My frustration with the 76ers began to mount early in last year’s playoff, where Philadelphia lacked the firepower needed to keep up in crucial games. It was their defense that got them as far as they went. The Ben Simmons drives and JJ Redick off screens were the only two plays it seemed like the Sixers had, and it bit them in the butt against Boston, which was a series that simply came down to who could muster the most points out of whichever average offense. Philly fell to the Celtics because, though both teams were inexperienced, their’s shined just a tad brighter. As the clocked wined down in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semis, the Sixers didn’t have that guy to take a big shot for them. Boston did, and that was the difference.
Now the 76ers do. Saturday’s trade for Jimmy Butler gave Philadelphia the guy I was going crazy for them to get all Summer. They never had a chance with LeBron, struck out on Paul George and let Kawhi Leonard get away. They came into the regular season with the same team as last year. The same one that was pretty good, but it didn’t have what it takes to take the next step.
The same issues we saw in last year’s playoffs had already reappeared this season. The 76ers offense ranks 22nd in the league so far this short season per offensive efficiency. Their net rating is a horrid -14.1 in the clutch, bad enough for 25th in the league. They go through brutal offensive slumps, and give up four-to-five minute runs like it’s nothing. At a point, Simmons driving to the rim, though unstoppable, gets old. It becomes somewhat guardable. A nit-pick of Simmons could be that; though you’re not necessarily wanting to take a charge off him, his drives are easier to defend than someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s. Though they’re both freak athletes, Giannis’s level of athleticism is just a tad higher. They’re both so far above anyone else, but Simmons’ is just a little less potent. The lack of willingness to even attempt jump-shots hurts Simmons as well. Teams sag off Simmons because of this, and do what Boston did in the playoffs against him: Form a wall at the rim and dare him to shoot. This gives defenders time to contest his layups, as opposed to with Giannis, where you have to play tighter on him as he will attempt jumpers, and then stay with him as he barrels to the rim.
The Sixers’ lack of action this Summer suggested their irrational confidence in Markelle Fultz emerging this season. To be fair, I was high on him too. Not to the extent that I was expecting him to be their No.1 crunch-time guy, because after last year, we saw that there’s a chance nothing comes out of him, but to an extent where he could help create and get buckets for them throughout the game. So far, even my hope for him hasn’t came true. He’s done a good job getting to the rim with the explosiveness we touted so highly out the draft; Fultz is shooting 54.1% on shots within 10 feet of the rim per NBA.com. That’s not a small sample size inflation either. 49.6% of his shots have came from that area of the court.
But the jumper just isn’t there. Fultz is shooting just 30.8% on threes and 34.8% on pull-ups overall. It’s there in the film too. Countless times this season, we’ve seen Fultz use his dazzling moves and handles to create a perfect look, only for the ball to just not go in. It’s been brutal.
With these conflicting performances, it just wasn’t possible to expect Fultz to be the guy. The Sixers saw this, and their offense’s other issues, and acted on it.
Sixers get: Jimmy Butler, Justin Patton
Timberwolves get: Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, 2022 2nd rounder
With this trade, you can make the case that Philadelphia gave up too much, or didn’t give up enough. You can make the case that Minnesota gave up too much as well, or didn’t give enough up as well.
Essentially, the throw-in of Justin Patton and Philly trading two starters brings big questions to each team. Why give up on Patton? How does Philly make this trade and still lack the 5th guy to their best lineup?
But first, props to the Sixers. This is the 2nd big balls trade of the calendar year (Toronto was the 1st) and solved their biggest issue. Butler is the superstar they’ve needed. He’s going to be their crunch-time option, and solves all the issues we addressed above. He’s an excellent defender, which makes up for the loss of Robert Covington, and makes one of the better defenses in the league even better. It cost them depth, but when you’re core is this good, it’s probably worth it. With Boston’s struggles, this trade solidifies the Sixers the East’s current 3rd best team, with their ceiling being the best, and possibly higher (Oh yeah, I went there).
They also get Justin Patton, who the Wolves oddly gave up on after a year and a half. He’s been dealing with injuries, but it seems like an unnecessary throw-in. Patton should develop into a versatile, rim-protecting center. The offensive upside is questionable, but at worst Patton should be someone who could provide 70% of the defense Joel Embiid does coming off the bench.
You could wonder why the Wolves wanted to get rid of him; the fact that they sold so low on him is concerning (Is something really wrong with his foot?). Still, it’s not like Philly has shown any reluctance to taking on injury-prone prospects over the years.
Even though Butler addresses the Sixers’ biggest need, you can question the fit. Out of all the guys Philly could have added, Butler’s fit is probably the most complicated. LeBron either takes complete control and changes everything, but in a positive way. Kawhi Leonard slides right in on the wing; so does Paul George. But Butler is a different breed. He’s best when he has the ball, and has the offense running through him. This is partly why Minnesota didn’t work out; there were too many ball-dominant players on the court at all times (Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford). With the Sixers, there’s only one in Simmons, but Simmons’ weaknesses make the fit a little troubling.
Simmons’ lack of a jumpshot means defenders can sag off when the ball is in Butler’s hands, focusing their attention on him, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick. That leaves Fultz and Simmons (In the scenario that Philly’s five is these five) essentially open on the wings, where they aren’t threats. This is a dangerous game for defenses though, as Simmons’ athleticism makes him a threat as a cutter. Still, this specific Sixers lineup has three guys capable of hitting threes. Not ideal.
With the ball in Butler’s hands, Simmons is essentially a lame-duck on the wing. In this scenario, you’re not exactly getting full value out of him. For now, he’s just kinda there in crunch-time until Philly finds that elusive 5th guy; hopefully another shooter (Joe Harris??? But the Nets are too good to deal him).
