ORLANDO – At a team dinner here Tuesday night, Brett Brown glanced around the restaurant, noticed the seating arrangements, and stopped to consider the ramifications and possibilities for the 76ers.
There was Jimmy Butler, fresh from a late-morning news conference in Camden in which he was glib and charming and testified to his own incredibleness, sitting between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. A get-together such as Tuesday's is common for an NBA team the night before a road game. But to hear Brown describe it Wednesday morning, hours before the Sixers' 7 p.m. tipoff against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center, this was no ordinary meal. Its soundtrack might as well have been Johnny Nash, singing about seeing clearly now and enjoying a bright, bright sun-shiny day. When it comes to dinner, Jimmy Butler apparently makes every bite better.
"It was fantastic," Brown said. "There is just a real excitement that we got better. We might have gotten significantly better."
They weren't Wednesday night, squandering a 16-point second-half lead, giving up a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter, and losing to the Magic, 111-106. Butler had 14 points and four rebounds in 33 minutes, but on this night, at least, the Sixers, now 9-7 overall but 2-7 on the road, were still missing whatever ingredient they need to be a good team away from the Wells Fargo Center.
"We all need to be better," Butler said, "myself included."
It was one night in a long season, just one night.
"We came up a little short," Butler said. "We're OK."
Still, it struck such a contrast from the optimism that Brown had described just hours earlier. The dinner was not the first time, of course, that Butler had inspired such belief within a franchise that had been building from within and considered itself, because of his presence, poised to contend for an NBA championship.
On the assurances of Tom Thibodeau, who had coached Butler for four years with the Chicago Bulls, the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Butler in June 2017, trading two players and a draft pick for him, a similar deal to the one the Sixers struck earlier this week. A quick Google search was enough to conjure a foreboding headline from TwinCities.com: Timberwolves' Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler are perfect together.
But the bond between Thibodeau and Butler wasn't strong enough to hold the Timberwolves together for even 18 months. Butler called out the team's two young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins; demanded a max contract before demanding to be traded; and created so much chaos that owner Glen Taylor decided he no longer could trust Thibodeau and Butler to coexist. Those assurances from Thibodeau, that he could handle Butler's mercurial nature and blend him into the team's culture, proved hollow.
Now it falls to Brown — if the Sixers are to have a realistic chance of even reaching the Finals, let alone winning once they get there — to succeed where the pro coach who knew Butler best failed. Beyond the question of whether he can design and implement an offensive system that allows Butler, a ball-dominant wing player who thrives in pick-and-roll situations, and Simmons, at his best and most breathtaking when he's leading a fastbreak, to complement each other, Brown has a simpler and maybe more demanding mission. He has to tame perhaps the NBA's most tempestuous player.
"It's now my job to integrate him into the program," Brown said, "to tap into his skill sets, and put him in a position to do well and help the team win. That is different. From coaching human beings and coaching the players and correcting and teaching and talking, there is zero difference to me. But the inclusion of him from a talent perspective, yes, there is."
It's more than Butler's talent that separates him from Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers' other stars. There are also the circumstances of his arrival and the stage of his career. Embiid is 24. Simmons is 22. Brown is the only NBA head coach they've known. He has been patient through those awful rebuilding years and with Embiid's injuries and with Simmons' reluctance to take outside shots. His way has been their way.
Butler is 29. This is his eighth season in the league. He's seen some things, and time is shorter for him, both to win a championship and to get paid. That's not a talent dynamic. That's a personality dynamic. That's a work-environment dynamic. That is where a head coach earns his stripes and his salary.
"You look all around the league; there are different personalities and stories," Brown said. "Joel is a different personality. And so the notion of what you're suggesting and the challenge of what you're saying, I understand. Personally, I'm excited because I feel the human qualities he does have point toward winning, and they point toward competing, and that's a hell of a starting base for me."
But then, it’s the finish that matters more, isn’t it? Those warm-and-fuzzy feelings from Tuesday’s dinner had faded by game’s end Wednesday. Jimmy Butler took the Sixers' final shot, a desperate three-pointer from the right corner that clanged off the front of the rim. As the Magic’s players celebrated, he removed his mouth guard, slipped it into the white sleeve wrapped around his left knee, and headed down a tunnel with his teammates. A new day for the Sixers and their third star. A new challenge for their coach. For the moment, a familiar result.