For every NBA team that believes it is within a step or two of contending for a championship — already a lofty and difficult accomplishment in the league — there comes that moment when the organization must decide to put its head in the tiger's mouth.
This isn't lightly done, because it means the team, through trade or free agency, must take on either an immensely limiting salary obligation or a basketball personality equally capable of uniting the team or tearing it apart. In trading for Jimmy Butler, the 76ers have acquired all of those potential positives and negatives.
There have been several defining moments in the six-season history of The Process, which is now in its third chapter. The Sam Hinkie chapter was followed by the Bryan Colangelo chapter, and now we are in the Brett Brown/Elton Brand/Too-Involved Ownership chapter. The Butler acquisition represents a true departure from the original path, or an inevitable consequence of it, depending on your point of view.
Except for JJ Redick, the team hasn't taken on mercenaries in its build. The two-man core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is obviously homegrown, as is Markelle Fultz, in his odd role as the Beaver to a team full of Wallys and Eddie Haskells. The rest are just guys. Bring in a Wilson Chandler and a Mike Muscala. Sure, that's fine. It doesn't disturb the reactor core where Embiid and Simmons serve as the thunder and lightning of the roster.
Jimmy Butler, however, alters the balance of power, and it will be fascinating to watch how the challenges are met by the incumbent players, by the coach, and by Butler himself.
"They were built to lose in the first round," an Eastern Conference front-office executive said. "The Sixers had no option. It was almost like Houston when they traded for Chris Paul. They had to do it. Once he gets paid, Butler will become a pain in the ass. He will help, but the only problem I have is his age and giving him a five-year contract."
The Rockets traded seven players and a first-round pick to get Paul from the Clippers because they were close but needed someone to pair with James Harden. They put the organization's head in the tiger's mouth – obligating the team to a max contract for a talented 32-year-old with an injury history – and it got them to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against Golden State. (They might be defending champions right now if Paul hadn't torn a hamstring in Game 5 as the Rockets took a 3-2 series lead.)
Butler can become a free agent after this season. As the honeymoon here begins, the two sides express confidence that everything will work out and Butler will get his own max contract next summer. Contracts that haven't been signed yet don't mean much, however.
"He'll be fine this year," said a league source who works for one of Butler's two previous teams. "He's smart and he can understand the situation. He'll be in line until he gets that contract. Once you pay him, you have to turn the franchise over to him or you'll have no chance."
Well, how exactly will that work? Butler is a decent outside shooter. He's dependable on corner three-point shots. That will help somewhat with their offensive spacing. In the halfcourt, though, he likes to dominate the ball, pound the dribble, and find a seam or initiate a pick-and-roll. That does not mesh with how the Sixers usually operate with Simmons at the point.
Embiid is Embiid. He'll get his. Taking that away would be like taking a pork chop from Godzilla. But Simmons is another matter, and that could ultimately be the rub.
"Chemistry is the only thing opponents have to root for," another Eastern Conference general manager said. "They got a third high-level player and didn't have to give up a lot."
Butler wore out his welcome in Chicago, and the popular narrative after he went to Minnesota was that he didn't respect the work ethic of younger stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Maybe, but some closer to the situation felt Butler just wanted his money and knew he couldn't get it there.
Along the way, he did some weird stuff. He didn't fly back with the Timberwolves after they were eliminated from the playoffs last season, and he stiffed the standard exit physical and interview protocol. Sometimes, he dressed for games in a room other than the team's locker room. Just odd stuff.
"He's a pain in the ass, but he's a good [expletive] player," a Western Conference source said. "He's become a diva over time, but no one can do what Jimmy can do."
This is what it feels like as the Sixers finally break the lid on the process terrarium and admit species from the outside. It's scary and it's exciting, and there's no going back.
"It's a game-changer, but I'm not sure how it will play out," a longtime NBA scout said. "If all three [Embiid, Simmons, Butler] get along, it should be good. I can see Butler clashing with Simmons more than Embiid, because of work issues. The owners wanted three stars. Now they have them. But can they make everything work?"
The only guarantee is that the Sixers weren't going to win a championship as previously constructed, particularly because the hope that Fultz would eventually help was growing dimmer by the day. They also had to get that third star on their roster before Simmons signs his contract extension after this season, thus giving them the salary-cap flexibility to keep everyone happy.
Beyond that, nothing is a sure thing. Butler has failed chemistry twice and the Sixers have been all about fellowship on the court under Brown. Maybe a little tough love will do them good, but there's no way to predict that now.
They have invited the tiger in and he is opening wide, beckoning them to join his world. The tiger is beautiful and he is so easy to believe. What could possibly go wrong?