January 07, 2019
Jimmy Butler put up shot after shot on the far court on Monday afternoon, the first practice at Philadelphia's practice facility since the report dropped on his alleged confrontation with Brett Brown. As the rest of the Sixers and Brett Brown eventually shuffled back to the locker room, out of sight, it was Butler's turn to offer his thoughts on the situation.
And he was just as firm as his coach was a couple days prior — Butler does not believe there was an issue.
"I just think whenever we talk, whether it be in the office and it’s me and him, or in front of everybody else, I’m going to speak my mind like he speaks his. I think everybody else does a great job of doing that too," said Butler. "I don’t think any part of it was confrontational. I think it was just a player to coach talk, a coach to player talk, it just so happened to be in front of everybody. I think we got away from it great and we got better as a team, and me and him’s relationship is growing every single day."
That's the answer most of us were expecting, and most of the follow-ups followed suit. With $190 million on the line this summer — or less, if Butler decides he wants to take his talents elsewhere — he's going to play the good soldier in public. And he has done that so far, praising everyone from Joel Embiid to the players further down Philadelphia's bench. He has affectionately referred to T.J. McConnell as an M.F.-er who picks up full court.
The interesting thing about Butler's availability is that he appeared to stray from what his own coach confirmed was true about the ESPN report. Asked about the part of the report that claimed Butler asked to be put in more pick-and-rolls, Brett Brown was quite clear about the accuracy:
"That was true, he wanted to be in more pick and rolls. I'll say this first; my job is to try to find ways to make this work. This is my job," said Brown before Saturday's game against Dallas. "The notion of being in more pick and rolls, I agree with. His usage, his touches, his shots, is the same. He is in less pick and rolls but the team is doing well. So that ecosystem of me doing my job and coexisting within the framework that we have is part of the challenge. Joel will want to be posted more."
That is as clear as Brown can put it. The assertion that Butler wanted to be in more pick and rolls is true.
Here's how Butler responded to a specific question about the same topic on Monday (bold emphasis mine):
DEREK BODNER, THE ATHLETIC: The next game [after Portland film session] you guys did run more pick-and-rolls. Was that something that came up in your discussion, and do you think that is a result of the discussion you had?
BUTLER: That wasn’t my discussion part of it. I’m not going to say who said what, that’s not what I’m here for. I think a lot of people spoke up about a lot of different things and how they feel comfortable in the game on both ends of the floor. I think everybody is basing everything on offense, I think we could be a much better defensive team as well. So as much as everybody is saying, oh, he’s challenging him on offense, I would say that I speak out more about the whole defensive thing than anything.
Butler tried to pivot the conversation by moving on to defense, where he is correct in noting there is more room for growth than on offense. He later admitted he is still struggling with terminology from time to time, an understandable problem for someone who'd only played for one other NBA coach his whole career, and in a different scheme.
The question here is simple: why deny that you'd asked for that? Your coach already copped to it and framed it as part of a larger conversation about everyone else's roles and desires. Nobody would have batted an eye if Butler said, "Yeah, I am comfortable in pick-and-rolls and told Coach I'd like to be in more," especially because many people defended Butler's point as soon as they saw that detail in ESPN's report.
Only Butler can explain his motivations for doing so. But it is a point on which player and coach offered two different versions of the story, even as they both insisted everything is hunky dory.
I think there's a general misconception about how it would look for a problematic teammate to screw up the locker room. On the outside, you expect it to be this super dramatic affair, akin to the reported blow up Butler had during a practice in Minnesota. But the truth is often more complicated than that, and a hell of a lot more boring.
Think of a coworker who bugs you at your current job, or even a previous one. They aren't always some obnoxious blowhard or an unproductive worker in your office. Sometimes, they just do annoying things with enough frequency to get on your bad side. Maybe they're always taking the last good soda in the shared fridge. Maybe they don't chip in for the office birthday gifts you give other coworkers. Maybe they just deliver criticism with the wrong tone or amount of subtlety it takes to reach somebody, compared to a more constructive lesson you may get from a good boss.
Apply the same lessons to Butler. The guy plays his butt off and is a talented member of this core. Players and coaches will go to bat for him publicly. But as a general rule of thumb, it's not the first dust-up with someone during practice or in the film room that makes its way to the public. This is the honeymoon period for Butler and the Sixers, where both sides are invested in putting on their best faces so they can tie the knot for real in the summer. If confrontations are leaking to the media this early and with the team winning, there is probably a reason for it, regardless of how small or inconsequential Butler and Brown say they are.
Butler deserves the benefit of the doubt for the time being. This may simply be a misunderstanding, an adjustment for all parties based on Butler's force of personality. No one expected him to be a church mouse. And he insisted that no matter how fascinating this is for us on the outside, all that matters internally is winning.
"I go back to what I always say. People are going to like me, great. People are going to dislike me, okay. But I can’t control that, I can only control who I am, who I know I am, what the people around here think and know me to be, and then try to be the best basketball player I can be on the court," said Butler. "Win, and I’m telling you, Y'all not going to be talking about none of that no more. We just gotta keep winning. We win three, four, five in a row, Y'all are going to be like oh, we on a win streak now! You’re not going to worry about anything that happened in a film session."
But to Butler's own point, this all came out in the midst of a Sixers winning spell. The Sixers have been humming on offense since Butler's arrival, and it didn't stop a number of complaints from being made about roles, including some very public posturing from Embiid.
So skepticism is warranted about the way forward. Winning is guaranteed to no one, and with Philadelphia still struggling to beat the league's elite teams, it's fair to wonder what the shelf life on happiness is here.
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