Jimmy Butler has been holding back.
That’s not something you would expect from a player whose reputation for his outspoken nature and competitiveness precedes him, but he conceded as much on Wednesday night.
It’s an understandable position that Butler found himself in. The Sixers acquired him because of his aggression on both sides of the ball, but inserted him into an offense that already has players who operate the best with the ball in their hands or have established roles and looks.
Looking to shake off some of the criticism that has followed Butler through the league it makes sense that he would come to the Sixers and hold back while he navigated his way through learning about his new teammates. It’s fair for him to have been given a grace period to learn how to play next to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick.
Christmas Day will mark Butler’s 18th game with the Sixers, and they need him to take the gloves off. He knows this and what the repercussions could be if he continues to play timidly.
“As long as we’re winning, I’m cool with whatever may be," he said. “When we don’t win and I’m like ‘maybe I could have been a little bit more aggressive,’ that’s a problem that I’ll have. And that’s not on anybody except for myself.”
Before we know it, the trade deadline and All-Star break will be here, and the Sixers will surely be looking to make moves and add to their roster. As long and grueling as the NBA season can be, the time for Butler to assert himself is now -- before new additions to the team require another period of growth and integration.
“It starts now,” Butler said on Wednesday. “I have to get into a rhythm and get everyone used to me being aggressive."
Butler added that learning about his teammates will help him to be more aggressive because, as he described, aggression in basketball does not just mean scoring a lot. It also includes finding the hot hand, feeding guys who are on a roll, being aggressive defensively and picking the right times and spots to exert more energy.
“When he first came here I was caught off guard with how sort of compliant and trying to do the right thing and fit in his approach was,” Brown said. “From time to time, I would remind him of his resume.”
One of those conversations between Brown and Butler took place Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before the Sixers beat the Knicks, 131-109. Brown stressed to Butler that he wants him to play the same way he played before he came to Philadelphia, to be the dominant player he’s known for being.
Butler heard what Brown was saying and he listened. In the first half, Butler scored 13 of his 20 points; and in the early part of the second quarter, he kept the ball in his hands on three separate half-court drives that resulted in scores -- two of which sent him to the free-throw line.
When something isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it. Butler continued to push downhill, with 10 trips to the charity stripe by the end of the night.
As the regular season wears on and the Sixers approach the postseason, Butler will become more of a focal point in the Sixers' offense, and he’ll be tasked with doing more of what we saw against the Knicks.
“I think if you were to fast-forward, and if we can maintain the pace that we’re on, and you end up in a playoff situation, that he’s going to be featured a lot," Brett Brown said. “His desire to be a good teammate, to to fit in, figure out Jo, Ben, JJ and so on is respected. Inevitably, this thing will grow to him having a more prominent role offensively.”
Butler’s eyes light up when anyone mentions the playoffs. He looks forward to the fight necessary to win postseason games. But before the bright lights of the playoffs are on, Butler needs to continue to take ownership of his game. He needs to be aggressive, in whatever form that means, on a nightly basis.