Jimmy Butler's first game in a Sixers uniform was a reminder that he alone cannot transform the team into a contender. It was a lot of other things as well, including an early look at all of the ways his addition better equips this team to compete against the elite of the Eastern Conference. The end result, a 111-106 loss in Orlando, isn't important, or even all that surprising. It's going to take some time for Butler to learn his teammates, and for his teammates to learn Butler, and for Brett Brown to figure out the optimal manner in which to deploy all of them.
But all of those parties have several other things to figure out as well, all of which factored into the Sixers' fall-from-ahead loss.
1. How do you defend a team that has a big man capable of knocking down threes, and, thus, pulling Joel Embiid away from the rim?
Going back to last season, the lineups that have given the Sixers the most trouble are those that pair a quick point guard with a big man who can stretch the floor with his shooting ability. We saw it throughout last year's playoff loss to the Celtics, when Al Horford and Aron Baynes combined to go 9 for 25 from deep, and Terry Rozier spent the series wreaking havoc with his dribble.
Here's a stat to gnaw on: according to NBA.com, there are 14 centers who entered Thursday averaging at least two three-point attempts per game. The Sixers were a combined 1-5 against those players' teams. The Magic is one of those teams, and Nikola Vucevic spent Wednesday night staging a clinic on how to best attack this defense.
During the 35-14 game-ending run that the Magic used to climb back from a 92-76 deficit, at least 16 of Orlando's points came as a direct result of Embiid either leaving Vucevic on the perimeter to guard the rim or switching onto a ball handler.
In the video below, you'll see five of these possessions:
With 10:36 remaining, Embiid floated into the circle while shadowing a Jerian Grant drive, then had to scramble out to the top of the arc when Grant kicked out to Vucevic. Vucevic used Embiid's momentum against him, beating him with his left to get to the hoop, where Terrance Ross ultimately scored on a put-back. A couple of possessions later, Vucevic hit a 20-footer, with Embiid playing a little too far off. Next up came a possession where D.J. Augustin beat Furkan Korkmaz with his right, prompting Embiid to switch off of him. That left Vucevic alone at the top of the arc and forced Markelle Fultz to rotate over on the kickout, which left Grant open to knock down a three after the extra pass.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat. From the standpoint of team defense, this is probably the single biggest area in which the Sixers need to improve to avoid a playoff repeat of last season. So much of what they do defensively relies on Embiid's ability to alter and defer shots at the rim. Butler is an excellent defender, but, remember, the Sixers traded their best wing defender to acquire him.
There's an argument to be made that adding another on-ball defender would be almost as beneficial as adding another three-point shooter. That's one of the reasons it is fair to wonder about the conventional wisdom that says the Sixers are an obvious fit for Kyle Korver. It's also reason to wonder whether T.J. McConnell might eventually work his way back into the rotation. Granted, beggars can't be choosers. Now that the season is underway, the Sixers are at the mercy of the skill sets of whatever veterans happen to become available.
Whatever the case, the struggle is real. In Saturday's loss to Memphis, big man Marc Gasol knocked down three shots from deep. Against the Bucks last month, Brook Lopez went 5-for-11 from long range. Defending these sorts of lineups will remain a challenge.
2. Speaking of in-season additions …
The Sixers' defensive concerns are even greater when you turn to the bench. Amir Johnson logged just six minutes against the Magic. At one point in the second quarter, Wilson Chandler was playing the five. On the very first possession, Vucevic backed him down and earned a trip to the foul line. The loss of Dario Saric is a significant one for this team. He had some significant defensive liabilities on the perimeter, but his combination of size and shooting ability filled an important role. The Sixers could really use a back-up center who is a better rim protector than Johnson, and they could use another four-man with some three-point shooting ability. Listening to Elton Brand speak at Butler's introductory news conference, it seems clear that the Sixers plan on adding someone to fill their open roster spot.
"We feel like we can actually add an important piece with that roster spot, so we're not in a rush," Brand said. "Nothing is imminent right now, but we think we can use that to do some real damage and help our team."
3. The Sixers have the potential to be a dynamite offensive team.
Whoever the Sixers add, be it a pure shooter in the mold of Korver, a stretch four, or a three-and-D wing, he will join a rotation that flashed its potential throughout the loss to the Magic. Butler's ability to get to the rim and to finish is rivaled by very few players in this game. Most of his 14 points came while he was playing downhill, attacking the rim, either with the ball or off it.
"Offense is the easy part," he said at his news conference, and as this team plays together more, it will only seem easier. All in all, you had to be pleased with the way these Sixers looked in their new star's debut. They aren't at the level of Toronto or Boston yet, but at least now they have a path to get there.