September 19, 2018
The Sixers rather infamously struck out in their quest to go "star hunting" this offseason, but another opportunity to bring in a big-name player may have just risen from nothing. Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler has reportedly requested a trade following a meeting with head coach/GM Tom Thibodeau, following an offseason of speculation about his satisfaction with the organization.
The reasons for Butler's request seem to center around his relationship with the young players Minnesota has chosen to build their future around, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns and Butler have been at the center of rampant reports and rumors this summer, with insiders painting a picture of discontent between the two best players on the Wolves.
As part of a video interview conducted earlier this week, The Athletic's Shams Charania suggested Towns had gone as far as to delay a decision on signing a max extension until the Butler situation was resolved. Other reporters, including Wolves insider Jon Krawczynski, have suggested contractual problems are the root of the issue here.
I'm told Jimmy Butler's decision had very little if anything to do with Towns and Wiggins. More to do with contractual matters.— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) September 19, 2018
But there's only one question that matters from Philadelphia's perspective — is it worth pushing valuable chips in to chase the potential third star for your core? Let's run through some of the pros and cons here.
Before we delve into the behind-the-scenes details that make this a question at all, it's worth noting that Butler is one of the league's best players by any stretch of the imagination. Rising from a bit player to a core piece, Butler has made the last four All-Star teams on the strength of his all-around play.
Butler is capable of doing a little bit of everything on the offensive end of the floor. He has thrived as a ball-dominant point forward in recent years, and with Butler serving as the hub of that side of the ball last season, the Timberwolves made the jump to a top-five offense under Tom Thibodeau. Towns was a massive part of that, but Butler's ability to serve as an all-purpose glue pushed the Wolves to new heights; he's capable as both a scorer and a passer and can thrive in both halfcourt and transition settings.
That last bit is the key for slotting him into a Sixers roster that is already in the process of balancing two stars with contrasting styles. According to data provided by Synergy Sports, Butler was in the 95th percentile in transition offense, 89th percentile in spot-up shooting, and 93rd percentile on cuts. Those paint the picture of a player who can excel in various situations around other ball-dominant players.
The production, of course, speaks for itself. Butler averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game on 47.4/35.0/85.4 shooting splits, which is elite by any definition of the word. The only players in the NBA who managed those averages per game other than Butler? James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and DeMarcus Cousins.
There are concerns about whether Butler's skill package would overlap too much with Ben Simmons, particularly because Simmons has yet to prove he can be an impact player off-the-ball at the NBA level. But there's evidence to suggest Butler might benefit from playing more off-the-ball than he does currently — he's significantly better as a catch-and-shoot option (38.9 percent in 2017-18) from three than he is on pull-ups (30.3 percent). With shot distribution that leans heavier on the former, Butler may have more utility as a shooter than his career numbers suggest.
Butler also has the distinction of having played (and succeeded) on a team with a young, modern big man at the heart of things. Embiid has long needed a pick-and-roll partner who could find him easier shots, and Butler stands to benefit from the attention Embiid receives on post touches. More importantly, Butler would find himself with a partner (and a team) that places a high value on defense, an issue that was reportedly at the center of his friction with Towns.
There are some who will look at Butler as a solution to Philadelphia's crunch-time problems, and adding a primary ballhandler into the mix who seeks to score would certainly help some of their problems. He was one of the NBA's highest-volume players in the clutch last season and will be happy to take on the challenge — he trailed only LeBron James in average "clutch" points — but his efficiency (38.5 percent from the field) in those situations should temper expectations a tad.
Still, Butler is a tremendous player, and a piece worth considering.
Unfortunately, it's everything beyond the hardwood that calls into question whether Philadelphia should risk trading valuable trade chips for Butler.
There is the aforementioned discrepancy in what Butler's motivation is for seeking a move. Is the issue with Towns and Wiggins' competitive fire, which Butler has reportedly found lacking, a contractual dispute with the Wolves, or a third answer that combines all sorts of other factors? Knowing what makes Butler tick is hard to figure without it coming from Butler's own mouth, and we're left to decipher his intent through second or third-hand sources at best.
But the alleged disagreement with Towns echoes a past that has seen Butler butt heads with teammates in a similar fashion. Back in 2017 when Butler was still on the Bulls, a controversy came about when teammate Dwyane Wade questioned the passion of his younger teammates following a January loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Butler, who developed an alliance with Wade in Chicago built around their shared ideals, echoed the sentiments of his Hall of Fame teammate.
It's those comments that tend to ring loudest, but it is a sly remark a day later that also raises an eyebrow:
"If you don't come in this m-----f----- pissed off after you lose any game, something is wrong," Butler says. "This is your job. This is what you're supposed to love to do, and I don't think that everybody looks at it that way. I want to play with guys that care, that play hard, that want to do well for this organization. That want to win games. Do whatever it takes, just win. I don't think that's happening right now. I really don't."
