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Jimmy Butler Brings New Label to 76ers: The Gamble

After years of The Process, the 76ers needed to make a major move to contend in the East. They acquired one of the NBA's best two-way players in Jimmy Butler, a gamble that can be a huge payoff or failure.

On Monday, the trade that will bring Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia will be finalized.

On Wednesday, Butler will likely be in Sixers lineup in Orlando.

In April … well, that’s far less certain.

League-wide reaction to Philly’s decision to send three role players—Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Jerryd Bayless—to Minnesota for the disgruntled Butler was fairly consistent. “Had to do it,” a Western Conference team exec told The Crossover. “I saw them as the No. 4 team in the East—and there was a gap between them and the top three.”

Added an Eastern Conference scout, “The team they had was more likely to lose in the first round than get to the conference finals.”

Indeed, the Sixers had reached a dreaded level in the (gulp) process: Good, but not great, with limited avenues to climb ahead of the teams ahead of them. Toronto looks legit, Boston will figure out its issues and Mike Budenholzer has the Bucks clicking.

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Philadelphia? The Sixers' three-point shooting has cratered—a top-10 team from deep last season, Philly has fallen into the bottom third—while the rehabilitation of Markelle Fultz has been slow, to say the least.

The Sixers needed to do something, and they did, acquiring one of the NBA’s best two-way players in Butler, whose intensity should be a welcome addition to Philadelphia’s practices and whose playoff experience (43 games) could prove useful down the road. They gutted the team’s depth and have a gaping hole at power forward, but they didn’t surrender a first-round pick and you would be hard-pressed to find many rival executives that don’t admire the Sixers' aggression. 

“Getting a consistent scorer on the wing that can make perimeter shots and create perimeter shots is going to help them,” said the West exec. “They can trot out a lineup now with Jimmy and J.J. [Redick] and have some real floor spacing.”

It’s a bold move—with plenty of risk.

There are lots of reasons to like Butler in the Sixers lineup. He’s a mid-30’s three-point shooter and a bonafide closer. He ranked sixth in the NBA last season in clutch usage rate, per, and embraces big moments. Alongside Embiid, Philadelphia now boasts one of the most dangerous inside-out combinations in the league. Between Butler and Simmons the Sixers have a pair of versatile, high-level defenders and a shot blocker in Embiid behind them to clean up the mistakes.

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The potential downside? Where to begin. Butler is a ball-dominant player who likes to handle the ball and create. Simmons is a ball-dominant player who likes to handle the ball and create. Fultz is a ball-dominant player who likes to handle the ball and create.

See where I’m going?

The Sixers badly need shooting to be effective. The problem? They don’t have much. Simmons, Fultz and T.J. McConnell not only don’t make threes, they barely shoot them—and in Simmons's case, not at all. If Butler becomes the closer late in games, how often will Simmons be on the floor? Teams are undoubtedly already starting to strategize on how to slant defenses toward Butler and Embiid, while daring anyone not named Redick to beat them from the outside.

The locker-room dynamic will be worth watching, too. Butler cartoonishly forced his way out of Minnesota, and while his new teammates won’t care about his issues with the Wolves, a take-no-prisoners attitude probably won’t go over well, either. There are league-wide whispers that Embiid and Simmons take a more casual approach to practice (“It’s pretty well known,” a rival pro personnel scout told, which could conflict with Butler’s well-publicized intensity.

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Will Butler be critical of teammates who don’t give what he deems to be maximum effort?

And how would criticism from a star player with no equity in the franchise go over?

The Sixers believe the Embiid/Simmons/Butler trio will work, but more importantly they need it to work. There will likely be some tinkering with the roster before the end of the season. Kyle Korver is available, and the Sixers have intensely scouted Washington in recent weeks, with the free-falling Wizards careening toward what could be a full-scale rebuild. When healthy, Wilson Chandler can slide into the power forward slot, but Philly will eyeball deals to fill out its frontcourt. They have Fultz—whose long-term future in Philly could take another hit with Butler around—and Miami’s 2021 first-round pick to play with.

But the Sixers' fate now rests with its new Big Three. Butler will be looking for a five-year, max-level deal this summer, and given the talent Philadelphia coughed up to acquire him, Butler will be in a strong bargaining position. But he will be 30 at the start of next season, having battled injuries—including a knee problem that cost him a chunk of the second half of last season—and spent the majority of his career in the Tom Thibodeau basketball grinder. Those negotiations could be intense.

For now, the Sixers will hope Butler energizes a lineup in need of a jolt while Brett Brown figures out the best way to use him. Years after The Process, Butler brings a new label to Philadelphia: The Gamble.