Over on the far court, Jimmy Butler was wearing black and shaking his hips to some inaudible rhythm. He has always been a player who moves to his own beat, but with 14 games remaining in the regular season, time is growing scarce for the Sixers to fully integrate him into the fold.
While fellow newcomer Tobias Harris has blossomed in his new surroundings, averaging 19.9 points per game and attempting threes at a near-career-high rate, Butler remains something of an enigma on the offensive end of the court. The most mystifying part of his game has been his shot selection: specifically, his reluctance to shoot from three-point range.
While Butler has never been a volume shooter from deep, he has been able and willing to knock down an open shot. We saw that throughout most of his first couple of months with the team, not the least on the couple of late-game daggers he hit shortly after his arrival. But over the last month, something has changed.
Since Harris’ arrival in a mid-February trade with the Clippers, Butler is shooting threes 50 percent less than he did in his 32 games.
During that first stretch, he was averaging 3.2 attempts per game from deep and connecting at a rate of 36.6 percent. Both of those marks were in line with his recent career averages. But since the addition of Harris, Butler is averaging just 1.6 three-point attempts per game, and connecting on only 19 percent of them.
Perhaps there is a causal relationship between those last two numbers, although it could conceivably go in either direction.
Is his shooting worse because he is shooting less, or is he shooting less because he is shooting worse? It’s worth noting that the decline also corresponds roughly with his three-game absence with a wrist injury. But it is also worth noting that he attempted 6-plus shots from deep in two of his first three games back from that layoff.
One thing that’s beyond dispute: the Sixers need him. Their logic was sound in trading for him, and there have been plenty of stretches where it has been borne out, in particular late in games when the Sixers need a bucket and space is at a premium.
His ability to force himself to the rim and finish once there is an element that is unique to him within the rotation. Ben Simmons continues to improve in that department, but Butler is still the guy who has the ball in his hands in those critical must-have possessions. And he should.
The final month of this season needs to be about getting him into the flow on a more consistent basis. The current starters have been on the court together in only five games this season, thanks in large part to Joel Embiid’s recent two-week absence because of soreness in his knee.
The results in that limited sample have been solid: Only seven teams in the league have a five-man lineup with a better net rating than the plus-26.6 that the Sixers’ top group has posted. But a big chunk of that number has come thanks to the defensive end of the court, where they have held opponents to an offensive rating of 93.6.
Of all the five-man lineups in the NBA with at least 50 minutes together, the Sixers’ offensive rating of 120.2 ranks just 61st. That’s significantly lower than the top units from the Pacers (133.1), Celtics (131.9), and Raptors (127.5), at least one of whom is likely to stand in the way of a trip to the NBA Finals.
“You want to be much further along," coach Brett Brown said after practice Thursday. “And it’s nobody’s fault. You coach a different team, and you have some injuries, and this and that. Every coach would probably end up saying the same thing, maybe I just say it louder. ...
“There is time. Fourteen games, one month -- in my view, there is time to have as perfect a vanilla as we can have and use it as a launching pad to ride the wave of playoff emotion, momentum. You know, you hear me talk about, let’s land the plane, let’s keep everybody in the boat. Let’s keep the spirit, let’s grow the structure. Let’s understand rotations. ...
"In my head I know it. If you made me guess, I could tell you exactly how I’m going to rotate this team. When it’s healthy. And that’s the plan.”
That’s a lot of metaphors, and none of them pertains exclusively to any one player.
“I think progress is very rarely linear,” JJ Redick said. “I would say two steps forward, one step backwards -- as long as you’re doing that, and you’re getting healthy, then you have to feel like we are headed in the right direction. I think having Jo back, and sort of incorporating how we want to play with our full team, is going to be a good thing.”