They were standing together when the darkness descended, two familiar faces in an unfamiliar corner of the court. Dario Saric was wearing gray warmups. Robert Covington was in street clothes. As each member of the Sixers' starting lineup was introduced, a burst from a courtside flame machine illuminated the contours of their faces. For a few moments, they were two men united by the fact that none of the names being read was theirs.
Whatever their thoughts, it should serve as some degree of solace to know that they have yet to be replaced. In fact, as Saric and Covington returned to town for the first time since the November trade that jettisoned them to Minnesota in exchange for Jimmy Butler, the most pressing challenge facing their former team was filling the void left by their departures.
Back in mid-November, when the Sixers shipped Covington, Saric, and Jerryd Bayless to the Timberwolves in exchange for Butler and injured big man Justin Patton, the near-unanimous consensus held that they had taken a significant step toward legitimate title contention. In Butler, they had secured that rarest of NBA commodities — a playoff-caliber primary scoring option — in exchange for a couple of role players whose limitations as starters had been exposed in the previous postseason.
To a certain extent, the last couple of months have substantiated that evaluation. The Sixers are 20-10 since Butler’s arrival and have increased their scoring average by about 5 percent on a per-possession basis, more than enough to offset a slight decline on the defensive end of the court. The impact has been particularly noticeable where it was expected to register most. The Sixers’ current starting unit has outscored opponents by a greater margin than any other five-man lineup in the Eastern Conference (min. 200 minutes), averaging plus-13.3 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, Toronto’s top lineup has a point differential of plus-11.1.
That’s a marked improvement over either of the Sixers’ two best lineups when Covington and Saric were in town. This is particularly true on the offensive end of the court, where the current first-teamers are scoring an average of 120.9 points per 100 possessions. The starting five from before Butler’s arrival averaged 112.0. (Swap out Markelle Fultz for JJ Redick and they averaged 107.)
Simply put, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the Sixers would be better off with the old gang than the new.
At the same time, any notion that the deal would immediately vault them to the top of the Eastern Conference has proved to be ill-conceived. Fitting Butler into the Sixers' offense has been at least as much of a challenge as anybody could have predicted. Theirs is an east-to-west attack, and Butler is a north-to-south player, most comfortable in pick-and-roll sets that are rarely featured in Brett Brown’s offense. On talent alone, they can run the majority of opponents out of the gym, something you saw throughout their 149-107 dispatching of Butler’s former team on Tuesday night. But, then, the Timberwolves are not the sort of opponent the Sixers had in their sights when they made the move.
With that in mind, the next three or four weeks will serve as a defining test of this team. Each of its next 12 games will feature an opponent with a winning record. In addition to facing the Raptors and Celtics, they will play five games against the current top four seeds in the Western Conference.
These are the elite sort of teams that will determine where the Sixers stand. Since Butler’s arrival, the Sixers have dropped three of the four games they have played against the current top five seeds in the East, losing to Boston, Toronto and Indiana.
But the most important date might be Feb. 7, when the NBA’s trade deadline arrives. On Tuesday, Brown acknowledged that the team still needs to burnish its roster, and general manager Elton Brand agrees. In exchange for Butler, they lost two of their most prolific three-point shooters, while further diminishing a defense that was their chief reason for their demise last postseason.
“The team is evolving,” Brown said before Tuesday night’s game. "There are deadlines that we all are aware of that are coming up that Elton is on top of. And we understand we’re going to need a little bit more from the bench as time unfolds and the serious side of the season begins. We’re all mindful of that and I think Elton is gonna do a great job of helping us move forward.”
The versatility of this team means Brand should have plenty of options. Their two most pressing needs are on the defensive end of the court, both on the perimeter and around the basket. It would help immensely if that defense came coupled with the ability to knock down an open shot from three-point range.
There is more than a little bit of irony in that profile, given the skill sets of the two players who returned home on Tuesday.
“If you can make it [in Philly], you can make it anywhere," Covington said before the game.