Let’s get this out of the way first. In no manner of speaking should Raptors fans be excited to see Jimmy Butler back in the Eastern Conference.
In the annals (long, long, annals) of Raptor killers, Jimmy Butler may be first on the list. Well, OK, no, that’s LeBron James, who ripped the heart out of three separate Conference Final’s worthy teams — but beyond that, it’s Jimmy.
When you google “Jimmy Butler vs. Raptors” what comes up is not one, but two 42-point games. Including the one where he broke Michael Jordan’s Bulls record by putting up 40 in a half. He led, or was a key part, of Bulls teams that beat the Raptors 11 straight times. He’s scored 368 points against Toronto, second highest in his career (behind Detroit). He has an insane 131.0 offensive rating against Toronto, second highest his career (behind Denver). He’s a decent three-point shooter who turns into freaking Steph Curry against the Dinos (.483, highest mark in his career). In short, Butler is a Type-A control freak who terrifies me when he steps onto the hardwood against Toronto.
I can’t shake the feeling that the Sixers just did Toronto a favour in making this trade.
There’s been a lot of analysis on the impact of Butler to the Philadelphia Sixers, and most of it agrees that despite the unquestioned value added in the deal (Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a second for Butler and injured throw-in Justin Patton), there is a risk.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Butler is not going to have major run-ins with his teammates in Philly. The issue with Butler isn’t personality so much as it is people who can’t match his insatiable drive to win. Joel Embiid may like to clown around, but he loves destroying opponents more, and the next time Ben Simmons cracks a smile on the court, might be his first. Plus, vets like Amir Johnson and JJ Redick will easily match-up with Butler’s “win now, win always” ethos.
The deal also creates no questions on the defensive end. Butler can defend anyone, and as good as Robert Covington is on defense, Butler is at least his equal. And perhaps due to the fact he’s a bit more of a tank than Covington is, Butler is better suited to bodying up against big wings like the Raps own Kawhi Leonard, or Blake Griffin, or even Giannis.
The question is on offense. Butler needs the ball. As does Markelle Fultz, as does Ben Simmons, as does Joel Embiid. Butler’s a career 34 percent three-point shooter, and while he’s shot the ball at closer to a 37 percent clip over the last three years — that’s only a tick over last year’s league average of 35 percent. But, even if Butler was better suited to a off-the-ball role, the Sixers didn’t bring him in to stand in the corner and wait. So, Jimmy is going to have the ball in his hands.
Now no question, the dynamic ability of Butler in the pick-and-roll as either the ball-handler, or the screen setter will give the Sixers a lot of options. How do you defend Simmons and Butler? Someone much too small is going to end up in the post. Or Embiid and Butler? Both shoot well enough from three that they can roll or pick and pop.
The deal for Butler adds to the Sixers’ offensive options of the most important play in modern-day basketball. Covington, despite being a steady shooter, wasn’t frightening anyone off the bounce, and Saric who is somewhat threatening on the drive, had mis-placed his ability to shoot threes to start the season.
The Sixers offense is going to be livelier, with more opportunities to attack scrambled defenses. In the regular season they’re going to beat up on lesser teams.
The problem for Philly is in the playoffs. Good defenses will simply hunker down and dare them to shoot. It was what killed them against Boston last year, and they’ve only made that weakness greater.
If Philly decides to start Redick to space the floor they’re in an uncomfortable place. Reddick can shoot, no doubt, but he’s a target on defense — teams like Boston, and now Toronto, and likely Milwaukee have the personnel to ruthlessly hunt the Redick match-up. And even still, any action that involves Butler really only leaves one shooter, Reddick, open. Is that really worth the defensive cost?
Sixers coach Brett Brown might have to yank Markelle Fultz out of the starting line-up and replace him with T.J. McConnell — a much better shooter, and feisty defender — although he doesn’t have near the physical tools on that end as Fultz.
Wilson Chandler is the natural answer. When he’s healthy he should slide into Dario Saric’s role — and lets the Sixers run with Butler, Embiid, Simmons, and Reddick/McConnell in the other four slots. That unit should have enough shooting to stay alive, and only has one real defense hole. But counting on the oft-injured Chandler, whose only played in fifty-seven percent of his teams games over the last eight seasons, and only three this year, is a huge gamble.
Furkan Korkmaz could see more run now too. The first round pick out of Turkey has intriguing size and shooting ability. If this trade unleashes him and he’s ready for the NBA, the Sixers have more options — line-ups where Simmons is the only complete non-shooter could churn out enough points to beat the best teams — but is he ready? Can he be come the playoffs? And even if he is, does it create too many holes on defense for the Sixers? And also, who the heck is propping up the bench?
Last year the Sixers landed Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova off of buy-outs to do just that — prop up the bench — and add shooting. Maybe they can do that again. Maybe not.
The bigger issue, comes with the fact that the Sixers basically have to lavish a max-level extension on Butler, no matter how the fit looks in the playoffs.
And while Butler is a top-fifteen player at worst, that extension might not be a slam dunk. Butler comes with his own injury issues (having played over 70 games just twice in his career), and is about to hit the wrong-side of thirty — a risky proposition for players who rely as much on athleticism as he does.
What that extension also does is force the Sixers to basically clear the decks of everyone — including former number one pick Fultz — if they want to throw another max-contract at someone like Kevin Durant this off-season. The timing matters. Philly is going to have to come up with big-dollar extensions for Simmons and Embiid very soon, leaving this off-season as perhaps there last chance to add another max player.
Now, a Durant, Butler, Simmons, Embiid quartet would be terrifying, but say Durant isn’t into Philly — is Kemba Walker, or Al Horford good enough to gut the rest of the team? And if Durant’s not coming, and the Sixers decide not to roll the dice on the Plan B options, whose the piece that’s going to make the leap to push the Sixers into inarguably elite status?
The hoped for (for Philly fans) answer there is Markelle Fultz. But we’ve already determined that if Butler is there, Fultz is the most obvious piece to get banished to the bench. Maybe Markelle running the second unit, really being the focal point of the second unit, will speed up his development. But if Fultz isn’t up to the task, and the Sixers bench bleeds points, Philly is under a lot more pressure, now internally from Butler, but externally because of the Butler deal, to fix that — rather than let the situation develop organically.
There’s a real chance that adding Butler may have effectively closed the Sixers window to find out if the guy they drafted first overall can play for them. That’s the sort of asset management that runs contrary to everything that got the Sixers here in the first place.
Again, I’m not saying adding Jimmy Butler makes Philly a worse team. It doesn’t. But, it may have capped their ceiling as just a very good one.
Given where Philly looked just six months ago, young, versatile, plenty of cap space, the idea that one of Toronto’s greatest rivals might have limited its options should make Raptors fans sleep a little better at night.