The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t begin the 2018-19 NBA season like the same team that became the darling of the league with a magical, improbable 52-win season. While many teams in the Eastern Conference improved over the summer, the 76ers seem like one that regressed. They picked up Wilson Chandler in a trade, but he’s been out with a hamstring injury. Chandler is solid, but since he didn’t move the needle, this threatened to spell bad news for Philly.
It wasn’t clear if there was an answer that can elevate them to the heights they want to achieve this season. That is, until they traded for Jimmy Butler in a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves for a package centered around Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
That’ll move the needle.
This was always an option, even if you didn’t hear much noise about it
If there’s one thing Butler wants, it’s to win, and that’s a vision that aligns with the 76ers’. He didn’t mesh well with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but a change of scenery to a bigger market could be what Butler needs.
If it doesn’t work out, Butler only has one year on his deal anyway, so Philly will free up $20 million in cap space to sign additional free agents. Prior to the trade, Philly had enough money to go after at least one maximum contract. Adding Butler via trade and retaining the rights to re-sign him still gives Philly up to $21 million to sign another player — and even more if they trade Markelle Fultz.
Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau had been stingy in trade negotiations and was shaking teams down for every penny they’ve got. Ultimately, though, Philly had what Thibs wants in a Butler trade: Young, promising players (Saric), a current impact player (Covington) and a draft pick (well, kinda, in the 2022 second-round pick).
That said, Philly still has one big question to answer: What about Markelle?
The 76ers hoped some of the help they needed before the season would come in the form of a healthy Markelle Fultz. Ben Simmons looks like the second coming of LeBron James, and Joel Embiid could be the modern-day Hakeem Olajuwon. What Philly needed more than anything was a dynamic perimeter playmaker: a consistent threat from behind the arc who can take the ball out of Simmons’ hands and the pressure off Embiid’s back.
That player is Butler, now, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Fultz was that threat at Washington; it’s why Philly traded the No. 3 pick in 2017 and the Kings’ pick in 2019 to move up and get him. But Fultz had to re-learn how to shoot a basketball after injuring his shoulder. Now, he plays timid behind the three-point line, turning down open shots outside of 15 feet.
The NBA is driven by perimeter scoring, and the 76ers didn’t have enough of it. That all doesn’t fall on Fultz’s shoulder, but the team drafted him in hopes of being the third star. He looks far from it early on, so they traded for Butler to be that player instead.
There’s still time for Fultz to get that glow back, but the clock is ticking quickly.
It ticked faster because the rest of the East improved
Save for Cleveland and Washington, the East’s best teams found a way to get better, and even the teams at the bottom are punching up for playoff spots.
- The Celtics were a game away from the NBA Finals. They’ve welcomed Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis all back from season-ending surgeries, while hitting the lotto when Robert Williams slid down the draft board. They’ve also starting slowly, but did drill Philly on opening night.
- The Raptors had the best season in their history, then traded DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Leonard is fully healthy and Green is what he’s always been: a reliable 3-and-D role player. Toronto looks terrific.
- The Bucks put a legitimate scoring big man in Brook Lopez next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Lopez hit five threes in a row against the 76ers, so he’s already proven to be a difference maker.
- The Pacers pushed the Cavaliers to seven games in the first round, then added Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, and Kyle O’Quinn this summer to improve their depth.
- Even the Pistons look good with reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey at the helm and a rejuvenated Blake Griffin in the fold for a full summer. Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson look poised to end Detroit’s playoff drought.
The 76ers were still one of the four best teams in the East prior to the trade for Butler, but they weren’t playing for another second-round exit. Philadelphia wants to compete for something bigger, but if they’re going to make a deeper run into the postseason while other teams in their conference have improved, the Sixers eventually had to shake things up.
Now, they have, in a big way.