May 25, 2024

Why Jimmy Butler is the alpha the 76ers need to pair with Joel Embiid


PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers need another Alpha.

Jimmy Butler, God bless him, fits the bill, still, at 34.

With Joel Embiid’s knees not getting any younger, the Sixers should look at engineering a reunion with Butler, who played one season here (2018-19) before forcing a trade to the Heat, where he’s led Miami to two NBA Finals appearances and a conference final in five seasons. There are signs — subtle ones, because it’s Miami — that era could be nearing a tipping point.

Butler, according to the Miami Herald, wants a max two-year extension from the Heat to tack on after the final two years of his current deal expires, which would take him to his age-37 season. If true, Miami would have a decision to make: Is a core group of Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro (and, it cannot be forgotten, Erik Spoelstra) still good enough to make another run in the Eastern Conference next season and beyond? The answer could be yes. The Heat, when healthy, remain formidable, and Butler is worth the trouble.

But there have been murmurings this year that Butler and the Heat may no longer be singing from the same hymnal. Butler, famously, does things his way, and Miami’s organization, famously, does not brook much individualism. To be sure, Miami doesn’t mind the uncomfortable feelings a player of Butler’s caliber can create in search of championships, but Heat Culture has parameters and expectations. Butler’s never played more than 64 games in any of his five seasons there, and while he bristles at the “Playoff Jimmy” moniker, the postseason clearly matters to him more than January and March games in Detroit or Washington or Charlotte.

Yet 64 regular-season games of Butler, followed by his postseason dynamism, would serve the Sixers well.

After another postseason flameout, in a highly competitive but ultimately losing six-game first-round series with the New York Knicks, the Sixers’ streak of not getting to an Eastern Conference finals is 23 years and counting. The series was close; New York outscored Philadelphia, in the aggregate, by a single point. But the Knicks played harder when it mattered. They came up with more offensive rebounds when it mattered. They made more clutch shots when it mattered.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Why Sixers, Joel Embiid should have hope after latest playoff letdown

In this town, it does not matter that Embiid gutted out six games, nowhere close to 100 percent after a too-quick return from meniscus surgery, with a bout of Bell’s palsy and migraines thrown in for fun. Or that Tyrese Maxey’s incandescent Game 5 performance in New York exemplified his emergence as the best No. 2 option Embiid’s had during his decade here. The team’s precarious state, on and off the court, showed itself when ownership had to buy 2,000 tickets off the secondary market to make sure Wells Fargo Center wasn’t again overrun by Knicks fans, as had been the case Sunday afternoon in Game 4.

That was an embarrassing moment for a proud franchise, one of the NBA’s legacy teams and one with incredible history. It was indicative of a fan base that, while still potent, seems less invested emotionally in the 76ers’ franchise than in recent years. This is a city with other sports options, and other superstars. That’s where Jimmy Buckets comes in.

Embiid is a great player who is, generally, a decent person. The 24-year-old Maxey may be the nicest superstar in the league, always with a smile on his face and no desire to take the spotlight from Embiid. But titles are won by teams with edge to them, that have chips on their shoulders. The Denver Nuggets have their own all-world player in Nikola Jokić and a brilliant second in Jamal Murray. But they reached championship level by adding a couple of snapping turtles in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon to the starting lineup. Both defend at still-high levels; both are willing and able to take and make shots in crunchtime.

Butler is a handful. But no one doubts his postseason bona fides. Philadelphia, again, got destroyed in the non-Embiid minutes in this series; the Knicks outscored them by 47 points when Embiid sat. Philly needs a solution for those minutes going forward, minutes that will likely increase as the 30-year-old Embiid ages.

He should be put on the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/John Stockton plan immediately — 30 minutes or so per game, for the rest of his career. Limiting him to 65 regular-season games going forward (so he can remain eligible for postseason honors) also is a logical way to preserve his body for the playoffs. But the Sixers need to have a Plan B if Embiid goes down again, or when he’s on the bench. Staggering minutes between Embiid, Butler and Maxey would give Nick Nurse some flexibility with lineups going forward and not leave the Sixers so exposed if/when Embiid is out of the lineup.

Butler remains a foul-drawing machine, and playing with Embiid and Maxey would help extend his career as well.

Having just excised James Harden from his line of vision, one would understand if team president Daryl Morey opted not to bring the mercurial Butler back to town for a second go-round.

Morey has painstakingly planned for this summer, taking on expiring deals left and right to max out Philly’s potential cap space, and he surely has an action plan in the offing. Other than Embiid (and, ultimately, Maxey, who’s in line for a nine-figure rookie extension as a restricted free agent), the board is clear. The Sixers could create more than $50 million in potential room if they renounce all of their rising free agents save Maxey, including starting forwards Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr., backup center Paul Reed and guard De’Anthony Melton. But they don’t have to go all-in on a single superstar to pair with Embiid and Maxey.


Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has made moves to set up the franchise with millions in cap space this summer. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

Morey built a contender in Houston around Harden not with a three-superstar approach, but by surrounding Harden and Chris Paul with hard-nosed, reasonably priced vets who defended willingly and could space the floor, such as Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. It wouldn’t make sense to totally gut the existing Sixers roster.

Embiid did not sound like he wanted a massive roster overhaul after going for 39 and 13 in the dramatic 118-115 Game 6 loss to New York.

