There are probably easier ways to endear yourself to a team and fan base than to hit two game-winners in your first two weeks on the job, but Jimmy Butler has never been one for easier ways. This is a man who could have coasted out a contract year for a probable playoff team. He chose instead to request a trade, and when he felt he wasn’t fully heard, commandeer an entire franchise until he got his way. Butler has staked his entire career on defiance. It’s what made him a star, and by extension, a Sixer.
Philadelphia finds itself in a fascinating place. In acquiring Butler, the Sixers have accelerated their plans and clarified their season’s purpose. Markelle Fultz is no longer a starter, and has, in recent days, stopped playing for the team entirely as he consults with specialists in New York. It remains to be seen what role Fultz might have with this version of the team, if any at all. That particular experiment appears to be over, because Philadelphia has started another in its place: introducing a third high-usage star into a delicate ecosystem, trusting in talent and intention to find their way.
So far, that good faith has paid off. The Sixers have won six of eight since bringing Butler into the fold, riding high on the thrills of a honeymoon offense. During that time, only three teams (Houston, Milwaukee, and, impressively, Detroit) have scored more efficiently. It would be hasty to mistake this for a fully-developed relationship between team and star, tempting as that might be.
Still, the sparks are undeniable. All three of Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons demand some measure of control over an offense. Yet Embiid has scored 30 or more in five of his seven games with Butler, while Simmons is both scoring more regularly (with three 20-point games of his own) and playing better on balance than before. Whether the on-court relationship between those three develops into something meaningful depends on a great number of factors. The hope for one, however, starts with the kind of connection they’ve already shown.
"I don't know what the future holds,” Butler told reporters after Sunday’s win over the Nets. “But this is a hell of a locker room and a hell of a staff. I could see this being home."
So many elements of Philly’s offense already seem like a cozy fit. Butler can be a cudgel if a team needs him to be, but the Sixers prefer to work toward a finer point. Many of Butler’s eventual scoring possessions begin with him engaged as a third or fourth player in sequence rather than the be-all, end-all creator he often was in Minnesota. It would be fair to wonder, at this point, which of those versions best represents the real Butler; given Butler’s entire body of work, it can be difficult to suss out how he wants to play from how he feels he needs to. These early days with the Sixers suggest his style to be fairly contextual. When Butler trusts the mechanisms at work around him, he defers willingly to the flow of the offense. Sometimes, that leaves Butler to camp out on the weak side, drawing defenders away from the action. More often, it gives Butler room to operate while saving him the trouble of working against the grain.
Already Butler has acclimated to the dribble hand-offs laced throughout Brett Brown’s offense. Embiid and J.J. Redick run this setup to particular effect. By stationing Embiid on the perimeter and brushing Redick by him, both defenders have to make instinctive calls as to whether they should follow one of the most dangerous shooters in the league or one of the most impossible big men in basketball. Any slip-up could lead to an immediate score. Butler has found a similar rhythm as a Sixer, albeit with Simmons pitching him the ball rather than Embiid:
Attempts to defend Simmons with a big, like Derrick Favors in this case, backfire when his hand-off quickly reverses the direction of the play. Butler can drive into traffic off this kind of drive and finish through contact, finesse around rim protectors, or kick out to shooters. Those who duck under the hand-off to prevent him from attacking downhill leave themselves open to this:
And because the man with the ball is also one of the best passers in the league, Butler can decide in the moment whether he’d rather subvert the play entirely to stroll through the backdoor:
This is where we see the Draymond Green in Simmons’s game, and perhaps an avenue toward unlocking one of the league’s most complicated talents. Simmons may never be the kind of point guard who runs straightforward offense against a set defense. Working off of Butler in this way relieves his need to, while still allowing him to stress out opponents with the threat of his drives and rolls. It’s all but impossible to field a modern NBA lineup that has the size to contend with all three of Butler, Simmons, and Embiid at once. Bringing any two of them together is where the Sixers can exploit that pinch.
The question, as always, is how advantages like these will work against playoff-level defenses. The one glaring caveat to everything we’ve seen between Butler and the Sixers so far is that in their seven games together, they’ve played against four of the worst defenses in the league. The schemes won’t always be so soft, and the matchups won’t always be so accommodating. It means something, though, that in those seven games, Simmons assisted Butler 17 times.
It’s instructive to see Butler and Embiid balance the offense between them without compromising what the other does well. There are lessons in Butler bending, however slightly, to the world around him. Butler has been a Sixer for two weeks, and already he seems to trust Embiid in a way he never did Karl-Anthony Towns, and has relied on Simmons in a way he couldn’t with Andrew Wiggins. This is a new Jimmy Butler, if only because everything has changed.