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November 10, 2018

Sixers' trade for Jimmy Butler carries significant risk and upside

All along, Philadelphia's need for a third star has been obvious. They have a transcendent talent in Joel Embiid, a borderline All-NBA player in Ben Simmons, and a whole lot of uncertainty beyond them. Role players like Robert Covington and Dario Saric were part of the franchise's story coming out of "The Process," but there was always something missing when games got tight and demanded a perimeter player who could take over.

The search is now over, following Philadelphia's surprise trade agreement for Jimmy Butler. The deal has yet to be made official — that will come Monday, when the Timberwolves and Sixers execute the trade call — but the fallout is already able to be considered. Saric and Covington will sit out of Saturday's game in Memphis as they wait to move on to their next destination, and you can already start building your ideal lineup combinations for when Butler arrives.

There are a ton of factors to consider in order to wrap your head around the consequences here, so let's go on that journey together. If things break right, there will be parades down Broad Street. If not, well, let's just lead with that, so that we can close on more positive notes.

Philadelphia is betting the locker room on Butler

Before we discuss the basketball details, the elephant in the room should be addressed. The locker room has been a source of strength for the Sixers all throughout Brett Brown's tenure, and that dynamic will be at risk for as long as Embiid, Simmons, and mostly Butler are at the center of things.

Butler's propensity for clashing with teammates is well-documented. During an interview with ESPN, Butler once admitted that he loves butting heads with teammates, and that he has no problem embarrassing his running mates if he feels it is necessary.

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. []

There will be some who point to this sort of thing as an establishment of accountability, and to be fair, Butler's tough as nails, blue-collar attitude will hit home with people in Philadelphia. The dude is a grinder, even if he's the type of guy who loves to tell you how hard he works rather than just letting it show. And Embiid, in particular, is the sort of two-way competitor you'd assume Butler would respect from the get-go.

But Butler is not exactly walking into a situation where he's the unquestioned alpha, as he was in Minnesota. Embiid has rightfully taken ownership of this team, and the new guy on the block — All-Star or not — will have to come to an understanding on lots of matters, like who gets the ball in crunch-time or who was responsible on any missed defensive assignments.

To the latter point, if you listened to the Sixers talk about miscues over the last couple years, it has always been through the lens of the team. Embiid has volunteered his own name when he has believed he "sucked" on a given night, but otherwise, there have been no pot shots taken from this group. They speak collectively on how they need to buy into their concepts more and execute better as a team.

In Saric and Covington, the Sixers lost not just two of their top rotation players, but two of their best guys in the locker room. Good or bad as either played, they never shied away from the spotlight or cast blame on anyone else around them. They were and are stand-up guys, who consistently proved they were willing to do what it takes for the sake of the team.

A team tends to follow the lead of their best players, so perhaps Embiid (and to a lesser extent Simmons) will keep things moving in the same direction. But we have seen Butler stir the pot in both Chicago and Minnesota, each with toxic results.

And by the way, the basketball downside is just as significant with Butler. He will be 30 by the time next season starts, and assuming the Sixers lock him up on a max extension this summer, Philadelphia will have him under contract for his age 30-34 seasons after this year.

Those years are not going to come cheap. Here are rough estimates for the structure of a future Butler deal:

Season (age) Salary 
 2019-20$32.7 million 
 2020-21 $35.3 million
 2021-22$37.9 million 
 2022-23 $40.5 million
 2023-24 $43.2 million

That's nearly $190 million over five years, a number that can only be offered to him by Philadelphia and was the source of some of Butler's discontent in Minnesota. From the outside looking in, it appears giving Butler that deal will be enough to clinch him staying.

Whether that's good for Butler and Philadelphia hinges on unknowable factors. Butler has managed to appear in more than 70 games just once in the last five years, and he played just 59 for Minnesota last season after meniscus damage cut short his regular season. He has played his whole career under Tom Thibodeau, a coach notorious for wearing out the proverbial tread on the tires of his players. Butler is no exception, and would not be the first player to break down after being leaned on by Thibs during their prime.

If Butler's body gives out over the duration of that contract, or even if he's forced to miss moderate stretches of time for health reasons, the Sixers are in trouble. They are already leaning on a franchise player whose checkered health history has caused him to miss roughly two and a half seasons. Their foundation will now rest on a pair of players for whom health is a concern, albeit in different ways, and they will no longer have the flexibility to dig themselves out of that hole. A broken down Butler on the above contract would be borderline untradable. 

Philadelphia is banking on a lot of things breaking right: health of their two best players, chemistry of their locker room, the fit of their core pieces, and their ability to come up with wins around the margins, an area they have struggled in for most of their recent history. By cashing in their chips on a player Butler's age, they are banking on competing sooner rather than later.

