Jimmy Butler’s Sixers Debut Shows Promising Fit With Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

Despite the loss to Orlando, Jimmy Butler's 76ers debut flashed a preview of things to come for Philadelphia's burgeoning contender.
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A 21-0 run by the Magic spoiled Jimmy Butler’s 76ers’ debut on Wednesday night, erasing a double-digit Philadelphia lead in the fourth quarter. The 111–106 defeat shouldn’t draw a flood of conclusions—as is typical for a November night in Orlando—but there are lessons we can glean from Butler’s first contest with his new team.

Here’s three things we learned from Butler’s Philadelphia debut.

1. Butler’s lightened load

Butler was forced to carry a lion’s share of distributor duties in Minnesota, often the lone shot creator on a disjointed roster. Karl-Anthony Towns has yet to evolve past a low-post banger and pick-and-pop threat, while Andrew Wiggins looks for his shot and little else in the half court. The same applies to Derrick Rose.

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons provide an immediate improvement from Butler’s previous young duo. Embiid is a more polished offensive force than Towns, less reliant on guards to feed him touches. Simmons is already one of the league’s headier passers, finding holes in the defense at an elite level. Each draw multiple sets of eyes with the ball in their hands.

The attention paid to Simmons and Embiid paid dividends for Butler on Wednesday night. Four of his six made field goals came in the paint, with three coming on cuts from the backdoor or as a trailer. Butler was the top focus of opposing defenses each night in Minnesota. The buckets will come easier with this big three.

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2. Embiid remains the headliner

Butler brought legitimate crunch-time chops to Philadelphia, proving his mettle as a closer both in Chicago and Minnesota. But don’t expect him to transform Philly’s late-game offense overnight.

Embiid entered Wednesday night with the league’s No. 14 usage rate in crunch time, ranking No. 8 in crunch time points per game. Many of Philadelphia’s late possessions centered not around a slew of screens and cuts, but isolations seeking a mismatch for Embiid. Simmons served as a secondary cutter. Philadelphia’s other three options spaced the floor.

The Kansas product followed a similar path on Wednesday. Philadelphia ran three consecutive possessions through Embiid in the final four minutes, a pair of isolations followed by a two-man game with Redick. The possessions failed to generate points—Embiid missed two threes and Redick committed an offensive foul—yet they won’t be circled by head coach Brett Brown as missed opportunities in a future film session. Philly’s crunch-time possessions mirrored much of what they’ve ran all season.

That should be amended in the coming weeks. Butler as a floor spacer isn’t an ideal way to deploy the four-time All-Star, with only 52.9% of his triples coming via the assist in 2018-19. Brown would be wise to engage Butler and Embiid in a two-man game, utilizing Simmons as a slasher and cutter to the tin. Butler will punish a switched big off an Embiid screen, and his impressive midrange game should put increased pressure on defenses. Butler will engage in more late-game possessions in the coming weeks, though Embiid remains the primary offensive force when Philadelphia needs a bucket in crunch time.

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3. The sweet life of J.J. Redick

It’s hard to imagine a better situation for J.J. Redick right now. The 14-year veteran is having a career year at 17.9 points per game, canning 2.9 threes per game despite shooting the worst percentage of his career from beyond to arc. As he progresses toward his career mean from three, expect his stellar season to get even better.

Redick is playing in marksman heaven right now. He’s spent his season sprinting off a dizzying set of screens and sets designed by Brown, taking advantage of the attention paid to Embiid on the block and Simmons barreling down the lane. The aforementioned dance between Embiid and Redick has resulted in a plus-10 net rating in 2018-19, the best mark of any Philadelphia lineup to log over 100 minutes this season.

Redick should see additional open looks with Butler in the fold. Philadelphia’s starting five now has three options who can warrant a second defender, or at least a brief help before scrambling to recover onto the perimeter. The scramble is where Redick excels. He finds the pockets of a defense like few others, slipping where the defense leaks when stopping Philadelphia’s headliners. With a third All-Star caliber player in the fold, Redick will have increased room to shine.

The Butler addition could continue to spell a decline in Markelle Fultz’ minutes, but that will become a necessity as Philadelphia chases the upper echelon of the East. Playing Redick with Philly’s big three is a recipe for success, and his job is now easier with Butler in the fold.