If you are a professional sports writer, Jimmy Butler’s perspective on his departure from the Sixers is the sort of thing that might prompt you to use your communication degree as kindling.
For eight months, Butler treated every question about the murky end to his tenure in Philly as if it were an opposing player: denying, deflecting, slipping around, refusing to yield to whatever media outlet happened to be standing before him. Then, with 20 games left in the season and his new team three games ahead of his former one in the standings, Butler finally let his guard down and offered the first compelling — if not entirely complete — account of his life as a Sixer. He did so while drinking wine. On a podcast. With a former Sixers teammate. Who is still an NBA player.
Woodward and Bernstein might have broken Watergate, but it’d be interesting to see how they’d fare in the new sports media landscape. It’s hard to record a podcast in a parking garage.
That being said, if all you care about is the sausage — and perhaps that’s all you should — the sizzle is still the same. Butler delivered a thorough grilling to his former head coach, and the biggest reason that Sixers watchers should take it seriously is that it jibes with other things we’ve heard and seen.
That’s not to say that we should treat Butler’s account as the definitive take on the 2018-19 Sixers, or on Brett Brown’s capacity as an NBA head coach. But the one specific theme that Butler returned to repeatedly was the notion that the Sixers did not know their roles.
“On any given day … I didn’t know who the f— was in charge,” Butler says early in the podcast. “I didn’t know what the f— to expect when we went into the gym … I think I was as lost as the next mothef—.”
On their own, those words are somewhat oblique. But later in the interview, Butler answers a question about sharing the court with fellow ball-dominant stars in a manner that might provide some context to his earlier statement about the situation in Philly.
“You can have three or four alphas or whatever it is, but you’ve got to know which one is really the one,” Butler says. “I think that whenever you put it in order and you mention that everybody is playing their role and playing it to a T, it can work. But when everybody don’t know what’s going on on any certain day … it’s not going to work that way. You’ve got to go, boom, this is it, this is it, this is it, this is it. And I can tell you that it works because we do it in Miami.”
Butler then offers an explicit look at what he clearly feels is a more optimal management by recounting an interaction between Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
Butler: “This motherf— Spo will come in the locker room and [yell], ‘Duncan, why the f— did you dribble the ball inside the three [point-line]?’ We would be like, ‘What? He’s hoopin.’ [Then Spo would say], ‘Duncan, you’re a f— shooter. Shoot the f— ball.’”
Butler continues in his own words.
“But then Duncan knows, it’s all right for me to shoot 20 threes,” Butler says. “Nobody’s going to get mad at me because that’s what I do. If you’re supposed to go out there and guard, go out there and guard. If you can score 50, score 50, but don’t go out there thinking I’m not gonna guard. Nah. Spo’s gonna let you know. And I feel like on any given team, everyone’s gotta know their role from the jump. And if it changes, it changes. But then, you talk about that as well. But if you don’t know your role, it’s difficult.”
That’s about as strong an indictment as you are going to hear from a player in a public forum, and if it was just Butler, you might be able to write it off as the bitter words of a habitual malcontent who still feels jilted by the way his tenure ended in Philly. And in fairness to Brown, it requires an awfully inclusive definition of the word “alpha” to fit Duncan Robinson in the tent. In fact, one could argue that the biggest reason the roles are so well defined in Miami isn’t the coach but, rather, the fact that it’s one alpha dog in Butler surrounded by four role players. With apologies to Goran Dragic, of course.
Still, Butler’s gripes jibe with a lot of what we’ve seen and heard from the Sixers this season. Joel Embiid hinted at frustration with his role at various points. Glenn Robinson III has done more than hint at it, telling a reporter shortly after his arrival in Philly that he had no idea why he was with the team. Al Horford hasn’t said anything publicly, but Brown still doesn’t seem to know exactly how to get the best out of him. At times, the same seems true out with Tobias Harris.
Brown would probably tell you that his job is far more difficult than Butler suggests, that to have a long shelf life as an NBA coach, you must approach the role with a different mentality than a player, who has the luxury of limiting his focus to the next possession.
Take, for instance, the dynamic between Butler and Ben Simmons. During the podcast, Butler mentions that he frequently suggested to Brown during the regular season that he share some of the ballhandling duties with Simmons, advice that Brown didn’t end up taking until the Sixers’ season was on the line in the playoffs, when Brown finally put the rock in Butler’s hands.
Now, Brown could easily argue that the Sixers’ future at the time was tied far more to Simmons than it was to Butler, and that his primary concern was that he did not alienate Simmons, who was eligible for a contract extension the following summer and had plenty ability to make life difficult for the Sixers if he came out of the season questioning his future fit with the team.
But Butler takes the opposite view, suggesting that it made the situation worse to suddenly take the ball out of Simmons’ hands in the playoffs.
“Even though we played great basketball, I don’t think it was fair because the entire year, Ben had the ball,” Butler says. “So you mean to tell me that in one playoff series you just switch it up like that? I would feel a type of way. I would think it’s f—ed up to play one way the entire year, and then you know what, boom, this is how we do it?”
Whether or not that sentiment reflects the reality of that specific situation, it does jibe with the one critique of Brown that should resonate the loudest. A lot of the stuff that people complain about coaches is difficult to quantify. X’s and O’s, time management, in-game adjustments — all of it is subject to a tremendous degree of bias, be it observation or confirmation or both.
But the one thing you can say about Brown’s teams is that they have not had a cohesive identity since the days of Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Now, that could be a function of the composition of the roster. If so, there will be some sad irony in the fact that the Sixers would have been better off forgoing their much-ballyhooed star hunt in favor of letting Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons develop while upgrading the cast of role players around them. But as Brown often says, it’s a show-me league, and the job of a coach is to understand his talent and put each piece in situations where the talents of both the individual and the collective maximized.
Players are always going to gripe about their roles. As host JJ Redick jokingly says on the podcast, a player who claims he does not know his role is a player who is actually unhappy with his role. And there’s certainly plenty of truth in that. Redick damn well knew his role, as did Covington and Saric when they were here.
At the same time, we’ve seen plenty of instances that might cause you to question whether Brown fully understands how to maximize the talent at his disposal:
A certain amount of churn happens on most NBA teams, with players playing themselves into and out of the rotation as their individual performances ebb and flow. But the Sixers are holding themselves to a higher standard than most NBA teams. And while it is certainly fair to critique the job the front office has done in assembling the pieces that are at Brown’s disposal, the fact of the matter is that those are the pieces, and they are going to be difficult to swap out moving forward, and for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they are going to need a coach who can envision and construct a championship-caliber whole from the parts.