(At the next shootaround following the Hawks game, Butler admits, "I like it. I'm sorry, but I like controversy. Butting heads.") [espn.com]
This wasn't even the first time Butler chided teammates in Chicago, nor has he seemed to express any regret for chastising his coworkers when given future opportunities to explain himself:
Last season's flash point came on the evening of Dec. 19, 2015, when his tattered, exhausted team, after losing in triple-overtime against the Detroit Pistons, got spanked by the moribund New York Knicks. Butler infamously said the team needed to be "coached a lot harder." For all his insistence that the incident was a learning experience, Butler couldn't seem to kick the habit. Just over a week into the 2016-17 campaign, after being drubbed by the Indiana Pacers, Butler said, "We knew we were going to hit adversity at one point. We didn't know it'd be now. We can't start games like this, dig ourselves a hole, come out with no energy. We don't even look like we're out there competing."
As Butler put it at The Grill, "If I don't think you're doing what you're doing to the best of your ability, I will for sure let you know. And I will have no hard feelings about it. I'll embarrass you. I think that comes with the job. You get paid a lot of money. If I'm not doing my end on the basketball court, the media rips me apart. I'm your media." [espn.com]
Long-term, one of Philadelphia's biggest concerns is keeping all the egos in check as the Sixers core develops into their final forms. That balancing act is notoriously difficult, and the battle for touches and attention has derailed many would-be dynasties throughout NBA history.
Speculation has been rampant about Embiid and Simmons coexisting long-term, with their personalities, circles of friends, and overall demeanor often contrasting one another. Their relationship is one determined primarily for their respect for one another on the court, of which there is a great deal on both ends.
But no one can say if that will hold as time rolls on, and the Sixers go through the growing pains and wound-licking all young players do in the NBA. When you put talented, prideful men in a room together, it doesn't always take a lot for seeds of doubt and discontent to grow. Is that a situation in which you want to introduce Butler, who has a history of stirring the pot and butting heads with talented teammates?
Embiid may be goofy on social media, and Simmons may go through long stretches of games with an emotionless look on his face, but do not mistake those properties as a lack of pride or ownership of their team. Adding a competitor to the room is one thing, but adding someone with a history of clashes on their resume, talented or not, is a different proposition entirely.
Health is a topic that is impossible for anyone from the outside to assess with any semblance of accuracy, but Butler's indicators are all pointing in the wrong direction.
As Butler approaches his 30th birthday, he has already amassed an extraordinary minutes load for a player with his amount of service time. Jim Adair served up a useful basketball-reference search on Wednesday, with Butler playing the fewest games of any active player with 15,000+ minutes to their name:
Either way, here's a quick way to quantify just how much he's been worked: Active players with 15000+ minutes played, by # of games played pic.twitter.com/V9i0s4LMuc— Titus Anjawnicus (@jimadair3) September 19, 2018
If you look through that list of players, many of the players at or near the top have seen their careers altered by catastrophic or chronic injuries. Everything we know about the human body suggests balancing rest is an essential part of long-term health.
Butler has not exactly had a clean sheet of health leading up until this point, either. He has averaged less than 67 games played over the last five seasons, with last year's campaign in Minnesota cut to 59 appearances thanks to a meniscus tear in his right knee. He was reportedly able to avoid having to decide between repairing or removing the meniscus — the latter can have long-term repercussions — but the injury is nonetheless troublesome following knee soreness and problems in years past.
High-usage players who have been subjected to Tom Thibodeau's grueling minutes load have seen their careers age like milk, from Derrick Rose to Luol Deng to Joakim Noah. It's theoretically possible Butler could buck the trend, but you'd be making a substantial bet for the privilege of finding out. Butler is on an expiring deal and will command a max contract next summer, which will presumably take him through at least his age 30-33 seasons.
Butler's work ethic is notorious and you would feel confident he'd do whatever it takes to keep his body in the best shape possible, but that can only take you so far. The Sixers would ultimately be betting a significant chunk of their future on a player whose workload to date suggests his best days aren't on the horizon.
Would the Sixers entertain the idea of acquiring Butler if he came at a massive discount on the trade market? Almost certainly. They're not in the business of turning down the opportunity to acquire a star player for next to nothing, and they're not unique in that sense.
In a competitive marketplace, with Butler declaring a preferred destination list that doesn't include Philadelphia?
Minnesota's Jimmy Butler has three preferred destinations for a trade, league sources tell ESPN: The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks. Those three teams have max cap space to sign Butler as a free agent in July.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 19, 2018
That's a different story. There's a reason the Sixers have continued to lock down one-year deals and not rock the boat after striking out on max free agents this summer — they like what they have in place, and they don't necessarily want to disrupt that with unnecessary or unworthy risk.
PhillyVoice conducted numerous discussions with people around the team after the Butler trade demand broke Wednesday, and my sense is the Sixers are extremely wary of the idea of Butler, specifically related to the clashes he's had with young teammates in both Chicago and Minnesota. The role players they have around their stars double as their most valuable movable trade chips, and the Sixers value their character as much as their output. Dario Saric and Robert Covington possess wildly different skill sets, but both men are grinders who show up prepared to do the little things it takes to build and sustain a winning program.
Odds are it would take at least one of those guys, a valuable first-round pick, and the requisite salary filler to make a Butler trade happen. Philadelphia's short-term ceiling would jump immediately upon acquiring Butler, and if we're thinking about this through a lens closer to fantasy or video game basketball, you do the deal in a heartbeat.
Never say never, but Butler to Philadelphia seems like an unlikely proposition at this stage. With young stars in the fold and strong culture years in the making, the Sixers seem to view chasing Butler's upside as a risk they'd rather let someone else take.
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