Why the 76ers Mishandling of Jimmy Butler Will Have A Lasting Impact

On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA championship, led by valorant efforts from their two superstars Lebron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in 6 games, thanks to Finals MVP Lebron James who averaged 29 points 8 rebounds and 11 assists for the series. The Lakers overpowered a depleted Miami Heat squad, who sustained key injuries to Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo. Bam was able to return in Game 4, but Dragic wasn’t able to fight back in time. Nevertheless, the Heat were not at full strength throughout the series. 

One of the main takeaways from this series was the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a potential top 10 player in the NBA. Butler went toe to toe with Lebron in terms of averages in this series. Butler averaged 29 8 and 10 In 6 Finals games, Butler managed to single handedly win the Heat 2 games. In those 2 games Jimmy Butler had two triple doubles including a 40 point and a 35 point game.

There aren’t many players in the NBA who are capable of those types of numbers in the playoffs, much less the Finals. Butler also became the 2nd player in NBA history to lead his team outright in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks in a Finals series. Interestingly enough, the only other player to accomplish that feat was Lebron James in the historic 3-1 comeback in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Even though it was in a losing effort, Butler put the entire league on notice, and showed why he should be considered in the conversation for top 10 players in the NBA.

Photo: (Getty Images/ NBC Sports)

Throughout the playoffs, Jimmy Butler was the team’s proven leader and unquestioned shot taker in crunch time. It seems like Butler has found his home in Miami after his last two stints have ended disappointingly. Particularly, his departure from Philadelphia which is still a little foggy and unclear. Going back to November of the 2018-2019 season, the 76ers had just acquired Butler in a trade with Minnesota.

The 76ers traded Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a 2022 2nd round pick to get Butler and Justin Patton from Minnesota. At the time GM Elton Brand said “This move further strengthens our pursuit of a championship and gives us a formidable combination to take on the league’s top teams.”

After acquiring Butler, the 76ers finished 3rd in the East with a 51-31 record. In that year’s playoffs, the Sixers handled the Brooklyn Nets in 5 games, and moved on to play the Toronto Raptors in the East SemiFinals. In that Raptors series, Butler averaged 23 7 and 6 on 45% shooting. Of course, the 76ers ended up falling to the eventual champion Raptors in 7 games after one of the luckiest shots in playoff history. Kawhi Leonard’s game winning shot at the Buzzer in Game 7 bounced around the rim 4 times before it finally fell, and is regarded as one of the greatest shots in playoff history. 

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid watches from the corner as Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard squats down and waits for the ball to drop in the net for the Raptors to win. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

After coming so close to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Sixers felt like they were still in a position to run it back next year. But it was clear, Butler had different feelings. In that offseason, Butler decided Philadelphia wasn’t the place for him and turned down a max 5 year 190 million deal from the Sixers. After making it clear he wanted to be traded, the Miami Heat were able to complete a sign and trade for Butler, which involved 4 different teams including the Heat, Sixers, Clippers, and Trail Blazers.

Butler’s decision left many Philadelphia fans confused and hurt. Most fans felt like the core of Butler, Simmons, and Embiid was enough to compete for a championship. Butler’s decision to leave Philadelphia became more clear almost a year later when he talked about his decision extensively on the J.J. Reddick Podcast in March.

 In that interview Butler described his confusion with the leadership and direction of the team. “On any given day, me as a person and as a player, I didn’t know who the [expletive] was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing. I didn’t know what the [expletive] to expect whenever I would go into the gym, whenever I got on the plane, whenever I got into the game.”

He also described how his relationship with head coach Brett Brown was “strictly professional”. One specific example that he cited for his distaste with the coaching staff was the decision to take the ball out of Ben Simmons’ hands late in the season which allowed Butler to run the offense in the playoffs. “Even though I think we played great basketball like that, I don’t think it was fair because the entire year, Ben had the ball. The entire year, Ben had the ball. So you mean to tell me that in one playoff series, you just switch it up like that? I would be like he was, I would feel a type of way.”

It’s clear that from the start, that the 76ers were not giving Butler the clarity he needed. After hearing all that, it’s hard to believe the Sixers could have mishandled the situation any further. But Butler also revealed that the final straw for him was hearing that one member of the team asked if he could be “controlled”. After hearing this, he decided Philadelphia wasn’t the place he wanted to be. 

Being one year removed from the situation, it’s clear that Butler had a point. After trading Butler, the 76ers decided to extend Tobias Harris for five years and 180 million. They also gave 34 year old Al Horford a 4 year 109 million dollar contract. At the time, these moves didn’t seem detrimental, but after the team’s finish this year, it seems like 76ers management has some work to do.

The 76ers finished an unimpressive 43-30 and finished with the 6th seed in the East. After playing below average basketball for most of the seeding games in the bubble, the final blow came. Ben Simmons injured his knee cap in one of the final seeding games, and essentially eliminated any chance of a deep playoff run for the team.

Losing to the Celtics in the first round would’ve been understandable after losing Simmons, but the way that the Sixers lost is particularly concerning. The 76ers were swept for the first time in their history in a best of 7 first round series, and all of the Sixers’ problems came to fruition in that series. Joel Embiid appeared unmotivated and unwilling to get in the best possible shape for the playoffs. The decline in quality of play for Al Horford and Tobias Harris was glaring throughout the series. With no clear leader, the team failed to close out close games throughout the year and into the playoffs.

Photo: Joel Embiid in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. (USA Today)

With all of that being said, it’s clear that the 76ers mishandled the resigning of Jimmy Butler, and the gaping hole that he left in the roster became more obvious as the season continued. After seeing Butler’s full body of work this season, it’s clear the Sixers should’ve made a more dedicated effort in keeping him on the team. The lack of structure and hierarchy in the 76ers front office and management was highlighted in Butler’s interview, and the disappointing finish for the team.

The real question is: Where do the Sixers go next? Does the team think that the current nucleus of Simmons and Embiid can work, or will they try to move one of them and change the DNA of the team. It’s clear that change is coming, after the 76ers fired head coach Brett Brown after the conclusion of the season and brought in veteran head coach Doc Rivers. Elton Brand has made it clear he is willing to make changes, so only time will tell what the 76ers can do this offseason to improve on a discouraging 2019-2020 season.

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