“One of the big things, when it comes to winning, is, I mean, you look at all the teams that have won,” Embiid said.

“You can’t just put people together for one year and hope that it’s going to work out. Obviously, we (Embiid and Maxey) have some experience together. I think that’s the way to go. You’ve just got to keep going, keep building around it, find the right mix of people to make it happen. Yeah, I’m excited.”

Oubre was inconsistent offensively this season but gave great effort trying to defend the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson and scored enough to stay on the floor. Nicolas Batum showed he still has tread left on his tires at 35; he guarded Brunson, he made huge 3s, and he showed he still has some hops. And Hield, the Sixers’ big trade deadline acquisition this year, got some run in Game 6 after logging just four minutes in the previous three games. He made the most of it Thursday, scoring 17 of his 20 points in the first half to help lead Philly back from a 22-point first-half deficit.

He stayed ready. Whether he wants to repeat this in Philly going forward is up in the air.

“I prepare myself every day,” Hield said. “It’s very weird. I had, like, one game, and have it come to an end. I wish I got more of an opportunity earlier in this series. I was always ready. I feel like I didn’t get the fair end of the stick — maybe because I didn’t have no (prior) playoff experience, or maybe I joined the party too late. I had to be a professional and be ready when I’m called.”

Philadelphia has been linked to the LA Clippers’ Paul George for months. But that doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny.

George engineered a deal to the Clippers to play with Kawhi Leonard and to play close to his Palmdale, Calif., hometown. And, he and Leonard pushed LA’s front office to get Harden. The Clippers are moving into their $2 billion behemoth Intuit Dome next season. Tyronn Lue is one of the game’s best coaches, with a ring from his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We all know how rich Steve Ballmer is; the Clippers will never want for anything. Why would George leave all that, even if his team falls in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks, to come East? Yes, the East is easier than the West, but the Boston Celtics and a healthy Milwaukee Bucks team would still be formidable foes.

And, New York just beat Philly, behind Brunson’s All-NBA excellence and its relentless energy at both ends of the floor. The Knicks look primed for an extended run at the top of the East — and, like the Sixers, they’re also in the hunt this summer for another star to pair with Brunson and Julius Randle. They aren’t going anywhere.

Philly’s current state feels like where the Toronto Raptors were a few years ago. They’d put together a really good team, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and had a very good coach in Dwane Casey. But they couldn’t break through, couldn’t beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers and couldn’t beat Pierce, no matter what team he was on. So, the Raptors went all-in. They fired Casey and replaced him with … Nurse.

And then, team president Masai Ujiri put all his chips in the middle of the table, sending DeRozan to San Antonio in a package that brought Leonard to Toronto. Leonard was a free-agent-to-be when the deal was made. The Raptors knew he could be a one-season rental. They did it anyway, dispatching one of the franchise’s all-time best players to do so.

But Leonard was as good as advertised, winning a second Finals MVP as Toronto beat Golden State in six games for the franchise’s first NBA championship. And then … he left.

Would Philly take a similar shot at an abbreviated championship window? At this point, why not?

Once again, Embiid couldn’t get to the playoffs healthy. This time, it was a meniscus tear, suffered on Jan. 30 when the Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga fell into his left knee. Embiid had surgery a few days later and missed 29 games before returning at the end of the regular season. The Sixers went 11-18 in his absence and tumbled to the bottom of the postseason picture in the East, needing to beat Miami in the Play-In round to make the playoffs.

When Embiid’s healthy, he and Maxey are a formidable one-two punch. But, he can’t seem to make it through a full regular season and playoffs.

Embiid and Butler left on good terms when Butler went to Miami, and they remain solid friends. Embiid made his feelings about Butler clear when Butler went on a 56-point heater against Milwaukee in the first round last year. The feelings appear to be mutual. Embiid seemed more than willing to cede some of the spotlight to Maxey; it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be willing to do the same for Butler, given the latter’s postseason impact. (It is fair to question, though, whether Maxey would be as free as he was this season to create and seek scoring opportunities with the thirsty Butler aboard.)

The Sixers have multiple future first-round picks, along with their own 2024 selection, that they could put in a potential package for Butler. They don’t, though, have existing players under contract that would likely entice the Heat to the bargaining table. A third team would likely be needed to provide players who would fit an Adebayo/Herro timeline for Miami. With the new collective bargaining agreement rules clamping down on aggregation in trades for teams that have hit the second tax apron, multi-team deals aren’t as easy to make as they used to be. But they aren’t impossible.

Morey and Miami’s Andy Elisburg are among the most creative executives in the league when it comes to CBA navigation and trade creativity. And there are teams with talented players that appear willing to make significant moves this offseason. New Orleans is one; Atlanta a second; Sacramento likely a third.

The Sixers do have hope. They have two of the league’s top 15 players on their roster, a very smart executive who’ll have a whole lot of cap space with which to work this summer and ownership that obviously doesn’t mind spending at the top levels.

But they clearly aren’t good enough to seriously make a run in the East. Butler plays the way Philly fans love, he has indisputable postseason pedigree and he has the backing of the team’s franchise player. It’s a match worth (re-)pursing, for a franchise desperate to break through its glass ceiling.

(Photo of Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler: Issac Baldizon / NBAE via Getty Images)





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