Jimmy Butler, despite his perceived abrasive approach, has a point.
The 76ers do need to utilize him better. That’s obvious by watching them play. He became a four-time All-Star by thriving in pick-and-rolls and isolation plays, and for his lock-down defense. However, the Sixers like to run things through the high post instead of pick-and-rolls.
They prefer free-flowing offensive opportunities. Their up-tempo style is better when it features a sharpshooter such as JJ Redick rather than a scorer such as Butler.
But some are wondering why he reportedly chose to “aggressively” challenge coach Brett Brown about his role before the Dec. 30 game at Portland against the Trail Blazers?
This isn’t the first time a Sixer complained about his role since Butler and Justin Patton were acquired on Nov. 12 from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick.
Back on Dec. 7, All-Star center Joel Embiid voiced his frustration with having to start games on the perimeter as a stretch five since the trade.
And it’s not as if every team meeting Butler has attended was joyful. Brown had former San Antonio Spur Bruce Bowen address the team on Dec. 17, before they played at San Antonio. Bowen won three NBA titles with the Spurs and was an eight-time all-defensive selection while playing alongside Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Bowen lectured the players about cherishing their roles, whatever they might be. He created an awkward environment, according to multiple league sources. The 13-year veteran singled out Embiid, yelling, “I ain’t scared of you” three times while walking toward the big man. Realizing the approach was having a negative effect, Bowen told Embiid he was only joking. However, the center was noticeably upset and went on to struggle in that night’s 123-96 loss to the Spurs. Folks in the room felt as if the speech was scripted.
Brown later apologized to the team for the entire ordeal.
So, a month into his Sixers tenure, Butler sees a teammate complain about his role and a speech gone bad. Yet, his exchange with Brown in Portland becomes big news because of his past.
While still with the Timberwolves on Oct. 10, Butler verbally challenged teammates, coaches, and front-office personnel during practice. He reportedly was emotional at times, targeting coach Tom Thibodeau, general manager Scott Layden, and then-teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Butler had issues with the young Minnesota stars. He also had issues with younger teammates as a Chicago Bull.
ESPN reported Friday that some in attendance thought Butler was “disrespectful and beyond normal player-coach discourse" while giving his opinion of Brown and his system.
Brown said Saturday the reaction to the meeting was much ado about nothing.
“I didn’t feel like any of that crossed the line,” Brown said. “And if it did, that would have been dealt with quickly. So people speculating about an argument or some type of aggressive disagreement -- if it were, I would own it, and we would talk about it.
“I think from his standpoint, that is unfair.”
In Portland, Butler went on post one of his worst games of the season in the 129-95 loss to the Blazers. He finished with five points on 2-for-12 shooting. Afterward, Brown acknowledged that maybe he could have helped Butler more.
“He is an All-Star for a reason and as competitive as any player that I have coached,” the coach said.
Butler is averaging 18.0 points on 46.2 percent shooting to go with 4.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals in 21 games as a Sixer. Saturday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Wells Fargo Center was the second straight game he’s missed with an upper-respiratory infection. He was not available to speak before the game.
Butler is averaging 48.4 touches per game, compared with the 63.1 touches during his time with the Timberwolves. He’s also involved in just 4.4 pick-and-rolls, compared with 10.4 in Minnesota, and 3.1 isolation plays, compared with 4.6.
If there were any hard feelings from the exchange in Portland, they were either swashed or hidden when the Sixers played the Clippers in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Butler greeted Brown as the coach walked through the visitor’s locker room before the game. He even uttered the word “boss” to Brown, who responded “good man, Jimmy,” before the two exchanged a fist bump.
“He cares,” the coach said. “He puts in work. We’ve all been spending a lot of time together, trying to find comfort zones and where people operate the best and how they interact as teammates. It takes time.”
Butler and Embiid aren’t the first Sixers disappointed about how they’ve been utilized in Brown’s system.
The difference is that the others were mostly role playing backups who had to adjust Brown’s system or go elsewhere.
But Embiid is locked up for the next four seasons after signing a maximum-salary rookie extension on Oct. 10, 2017. He’s the league’s top center and the face of the franchise. So he’s definitely not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, it’s obvious the self-assured Butler, who has a high-basketball IQ, has some leverage. He’s expected to opt out of the final season of his contract this summer and become a free agent. At that point, the Sixers will be able to offer him a five-year, $190 million max salary. The organization would love for him to accept that, considering they gave up a lot to the Timberwolves to acquire him. His leaving in free agency would set the franchise back at least two steps. The Sixers will do everything in their power to make sure he remains with the organization.
Keeping him is the best option for a team determined to settle for nothing less than an A-list talent to pair long-term alongside its young stars, Embiid and Ben Simmons.
That's because the Sixers failed in their "star hunting" effort last summer despite being among a small number of teams with available cap space at the time for max deals. This summer, they'll be one of 13 that will be able to offer max salaries. Two other teams — the Magic and Phoenix Suns — should be at least close to max-level money to tender offers.
Philly hoped that free agents would be eager to join forces with Simmons and Embiid. However, most A-list free agents are expected to re-sign with their own teams, strongly consider joining LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers, or go somewhere where they will be an alpha dog. They will be hard-pressed to do that with the Sixers, who are, without question, Embiid’s team.
That’s why they included two starters – Covington and Saric – in their package for Butler. They had the expectation that he would re-sign with them. Now, he’ll reportedly answer calls from other suitors in free agency despite the financial benefit of remaining a Sixer.
More touches, pick-and-rolls, and isolation plays for Butler would be the best way to make him happy. After all, he won two of his first seven games as a Sixer by converting last-second three-pointers on isolation plays.
“My job is to make this work,” Brown said. "This is my job. When you come into a situation with Ben, Joel and JJ, it doesn’t always equal immediate sort of pleasure ... immediate comfort.