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June 30, 2019

Sixers to sign-and-trade Jimmy Butler to Miami Heat for Josh Richardson

Jimmy Butler is leaving Philadelphia in a sign-and-trade deal with the Miami Heat. Miami Heat wing Josh Richardson will come to Philly in exchange for Butler, and the transaction turned into a four-team extravaganza on Monday in order to get it done, as reported first by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.

A deal involving the Dallas Mavericks fell apart on Sunday night, though the Sixers expressed confidence throughout the process that a deal would get done. Sources said that once they secured Richardson, Philadelphia chose to put the responsibility in Miami's hands and let them figure out how they wanted to clear the money needed to obtain Butler. That turned into a four-team deal with the following guidelines:

Philly gets: Josh Richardson

Miami gets: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard

Portland gets: Hassan Whiteside

Los Angeles gets: Maurice Harkless, first-round pick via MIA, NBA rights to Mathias Lessort (PHL)

Some will raise an eyebrow at the Sixers including international rights to Mathias Lessort (as first reported by Keith Pompey of the Inquirer) for seemingly no reason, but his inclusion is a function of NBA rules in multi-team trades. When three or more teams are involved in a deal, a team must "touch" at least two teams in the deal, per a stipulation in the collective bargaining agreement. Lessort, who did not figure to be in their long-term plans, fulfilled Philadelphia's obligation there.

What initially looked like a lot of posturing ended up turning into something real for Butler in Miami, in spite of the hurdles presented by the salary cap that many thought would prevent such a deal from happening. In the end, it was Butler's desire to play and live in Miami that ultimately won out. The immediate question in the aftermath of the decision is whether the Sixers did everything they could to keep butler in Philly.

Multiple sources told PhillyVoice over the last week that the Sixers were willing to give Butler the fifth year he has been said to desire in his contract. One source close to the situation said on Sunday evening that they were willing to offer Butler the full max — five years, $190 million — in order to stay with Philadelphia. PhillyVoice has yet to receive a comment from the Sixers or Butler's representation on the subject. 

In the end, the Sixers made the best of a sub-optimal situation by getting Josh Richardson as the return for Butler. He's a piece of this deal we can discuss in greater detail later, but he has a profile that fits nicely with what the Sixers want to do. He's younger, athletic, a tough-nosed player on defense, and a career 36.8 percent shooter from deep, though his outside shooting numbers have been erratic from year to year.

Richardson will help offset some of Philadelphia's guard defense problems and he gives them a rugged on-ball defender to pair with their young, off-ball defenders they've drafted the last two years. His presence will help free up players like Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith to be gambling, weak side defenders while he and Ben Simmons take on tougher defensive assignments. If they were going to lose Butler, recouping Richardson is a nice pick-up — he can help them win now, and at 25 years old he can still grow alongside their young core if they see fit to extend their pact. 

Richardson has two years left on his contract through 2020-21, in addition to a player option for 2021-22 worth $11.6 million. Following the completion of the trade, the Sixers will have roughly $7.7 million in cap space this summer, plus minimum deals, to fill out the rest of their roster.

Where to begin with Butler? In the final months of the year, we saw a real bond begin to develop between Butler and Embiid, and it is going to be hard to replace the role Butler filled within this team construct in the short-term. The veteran wing was absolutely essential in Philadelphia's playoff run, showing that he can carry the weight as a lead ball-handler for long stretches of time. That allowed the Sixers to skirt around a flaw in their roster and compete at a high level in the playoffs, and there is no immediate answer they can offer as a replacement for that role.

Because of this deal, the pressure mounts for Ben Simmons to turn himself into a reasonably competent and respected shooter. The Sixers now don't have a guy who can masquerade as a lead ball-handler if defensive strategies render Simmons moot in the playoffs. They have a capable supporting cast, but at the moment, a lack of handling juice. 

There were always going to be concerns about the Butler contract on the back end of the deal, as it's impossible to tell how his body will hold up after being put through the Tom Thibodeau minutes program for the majority of his career to date. Even if he stayed healthy, how gracefully will Butler's game age? He's a very domineering presence on and off the court, and it's fair to be skeptical that he'd be willing to fade into a smaller role as Philadelphia's young stars really take off. He would not be the first veteran star to struggle to walk that line, and parting ways with him would have allowed the Sixers to operate on a longer timeline, had they not also come to terms with Al Horford.

As long as the Sixers have both of those young guys here, they have a chance to keep building toward something special. But losing Butler is clearly a hit in the short-term, and now the questions about continuity and chemistry will pop up again next season. Once again, the Sixers enter next season with another starting five that has no experience playing together as a group. 

The good news is they have locked in a core on long-term deals for the first time since they found their franchise anchors. The bad news is that there are stylistic questions across the board, many of which can't be answered until they are in the thick of a playoff battle.

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