This is one of those stories where the most significant thing is not what has been told, but that anything was told in the first place. In fact, there is one potential interpretation of ESPN’s curiously timed Friday evening report on discord in the Sixers locker room that says there is nothing to see here at all, just a rare peek inside the circle of trust and a routine back-and-forth between a head coach and an outspoken player who has not incorporated diplomacy into his value system. After all, the only concrete news hook in the dispatch involves a recent film session in which Butler, in the opinion of some in attendance, was “disrespectful and beyond normal player-coach discourse” as he critiqued the coach and his system. And, well, opinions differ, as do communication styles, and maybe one person’s “disrespectful” is another person’s “keeping it real."
That certainly sounds like the way both principal parties tried to spin it when offered the chance to relay their version of events. You have to read between the lines, of course, and you have to do it with some knowledge of the reporting process, because the report does not include any on-the-record comments. But Adrian Wojnarowski, who co-authored the piece with Ramona Shelbourne, is the undisputed king of national NBA reporters, a guy whose calls get answered on the first ring (or vibrate) by anybody associated with the Association. He has a direct line to every general manager, every agent, every coach. In other words, you can bet that he talked to everybody involved, or, at least, some direct representative thereof.
Butler’s viewpoint of the situation is reflected in the assessment of “a source close to the player,” who “contends that his intense, direct style can come off as combative as he is trying to make clear his viewpoints.”
Meanwhile, Brown, according to ESPN, has “told people within the organization that he had no issues with that exchange and considered it within the confines of the relationship that he has developed with Butler.”
But those two nuggets raise a natural question that hints at an issue far more concerning than whatever happened in that film session. If both Butler and Brown are downplaying the interaction, it would suggest that neither one of them was the original source of the information, which is also something that is suggested by simple common sense, because neither one of them has anything obvious to gain from such a thing going public, and both have plenty to lose.
Whatever his reputation, Butler isn’t a dummy. People who know him routinely remark about his intelligence. In his interactions with the media since arriving in Philly, he has certainly come across as a man who is smart enough to grasp that, given his prior unceremonious departures from the Bulls and the Timberwolves, everybody’s first assumption will be that he is to blame.
Brown, meanwhile, wants to coach the Sixers for as long as possible, and he no doubt understands that the only way for him to achieve that is to find a way to integrate Butler into an on-court dynamic that already is complicated by the uncertain fit — and divergent personalities — of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. That sort of thing requires trust, and the first casualty of these sorts of reports is trust. Brown knows that his future as Sixers coach is directly tied to his ability to make the Butler dynamic work for the long haul. Thus, the last thing he would presumably want to do is risk alienating Butler by violating the circle of trust.
Therein lies the conundrum. If not Butler, and if not Brown, then who?
And, of perhaps even greater concern, why?
There is a scenario in which this is an innocent case of loose lips sinking ships. The information could have come from some uninvested third party who did not consider, or who did not care about, the ramifications of a public disclosure such as this: an end-of-the-bench player, or a staffer, or some other tangential part of the Sixers orbit. For anybody hoping that the current Big Three is here to stay, that’s the best-case scenario: the one in which there was no deeper motive on the part of whoever originated the leak.
The second — and, by my logic, only other potential — scenario is the one that really suggests trouble. In that scenario, the information originated with someone with some sort of ulterior motive, the most obvious of which is the undermining of Butler or Brown. The tone of the report raises long-term questions about Butler’s fit in Philadelphia. But we’ve already established that Brown’s future is likely tied to making Butler fit, and that it would behoove Butler to demonstrate an ability to fit. And all indications are that the front office and ownership want Butler to fit. All of which leaves open the possibility that there is some doubt among one or more players that Butler can fit, to an extent that said player or players doesn’t or don’t care whether this sort of leak complicates that fit.
In all likelihood, the Sixers will spend today spinning the reported event as the sort of thing that happens all the time over the course of a basketball season. Brown, perhaps Butler, perhaps general manager Elton Brand — all will acknowledge the inevitable growing pains of incorporating Butler with Embiid and Simmons, insisting that they anticipated them from the moment they consummated the deal. They will insist that it can work and will work and is, in fact, working.