Benching Simmons in crunch-time seems like a crazy thought, but it’s not like his role is totally diminished. Philly can move the ball around and play as they normally do throughout most of the game, with Simmons making ridiculous passes and Embiid posting up. Add Butler’s shot-making into that, and a huge matchup problem develops. Who has three guys who can switch onto those three? Good luck.
Perhaps the fit between Butler, Simmons and Embiid has more to do with off the court rather than on it. Butler’s personality is well-known; he’s tenacious, is a competitor and will let you know when you’re not trying hard enough. Many Wolves found that out the hard way, and deservedly so. I was in the minority with Butler from the time of his trade request till Saturday; I totally got the frustration, the request, the outbursts, not wanting to play, etc. It had cause. Butler may have been a bit of a dick about it, but nothing he said was wrong. The Wolves couldn’t win anything without him, and Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns don’t try hard enough. And why play if you know you’re going to get traded? Why risk getting injured?
The saga that emerged last week over Butler’s playing schedule seemed a little overblown. Most reported it as a “Butler’s going play when he wants to as he forces himself out,” but it seems like what was actually happening was more like “Minnesota’s working on a deal, and I’m not going to risk injury while it’s being worked on.” It’s just a little too coincidental that Butler started resting, and then a couple days later he was traded.
Anyways, the 76ers aren’t the Wolves. They’re a lot better, and that’s why Butler wanted to join them (It’s been reported that he’s committed to sign long-term there). Therefore, Butler should be a little more lax with the young guys on his team. He doesn’t exactly have the grounds to go after them harshly like he did with Wiggins and KAT. Simmons and Embiid aren’t only better than his previous teammates, but have higher ceilings than anyone else in the league. Those two are going to be way higher on the all-time list than Butler will. There’s not a lot to criticize when you’re dealing with hall-of-fame talents.
But there are things that could rile up Butler. Embiid is a fantastic defender, but he does have little pouty spurts on the court, where after a blown coverage on defense he can slack off for a couple possessions on both ends. It’s a Towns-like issue on a lesser scale.
Butler could take issue with Simmons’s lack of aggression offensively, but in Minnesota his teammates were probably a little too aggressive on that end, so Simmons’s pass-first play suits Butler well.
Like Minnesota, this team, specifically its best players, are young. They’re inexperienced and are going to make mistakes. Butler has to be patient, but with committal to beyond this season, it sounds like he understands that. In Philly, it’s going to be worth it.
The Sixers had to do this trade. It makes them at least the 3rd best team in the East, and makes them instantly scarier as a Finals contender. But it may not come together this year. The Sixers still need more shooting, and that’s why trading Covington and Saric hurts. Both are good enough from three, and aren’t liabilities when they’re on the floor. By trading both of them rather than one and Fultz, the Sixers are still down a guy for their best lineup. But now, it’s not their best guy they’re lacking.
You can praise and rip Minnesota for this trade as well. They’re better as a result; Saric and Covington help modernize a roster that needs it desperately. But that’s one of two ways to look at this.
Tom Thibideau is in a job-saving mode right now, and to do that this team needs wins. It’s why the Wolves reportedly turned down four first rounders for Butler from Houston (I think that was never an actual offer) and Josh Richardson and a first rounder from Miami. Thibs specifically needs guys who are going to get this team to 45 wins, not pieces for the future, because no matter how this season ends, he probably won’t be around for it.
Looking at this trade through that lens provides a pretty good view. As I said above, Saric and Covington make this team better now. Minnesota’s best lineup is Teague-Wiggins-Covington-Saric-Towns. Despite some chemistry and shooting issues, it’s more modern than any lineup the Wolves have had the past couple years. Saric gives them an interesting wrinkle with his passing, but I doubt the Wolves utilize it given the selfishness of some of their guys.
It’s also pretty good value for Minnesota. Butler for two above average starters, a backup point guard and a 2nd round pick is about right. The Patton throw-in doesn’t help though, and a package for young assets or picks would have made a lot more sense.
Minnesota was never going to seek the young player/picks package because of Thibs’s survival mode situation, but it would have been the right thing to do. Even with their new players, this team isn’t going anywhere. Wiggins hasn’t changed, KAT had done nothing but take steps backwards this season, and there’s no way this Derrick Rose streak is sustainable. Oh, and Jeff Teague is Jeff Teague. The Wolves have two of the five worst contracts in the league and have no way to shed them without giving up significant assets. If you do that, then you’re extending your rebuild 2-3 years. If you keep them, you can squeeze whatever value you can get out of them, and not waste any extra time.
If the Wolves could have gotten Fultz and one of Covington or Saric straight up for Butler, then that should have been the trade. Look, I trashed Fultz above. But I’m also not giving up. He’s in a tough situation in Philly, and now it just got tougher. Minnesota isn’t exactly the environment I think he’d thrive in, but if you’re Minnesota, any young talent you can get your hands on is worth it. A Fultz-Josh Okogie-KAT young core is pretty good, and though it’d be tough to get those guys minutes together, you’d at least have something to develop.
It’s tough to call this trade a win for the Wolves, but it’s not a disaster whatsoever. They got good value for a great player who had to be traded. They remain competitive but aren’t anything that’s going to scare opponents. They added Dario Saric, who already feels like a fan favorite in Minnesota. They became a more modern roster, something they needed desperately. But the Wolves squandered an opportunity. They squander the opportunity to win with Butler, and they squandered the opportunity to win off of Butler. That can’t be considered a success.