, whether that means using fire and brimstone or a calm, guiding hand (more likely the former, of course). The idea of "controlling" a grown man, as Butler alludes to, is insulting, especially when his talent and production level is part of why you were in a position to potentially win a championship last season.

All of this adds up to a pretty clear picture — this was a marriage that wasn't meant to be. But it inspires a lot of questions about the powers that be, especially as the Sixers struggle to get their act together in a season they entered with high expectations.

If Philadelphia was on a winning track right now, this would be just another interview from a former player who likes to take some creative liberties with history. With the Sixers in their current state? A lot more people are likely to believe he's telling the truth, and that the Sixers need a major face lift this summer.

(By the way, if you're interested in listening to the full podcast, I'd highly recommend it, and have embedded it below.)

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