- The Philadelphia 76ers’ blockbuster trade for Jimmy Butler comes with massive stakes.
- Butler could help make the 76ers contenders, but he isn’t a seamless fit on the court, and there are questions about how he’ll fit in the locker room.
- The 76ers may have to make other moves to build the team around Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons, and it could mean exploring the trade market for Markelle Fultz.
- Re-signing Butler in free agency could make for an expensive future for the 76ers, but their options could be limited if the experiment doesn’t work out.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves completed the first blockbuster trade of the NBA season on Saturday, sending Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the 76ers in exchange for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jarryd Bayless, and a 2020 second-round pick.
The move ended the two-month-long saga, in which Butler demanded a trade from the Wolves while the Wolves played hardball with other teams.
Now the 76ers are undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference, joining Butler with Joel Embiid, an early MVP candidate, and Ben Simmons, the reigning Rookie of the Year.
But the trade is a massive gamble. One league source described the move as a “high risk, high reward” situation. If Butler, Embiid, and Simmons can blend, the Sixers should be an elite defensive unit, with enough shot-creation to compete with anybody.
But the opposing scenario goes something like this: Butler and Embiid’s high-energy, candid leadership style clash; the team can’t find the spacing to put around its three stars, and the team falls short of winning at least two playoff series this spring.
The on-court fit should work
In the aftermath of the trade, there was some immediate concern about Butler’s fit with the 76ers.
The 76ers are already light on shooting – Simmons doesn’t take shots beyond the free throw line, Markelle Fultz’s shot is broken, and Embiid can space the floor but is more effective in the post. In moving Covington and Saric, the Sixers’ only reliable shooter may be J.J. Redick.
Butler isn’t a true floor-spacer as a career 34% three-point shooter. However, one assistant coach told Business Insider that, regardless of his three-point shooting prowess, defences have to respect Butler as a scorer – they won’t just abandon him off the ball.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown can also get creative with his three stars. The Sixers have had some success using the 6-foot-10 Simmons as a screener in the pick-and-roll, and Butler has improved as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Even when teams switch on the pick-and-rolls, but both Butler and Simmons can bully smaller players in the post.
Butler’s impact may be felt the most at the end of games. Because of Simmons’ lack of shooting, he can struggle to create shots for himself. That leaves Embiid and Redick to do the heavy lifting, but it’s not either player’s forte.
Butler, however, can go one-on-one, hit pull-ups from anywhere on the court, and get to the line. The Sixers’ offence with Butler will probably bog down at times, but he’ll bring welcomed shot-creation skills when the team needs a bucket most.
Are the Sixers done making moves?
As the Sixers currently stand, they’re a top-heavy team with an uninspiring bench. Despite the ways Butler, Simmons, and Embiid could blend on the floor, the Sixers will need to get deeper, and they will need more shooting.
While speaking to Business Insider, two league sources pondered if the 76ers might still make more moves. The easiest and best way for the Sixers to add to their team would be through buyouts. The Sixers benefitted greatly last season when they were able to add proven veterans and shooters in Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli after they were bought out after the trade deadline.
That could happen again, and it wouldn’t cost the Sixers any assets. Carmelo Anthony is looking likely to hit the open market, though there have been conflicting reports about whether the Sixers would be interested.
The Sixers could also wait on teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers to potentially buy out some players like J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver and try to sign them mid-season.
But if the Sixers don’t wait for buyouts, they may explore the trade market.
One league source said it would not be surprising if the Sixers explore the market for second-year guard Markelle Fultz. The same source said Fultz’s trade value is likely in the negative, given his struggles on the floor this year. It’s unclear what teams would give up for Fultz (or what the Sixers would have to include), but he may be their best non-draft-pick asset.
The Sixers also have a tradeable asset in the Phoenix Suns’ unprotected 2021 first-round pick, which they acquired on draft night by trading Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith. Brown admitted after the trade that that pick could be useful in future deals.
A monster financial commitment looms
The Sixers’ trade for Butler is a massive gamble because the results could portend an expensive future for the club.
By trading for Butler, the Sixers can offer him a five-year, $US190 million contract when he becomes a free agent this summer. The most other teams could offer is four years, $US140 million.
ESPN reported at the time of the trade that there is an understanding that the Sixers and Butler will make a long-term commitment this summer.
Embiid’s contract extension kicked in this year and he’s owed $US122 million over the next four years, though it’s not all guaranteed. Simmons and the Sixers could discuss rookie contract extensions next fall.
The Sixers are slated to have cap space this summer, and they could use that cap space, then go over the cap to re-sign Butler afterward.
That’s what makes this six-month experiment so crucial. This offseason is perhaps the Sixers’ last with meaningful cap space barring any major changes. If Butler can coexist with Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers will have a star trio locked up, with cap space to tinker with their supporting cast. That’s a rare position to be in in the NBA.
But operating a team with three players on max deals isn’t easy. Some people in the NBA world are also hesitant about handing a max contract to Butler. Butler will turn 30 next season and has a lot of miles on his legs in addition to some injuries. A max contract would take him to 35 years old when he’s likely to be on the back-end if not out of his prime altogether.
The Sixers won’t have a lot of options. Someone will offer Butler a max contract this offseason if the Sixers do not, and while they could let Butler walk and use their cap space to lure another star, who is available?
The Sixers didn’t get a meeting with Paul George last summer and were also-rans for LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant could be available this summer, but their preferences seem to be a mystery to most. Klay Thompson seems likely to stay in Golden State, leaving the Sixers to chase players like Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton – star players, to be sure, but maybe not the pieces to push the team into championship contention.
After years of slowly rebuilding, the Sixers made the long-awaited move for an established star player. Butler isn’t a seamless fit with the team, but he was the rare superstar available, the type of elite player Brown said the Sixers needed to add. If the trade works, the Sixers could find themselves competing for the Finals. If it doesn’t, it’s a step back for a team that’s been trying to find a way to take a crucial step forward.