With all that said, let's move on to the positives.

How Butler can make life easier for Philly

The fit for Butler in Philly is not the cleanest one you could ask for. Any iteration of this Sixers team will necessitate Simmons figuring out how to be a successful off-ball player in the halfcourt. It was true when the team was experimenting with Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup, and it will be even more critical now that a star-level player is about to arrive. The focus up until now was on Fultz's viability as an NBA player, but will quickly turn into an evaluation of Simmons.

The good news? Butler is much more capable right now of creating offense for Simmons and Embiid in a halfcourt set. He is a three-level scorer who can create his own offense while distributing to others from the perimeter, the sort of player Philadelphia has rarely had in franchise history.

The production 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 last season, 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.

The real beauty of Butler is that he is able to thrive in a variety of offensive situations. 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 in 2017-18. Those stats paint the picture of a player who can excel in various situations around other ball-dominant players, not a guy who needs to dribble the air out of the ball.

We've seen what Simmons can do for players when they move off the ball, and Butler is an excellent cutter. So let's focus on new things the Sixers will be able to do with Butler in the lineup.

Philadelphia's ability to run pick-and-roll plays for Embiid — or even Simmons as a power forward — has been neutralized due to their dearth of players who are credible shooters and ballhandlers. Butler is both, and is both able/willing to punish opposing defenses when they concede ground to him after the pick.

In a Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll, defenses will have to pick their poison to a degree. Do you allow Embiid space down the lane for Butler to hit the roll man, or do you concede shots to Butler?

When Butler was paired with Karl-Anthony Towns, teams often committed too hard on Butler, and he carved them up with his passing, freeing Towns for easy looks down the lane. You can envision plays like this working beautifully for Embiid, who has never played with a guy who can make his life as easy as Butler can.

In less specific terms, the Sixers now have the luxury of having three high-level talents to stagger, and the various combinations you can build accordingly. When Embiid hits the bench, you can lean into the athleticism of the Butler-Simmons pairing and spread the floor with small-ball looks. When Simmons hits the bench, Butler and Embiid can pick-and-roll teams to death. And we've seen the heights the Sixers can reach with just Simmons and Embiid as their pillars on the floor.

Defensively, I'm not convinced this makes the Sixers better now, simply good in a different way. Covington is probably a more consistently good defender from a team perspective, due in large part to his smaller role on offense. Butler's upside on the ball is considerable, but his workload does not always empower the best work on that end night after night.

Over time, though, there is every reason to believe this trio can build an elite defense by themselves, other parts be damned. Butler and Simmons can take guys out of games at their best, and Embiid will continue to be a destroyer of worlds on the back end should matchups be lost on the perimeter.

Flexibility remains, it's just a different sort of flexibility

There is a hidden benefit to acquiring a third star now and worrying about the rest later for Philadelphia. Because they'll still have a bunch of cap space this summer, you can effectively turn players who would have been fallback plans in free agency into your top priorities, and mitigate the risk of the Butler deal all in one fell swoop.

The Sixers will have roughly $21 million in cap space this summer if they renounce their impending free agents outside of Butler and T.J. McConnell. If they end up moving Markelle Fultz at some point, it's possible they can open up more before free agency hits (and Fultz's viability in Philadelphia is a subject we can tackle in another article).

Prior to the trade, the Sixers were likely already on the outside looking in for guys like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and a couple more A-list players. In that scenario, inking someone like Tobias Harris would have seemed like a major blow and an unsatisfying payoff in their search for star players.

But on the current timeline, a player like Harris becomes more desirable. Instead of leaning on him to be your third-best player — a stretch for a team that wants to compete for championships — the Sixers could target him as a highly-paid fourth option, a role he's probably overqualified for. He would also serve as a fallback plan in the event of losing one of their stars to injury, stepping into the role of third banana if the situation dictated it.

If the Sixers have calculated by summertime that the major players are out of reach, setting their sights on high-level B-list players is a way to exploit the early market in free agency. Many teams with cap space will concern themselves with chasing that upper echelon of talent. Focusing on a player below the radar sends a message that they are the team's priority while others view them as an issue to tackle later.

Of course, Philadelphia should absolutely make an attempt to chase the top-of-market players if they can somehow open up the space it'll take to bring another guy in. More trades are possible, now and moving forward, and Philadelphia can now more credibly offer a chance to compete now to free agents in their prime.

However you feel about Butler, Elton Brand has not wasted any time putting his reputation on the line with this deal. The trade sends a clear message of intent: the Sixers believe they are ready to compete right now, and they are prepared to do what it takes to acquire players who will help them draw closer to a title. Risky or not, that's something to be admired.

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