It’s hard to believe that a team’s performance in one particular regular season game would dramatically alter that franchise’s general outlook, but the Philadelphia 76ers’ performance last Sunday in Brooklyn against the Nets couldn’t have helped matters.
Philly committed 28 turnovers in a 25-point loss to Brooklyn, which was not only the most the Sixers coughed up the ball this season but the most any NBA team turned it over this season. Sixers head coach Brett Brown obviously called that performance unacceptable and thought it was an outlier among the many games this team has played together, but he said something more telling in his postgame press conference that evening.
“We are not right now, at this present moment, amongst the royalty in the East. And we understand that. And it’s a badge that we want. It’s in us. But at this moment…that’s not where we are.”
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been listening to trade offers for Jimmy Butler for over a month now, so negotiations at some level with various teams have been fluid over the last few weeks. So what made Philadelphia reportedly agree to acquire Butler on Saturday afternoon along with forward Justin Patton for key building blocks Robert Covington, Dario Saric, backup guard Jerryd Bayless and a second round pick?
Was it that sense that Philadelphia wasn’t going to be an elite team in the Eastern Conference alongside division rivals Toronto and Boston this season as currently constituted that made the team make this blockbuster deal?
If the Sixers’ lone mandate was to win now, Brown wouldn’t have put Markelle Fultz in the starting lineup to begin the season over J.J. Redick. Philly wanted to have it all, to be successful now while also developing Fultz alongside Ben Simmons. Fultz’s struggles have been well documented, as you know if you’re still reading this, so for the Fultz-Simmons duo to only be minus-seven in 121 total minutes together, per NBA.com, is pretty encouraging. The Simmons-Redick duo is plus-20 in 227 minutes together, but Brown seems dedicated to moving along Fultz’s development, even if it’s at the expense of the winning product on the court.
Philadelphia won its last two games after the Brooklyn debacle to advance to 8-5 on the season, including its first road win in six tries against Indiana. But acquiring Butler may have been seen as necessary given the team’s pretty weak metrics and analytics right now.
After finishing in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, the Sixers are currently 18th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning The Glass. Their offensive rebound rate has gone down from third in the league last year to 23rd this year, and the percentage Philadelphia is forcing turnovers defensively has gone down to 28th in the NBA through 13 games this season.
Part of that could be because of worse depth this season. Midseason acquisitions Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli are no longer on the team and forward Nemanja Bjelica backed away from signing with the team last summer to ink a deal with Sacramento.
Jimmy Butler probably won’t solve all of Philly’s problems, but he’s unquestionably a superstar player who will take some of the pressure off of Joel Embiid and immediately improve the Sixers defensively while bringing veteran accountability to the young core.
“That togetherness, that toughness, the ability to take punches and still come out on the other side, that is part of growth,” Brown said last Sunday. “We don’t have that right now.”
Butler definitely brings the team toughness, and Philadelphia general manager Elton Brand and team ownership definitely didn’t surrender core assets in Covington and Saric, two huge Process pieces, for a rental. Butler will almost certainly opt out of the final year of his contract and be eligible for a five-year extension worth $190 million if he re-signs with Philadelphia. Nothing can be officially negotiated until that opt-out is triggered, ESPN reported. The Sixers wouldn’t have done this if they didn’t envision Butler as their third core piece alongside Embiid and Simmons.
Butler and Minnesota management have been at odds for months. Everyone even tangentially following the NBA knew that Jimmy wanted out. So what made Philadelphia pull the trigger on a deal now? Part of it was reportedly a new sense of urgency on Minnesota’s side, with head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau saying the team could no longer function with Butler on the roster, according to ESPN.
So perhaps Philadelphia had a framework of this deal in place for a long time. But maybe it was quickly cobbled together by a management which saw the Sixers start slowly with some troubling analytics normally displayed by a mediocre team, and certainly not one ready to ascend to the East’s elite.
But the Sixers’ trade for Butler, which is supposed to be made official for Butler to debut on Wednesday, has definitely sent a message to the league that it’s eager to contend for a championship, to be among the NBA’s royalty, as Brown put it last week. Maybe the Sixers saw the opportunity to acquire a superstar in his prime, which doesn’t happen so often. But maybe a slow start for the 76ers, when things weren’t going as well as they may have anticipated, precipitated action, an action that has quickly accelerated Philly’s building process and truly makes it a force to be reckoned with in this league.