With Jimmy Butler, the Sixers have three stars. Can they all just get along? | Mike Sielski
The four-time All-Star is the equal, at least, of new teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. He doesn't do soft, can his new co-stars hang?
Jimmy Butler is a superstar, and his status as a superstar, as the very kind of quarry that Brett Brown had promised that the 76ers would be hunting, is the reason that the Sixers agreed to a corker of a trade Saturday.
They acquired Butler and Justin Patton from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a second-round draft pick, and in Butler, 29, a four-time All-Star, they have obtained what they have sought for more than a year: a player who is the equal, at least, of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They needed such a player to match the overall talent of the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors and perhaps even of the Milwaukee Bucks – to have a realistic chance at competing for a championship.
But here is the thing about Jimmy Butler: He is not the same sort of NBA superstar that either Embiid or Simmons is. He was not a top-three draft pick. He was not billed to be a franchise-changer, as Embiid and Simmons were. He was the last player picked in the first round of the 2011 draft, and it can be folly to expect a player drafted so late to have a long NBA career, let alone develop into a premier wing defender who has averaged at least 20 points a game for five consecutive seasons.
One wouldn't necessarily think that Butler's background would matter so much. It does. It matters a lot to him, and it mattered a lot in Minnesota.
There, just as Embiid and Simmons are for the Sixers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the young cornerstones of what is supposed to be a rising team. Each was the No. 1 overall pick in his respective draft class: Towns in 2015, Wiggins in 2014.
Yet calling Butler's relationship with them "stormy" doesn't quite do justice to the situation. It makes a typhoon seem like a sun shower. During a particularly memorable preseason practice, in an incident first reported by ESPN, Butler – a month after demanding to be traded – teamed up with several of Minnesota's bench players for a scrimmage against Towns and Wiggins. He so dominated the action and so thoroughly humiliated the pair that he screamed, "They ain't s—!" and "They soft!"
The implication of those taunts is obvious to anyone familiar with Butler's background: Nothing was handed to him, and he perceived that everything has been handed to Towns and Wiggins, and he couldn't abide what he regarded as their unwillingness to do whatever it took to win.
"I just don't think there have been many people that have understood how important winning is to me, man," Butler said to the Chicago Sun-Times in April. "I put so much into this game."
That attitude should make Butler an immediate favorite here, particularly those fans who had grown impatient with The Process and yearned for the Sixers to leave no doubt that they were doing all they could to join and remain among the league's elite teams. (A brief reminder: The whole point of Sam Hinkie's approach was to establish enough roster flexibility that the Sixers not only could pull off this sort of trade but could sign Butler to the long-term, huge-money contract that he wants.)
The open question, though, is whether Butler's personality and temperament will lead to similar clashes with Embiid and/or Simmons.
Already this season, Embiid has established himself as the Sixers' best and most important player, distancing himself from Simmons in that debate. He's the one with the fully formed game. He's the one who's unafraid to shoot. He's the one who trash-talks on the floor and his Twitter feed and backs up the braggadocio.
He and Butler seem kindred spirits in those regards. But what will Butler's reaction be after Simmons passes up a few too many wide-open jump shots, or if Simmons, a 57 percent career free-throw shooter, appears tentative in a game's closing minutes for fear that the opposing team will foul him? And what will Simmons' reaction be if Butler does indeed criticize him publicly, with the same anger and cutting precision that he wielded against Towns and Wiggins?
In May, after the Celtics eliminated the Sixers from the playoffs, Brown acknowledged that he and the rest of the franchise had to demand more of Embiid and Simmons, had to get tougher on them. Well, here comes a veteran star who believes he has earned the right to be as hard on them as he has to be, and this may turn out to be the truest, sternest test of The Process, of the Sixers' shot at greatness. Here comes Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia, and he doesn't do soft.