Friday morning was the first time that anybody from the Sixers spoke on the record since the organization’s radical, weeklong renovation of a roster that had come just minutes from knocking off the eventual NBA champs.
It wasn’t the most topical affair — nearly two weeks had passed since the team agreed to a contract with All-Star big man Al Horford while trading away postseason star Jimmy Butler — but one thing that qualified as noteworthy was the number of times somebody used words like character or personality or attitude when talking about the revamped rotation.
Majority owner Josh Harris hailed the newly re-signed Tobias Harris as a “community ambassador,” and the veteran Horford as a “proven winner.” General manager Elton Brand referred to the new group as consisting of “high character guys.” Tobias Harris invoked some incarnation of the word “personalities” no less than three times.
It doesn’t much matter whether or not any or all of these instances were intended with Butler in mind. Cohesion and chemistry were clearly things that the Sixers concerned themselves with when formulating their offseason game plan, and the end result of that game plan did not include Butler.
If you were waiting this long for specifics, you are going to be disappointed. Early on in Friday’s proceedings, Brand made it clear that he was not going to delve into the details of the Sixers’ thought process regarding the signing of Horford and the trading away of Butler.
There have been conflicting reports about whether the Sixers made a concerted effort to retain the enigmatic star. But all of those reports have been rather vague, and in a league where the little birdies are rarely muzzled, the lack of evidence of a concerted effort from either side to control the narrative just might be evidence in itself.
With the benefit of a couple of weeks of hindsight, and the chance that Friday gave us to read between the lines, it seems apparent now that the Butler thing simply was not going to work. Even if the Sixers offered the full five-year, $189 million contract that was within their power, and even if Butler had accepted, both sides had to know that the wild NBA offseason offered more comfortable situations for both of them.
There are a lot of different directions that the Sixers could have turned in an attempt to make things work, but anybody who is even vaguely attuned to the realities of ball distribution and human nature had to assume that Butler’s return would necessitate some other radical move during the life of his contract.
To field the sort of team that makes it through four or five years with all psyches intact, the Sixers would have had to think long and hard about parting ways with one of their other two ball-dominant perimeter players.
Given the unique playmaking ability that Butler displayed throughout the postseason, and the fact that he was the clear go-to scorer on a team that nearly knocked off the eventual NBA champs, one can certainly argue the merits of trading Simmons for players who could round out a starting five built around Butler and Joel Embiid. Letting Harris walk and spending his money elsewhere was an option in theory, but the Sixers made their feelings about him clear when they traded two of their best future assets to acquire him for the final 27 regular-season games.
“Last year, it was kind of tight for all of us, coming in, different personalities, just different attitudes too," Harris said. “It was kind of hard for us to all jell that in 22 games.”
In the end, the acquisition of Harris was probably the moment when Butler’s fate with the team was sealed. He certainly made it interesting with his performance in the postseason, but, in the end, the Sixers clearly did not feel comfortable putting the fate of this next chapter in the hands of a player whose volatility had already upset the apple cart in two previous stops.
And you can’t deny the merit in that line of thinking even if you happen to be someone who likes and respects all that Butler brings to the table, both on and off the court.
It should be crystal clear now that the Sixers ended up choosing the tandem of Simmons and Harris over Butler. That’s completely understandable when you listen to the rationale. Consider something that Brand said about Harris early in the news conference.
“You’re going to see his growth,” the GM said. “He’s going to have the ball, he’s going to be able to do things, last season that he may have not shown.”
Harris did not show those things because, more often than not, Butler was the one getting the ball in the sorts of situations in which Harris can thrive.
“A lot of the plays we ran was high screen-and-roll with Jimmy with the ball in his hands," Harris said. “I’ve been one of the top pick-and-roll players in the NBA for some years now. I definitely look at myself as being that person with the ball in my hands.”