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ORLANDO — The details of the trade leaked last week, but, thanks to some bureaucratic red tape, it took four days, three games and two flights before Jimmy Butler could finally put on a Philadelphia 76ers uniform. That meant more time for Sixers head coach Brett Brown to explain how he thought the four-time All-Star could help elevate his “program”—one of his favorite descriptors—to new heights. And that meant more time to demonstrate just how momentous the team felt Butler’s arrival would be.
Tuesday night, every Sixers player and staffer went out for dinner to celebrate Butler’s arrival. Wednesday morning, the team spent the majority of practice introducing Butler to the playbook. Wednesday afternoon, the team’s training staff prepared two cubbies for him in the visitor’s locker room—an honor that no other Sixers player was given—one of which housed an infrared heating lamp and the book Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life, along with a pile of other various accouterments.
Then, just after 7 p.m., Butler was able to take the floor with his new teammates. And suddenly…the Sixers looked just about the same as they have all season. Their performance was brilliant at times, confounding at others. At one point in the fourth quarter the Sixers led by 16-point fourth-quarter. The lead vanished amidst a 19-0 run by the Orlando Magic, who spoiled Butler’s debut with a 111-106.
Butler looked good but not great. He hit six of 12 field goals for 14 points, grabbed four rebounds and fought over some screens on defense as the Sixers continue to run their offense through Joel Embiid. Butler spent the majority of the late-game possessions watching the action from the court’s weak side, He attempted just two shots in the fourth quarter.
The man who’d spent the previous four days starring as the main attraction in Sixers Land was suddenly nudged off-stage.
“It’s going to take time,” Brown said afterward, though he added: “In general, you see what you have in him. It’s incredibly exciting.”
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Over the past couple of days, Brown talked about his plans for Butler. Brown takes pride in his team’s ability to consistently rank near the top of the league in passes and toward the bottom in isolations and pick-and-rolls. That, he said, is not a strategy he plans on changing. It’s crunch time when he envisions Butler’s presence mattering most.
“When you look up at the clock and its 94-94 and there’s, like, six, seven minutes left in the game, the notion of equal opportunity, move-pass isn’t there for me,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game. “It’s put your best players in a situation with the ball.”
Brown added later that he didn’t believe the Sixers had a player whom he could feature in these sort of situations before trading for Butler. And so it was a bit strange to see Butler turned into a witness as the Sixers tried to execute late against Orlando. Some of that, of course, could be attributed to Butler still learning the playbook. But it’s hard to imagine him struggling with a play as simple as a pick-and-roll.
After the game, addressing a throng of reporters larger than the Sixers have seen all year, Butler said everything you’d expect.
“I think I shot the ball when I was open. Passed it to the open guy when they were open, played to the best of my ability,” he said. “I think I just played basketball the right way.”
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The good news is that, with Butler playing this style, the Sixers offense looked as potent as it has all season. We know what Butler is on defense—a four-time All-NBA Defensive Team member. As the ball pinged around the perimeter, from Ben Simmons to Butler to Embiid to Redick, you could see the makings of what could be a magical, egalitarian attack.
If Butler is willing to embrace Brown’s “pass is king” style—another pet phrase of the Sixers’ coach—the Sixers, who would feature four players with elite offensive skills, could evolve into an offensive juggernaut, one that would give even the best of defenses fits.
Of course, we know embracing isn’t always Butler’s thing. There’s a reason he’s with the Sixers now, and that’s not because the Timberwolves were rewarding him for being Teammate of the Year. He can be fiery at times, perhaps even abrasive.
Then again, there’s an argument to be had that a firm kick in the behind, along with a player who can create offense one-on-one, is exactly what this Sixers team needs.
“He was pushing me,” Embiid said of Butler after the game. “He came to me and told me that I needed to be louder [on defense]. I like that.”
That’s the takeaway from Butler’s Sixers debut. It may have ended in a loss, and it may have looked different than we thought it would, but it presented us with a glimpse of what this new Sixers team could be. It’s going to take time to get there, but thanks to Butler, the ceiling in Philadelphia is now higher than it ever was.