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January 04, 2019

Report: Jimmy Butler has challenged Brett Brown on his role in the Sixers' offense

It took a few months for things to really get going, but the downside of the Jimmy Butler experience has arrived in short order. According to a new report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, there have already been heated discussions between Philly's new star and his head coach, Brett Brown.

I'll let Wojnarowski and Shelburne explain their story in their own words before we get back to the commentary:

Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Jimmy Butler has aggressively challenged coach Brett Brown on his role in the offense, complicating an already tenuous chemistry among the team's Big 3 hierarchy, league sources told ESPN.

Butler has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system, including a recent film session in Portland that some witnesses considered "disrespectful" and beyond normal player-coach discourse.

Brown has told people within the organization that he had no issues with that exchange and considered it within the confines of the relationship that he's developed with Butler, sources said.

While a source close to Butler contends that his intense, direct style can come off as combative as he's trying to make clear his viewpoints, Butler's sluggish assimilation into the Sixers environment is causing some concern about his long-term viability and fit with the organization, league sources said. Nevertheless, the franchise's full focus and resources remain on making this new partnership work this season and beyond.

The story goes on to explain that Butler has expressed a desire to be put in more "traditional pick-and-roll isolation sets," a staple of his time under Tom Thibodeau and a play the Sixers have traditionally put on the backburner under Brett Brown. This is, in many respects, a reasonable complaint for Butler to have, particularly because it would aid Joel Embiid to play more out of these sets, too.

What's interesting is that this story made it to the press at all. The motivation for a story like this to go public is fairly minimal on all sides, if it even exists. As a hypothetical exercise:

  1. Butler stands to gain nothing from this going public. The league already believes him to be a "bad apple" to some degree, and even if he is having long-term doubts about Philly, showing he can be a helpful and happy teammate matters as he nears his 30's and demands a max contract.
  2. Philadelphia's front office has put a lot on the line to acquire Butler, and has no interest in risking the relationship with their new star at this point. They already have a tall task ahead of them to build out the bench. If they have to find a star to replace Butler in the event that he departs, they're in even deeper trouble.
  3. Brown (or people close to Brown) may want to establish that Butler's behavior won't fly in Philadelphia. But he/they too have all sorts of downside to consider here. There are many people locally and nationally who have questions about Brown's viability as the long-term coach of this group. If a picture begins to emerge of mood turning in the locker room — a strength of his tenure above all else — he has much less to fall back on in the event things get tougher.

Regardless of the motivation, this is now the second of Philadelphia's major stars to complain about how they're being used in-game. Embiid's complaints about his role in the offense have been well-documented, and now Butler is calling for more plays of a specific type to help him get going again.

The thing is, Philadelphia's offense has been humming since Butler came to town. Since Butler's debut against Orlando on November 14th, the Sixers have had the sixth-best offense in the league. That has not come without growing pains or struggles for each member of the group, but it has happened all the same. Defense has been a much bigger question mark, with the Sixers sitting right in the middle of the pack at 15th.

And so maybe that suggests what the real story is, and why Butler's arrival was questioned before it even happened.

Philadelphia's biggest long-term concern at the front-office level has always been trying to figure out how to keep the egos of their star players under control. Each of Philadelphia's new big three has good reason to believe they should do things their way. Embiid is a basketball novice and still kicked people's asses from the moment he touched an NBA floor. Simmons has been billed as the second coming dating back through high school. And Butler, who is never shy about telling you how hard he works, has surpassed a lot more naturally gifted players and feels entitled to a level of respect because of that.

Not every player is built to take a back seat, regardless of how talented their teammates are. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the best of friends, but it took them being humiliated in the NBA Finals together (and most of the season after that) for the pair to settle on the fact that the team would run through James. And that was a more clear-cut scenario — James was the world's best player, even if he hadn't won a title yet.

None of Philadelphia's stars have that sort of cache or history of winning, and in a sense that gives them all a right to believe they should dictate how things go. It is easy from the outside to say, "This is Embiid's team and everyone else needs to fall in line behind him," but that's not how this works.

Shelburne and Woj hint at the importance of all this in their piece, by the way, in a brief note about Brown's work behind-the-scenes:

Brown had already spent significant time working on the sometimes-tenuous relationship between Simmons and Embiid, and those challenges have been compounded by the urgency to introduce Butler into the Sixers dynamic.

We saw some frustration from Embiid boil over in Los Angeles the other night when Simmons caught him in the face on a rebound. It is not the first or the last time you will hear about the trouble with managing two extremely talented and prideful young men. 

Butler's impending free agency hasn't been talked about much since he arrived, with most people assuming it was a done deal that he will remain in Philadelphia. I'd still bet on that happening if you asked me to pick one way or the other, because I think the extra money Butler will make in Philly will ultimately win out, provided things don't really go off the rails from here. But this is the first moment we can all point to as a moment of doubt.

What's the solution for the time being? Frankly, it may be giving Butler some of what he wants. The Sixers have added some more pick-and-roll to their game recently, featuring it a lot in the first half of their game against the Clippers on Tuesday. But there are structural problems there, too. How do you run effective pick-and-rolls with Simmons hanging out in the dunker's spot?

If your answer is to play Embiid and Butler in more minutes without Simmons, congratulations, we agree. But you run into more complications there. Brown has publicly admitted his rotations are designed around his own gut feel, input from his analytics team, and most critically, input from his star players about how they liked to be rotated. So if he juggles the rotation for more Embiid/Butler minutes and shuffles all their places accordingly, does he risk more anger flaring up?

These are the sort of dilemmas you run into on a star-laden team. These are better problems to have than the ones the Sixers had in the darkest days of the Process era, certainly. But these ones are much louder, and if the Sixers don't find a way to get everyone on one page — coach, players, front office or otherwise — the headlines will keep coming.

Editor's note: PhillyVoice contacted the Sixers about this story, and the team chose to offer no comment.

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