Jimmy Butler pushed his way out of Minnesota and onto a contender the only way he knows how: through force of will.
At his best and his worst, the 29-year-old wing shuns subtleties and neglects nuance—never more so than in his final months in Minnesota before Saturday’s trade to Philadelphia. If owner Glen Taylor and president Tom Thibodeau were dragging their feet on a deal, Butler would challenge them publicly, call out his teammates, and sit out training camp. If they kept hesitating, Butler would return to the team with an ESPN sit-down interview in tow rather than with his tail between his legs. If Minnesota seemed to inch towards keeping him until the deadline, Butler would use his health to justify sitting out games and to publicly question his minutes load.
On and on it went. If Derrick Rose miraculously scored 50 points, Butler would crash his joyous post-game interview, just to make sure everyone knew he was still there. If the Timberwolves were getting killed in Oakland, Butler would grab a towel and wave it along with the rest of Oracle Arena. If teammate Tyus Jones wanted to watch his brother play for Duke, Butler would loan him a plane. If fans booed him, Butler would tell the media he didn’t care—and genuinely mean it—before playing well enough, for stretches, to earn cheers.
Butler’s exit strategy was entirely transparent: he would do anything to make sure Minnesota acquiesced to his trade request and to make sure the rest of the league never forgot about him. There was little consideration given to potential side effects: the permanent damage to his reputation as a leader, the franchise-altering chaos he wreaked in Minnesota, the negative impact he had on Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the betrayal of Thibodeau, who oversaw his rise to prominence in Chicago and then bet his job in Minnesota on trading for him.
This scorched-earth approach was disappointing and sometimes despicable, but hardly surprising. When Butler graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2015, he did so alongside the tagline: “If you stop or slow down, it all might disappear.” Indeed, his odds-defying rise from homelessness to the jet-setting life of a franchise player, from JuCo to All-NBA, from the last player picked in the first round in 2011 to a possible max contract next summer, unfolded because his default settings are constant motion and uncompromising self-belief. He was bound to double-down, and triple-down, and quadruple-down on those principles as he held the maximum leverage of his career and anticipated the biggest payday of his career.
Even though his tactics were often indefensible, his views on the situation in Minnesota were hard to dispute. The Timberwolves have never been a destination organization for superstars. Taylor has never displayed the commitment and savvy needed to build a contender. Thibodeau has continued to play his stars too many minutes and hasn’t built a defensive juggernaut. Towns and Wiggins haven’t proven they are ready to be core pieces on a team that makes a deep run in the playoffs. Together, Butler’s takes on the Timberwolves were correct on the merits and horribly wrong in the execution, but expecting him to exhibit discretion, patience or even a minimal amount of tact was a fool’s errand.
The Sixers represent a tantalizing landing spot for Butler because they will directly test his way of life. This is an organization with a long and proud history, an aggressive and deep-pocketed ownership group, a smart and well-liked coach in Brett Brown, and a pair of A-list rising stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The primary challenge in Philadelphia for Butler won’t be shaky commitment from ownership, or a lack of modern strategic thinking, or questionable talent around him. No, the defining question will be fit. And, more specifically, Butler’s fit.
If Butler storms into Philadelphia like he stormed out of Minnesota, he might as well start booking his vacation plans for May. The Sixers don’t need someone to challenge Embiid’s manhood, to hog touches and marginalize Simmons, or to scream at Markelle Fultz when he hesitates on a jump shot. They won a playoff series last year, and the Simmons/Embiid duo is set up beautifully for a six-year run at or near the top of the East. Butler must find ways to make those two players better, rather than refashioning their developing partnership in his own image.
That’s not to suggest Butler must function as a supersized-version of Robert Covington, the 3-and-D wing Philadelphia sent back to Minnesota with Dario Saric. The Sixers’ 17th-ranked offense can use Butler’s shot-making, shot-creating and foul-drawing, and he should enjoy a strong pick-and-roll partnership with Embiid. But Brett Brown will need to stagger Simmons and Butler whenever possible, as both are primary attackers and less-than-ideal floor-spacers. When they do play together, Butler must be prepared to sacrifice some usage and make the most of his touches; Simmons is just too good of a playmaker—and too poor of a shooter—to be moved off the ball regularly.
Defensively, Butler should slide in seamlessly for a hard-nosed Sixers group that ranks seventh this year after finishing third last year. Embiid is everything that Towns isn’t when it comes to rim-protection and general awareness, and Simmons is the athletic and versatile perimeter defender that many analysts expected Wiggins to be coming out of Kansas. If things click, this group has 2019 Finals potential: a top-three defense and an above-average offense could be enough to get through Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee.
Look for Butler to explode out of the gates in Philadelphia, as he tries to distance himself from the ugliness in Minnesota and ingratiate himself with an organization that can ink him to a long-term max deal next summer. Once the initial excitement of his promising new surroundings wears off, though, Butler will need to move with a delicacy that has long eluded him.
Back in 2015, Thibodeau said of Butler: "If they don't bite as puppies, they usually don't bite. Jimmy was biting right from the start." Butler proceeded to rip Thibodeau’s leg off, and he must embrace Embiid’s alpha game and alpha personality to avoid further bloodshed in Philadelphia. And after failed partnerships with Rose in Chicago and Towns in Minnesota, the onus is now on Butler to make it work with Simmons, whose offensive game deserves respect and requires lots of touches.
During the most infamous episode of his Timberwolves endgame, Butler reportedly stomped into a practice without warning, dominated his teammates, and then declared, “You f—-ing need me. You can’t win without me.” That sentiment was true in Minnesota but it’s no longer true in Philadelphia. Butler needs Brown, Embiid, Simmons and even Fultz to win, whether winning is defined by advancing in the playoffs, repairing his reputation, or claiming a monster cashout next July.
Now, let’s just hope that Butler can hit the pause button on his breakneck journey long enough to realize that his single-minded approach can only take him so far.