What the 76ers Must Learn From the Jimmy Butler Experiment

Embiid, 76ers
Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler, right, and Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid embrace after Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers have once again failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs and face a crucial offseason. With more questions than answers surrounding the current roster, it is tough not to be frustrated by the seeing plateau the franchise has seemingly hit. To make matters worse, the loss came at the hands of the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler.

It was just five seasons earlier that Jimmy Butler went into battle with a Sixers logo across his chest. After putting a package together centered primarily around Dario Saric and Robert Covington, the 76ers secured their perceived missing piece.

Jimmy Butler’s Time With the 76ers

The time Butler spent in Philly was short but impactful. He played 55 regular-season games averaging 18.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists. He flipped into playoff mode for the 12 postseason games he played in, increasing his averages to 19.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. In the fateful seven-game series against the Raptors, Butler averaged 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists.

In fact, this year he spent in Philadelphia was likely the team’s best chance at truly winning a championship. The starting five made up of Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons was the most complete roster that has ever been put around the Sixers’ current MVP.

The Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. The heartbreaking Kawhi Leonard bounce still triggers nightmares in the minds of Philly fans. Toronto then knocked off the youthful Bucks team in the Conference Finals and the beat-up Golden State Warriors to win the championship- all while the Sixers sat at home with more questions than answers about their future.

Jimmy Butler’s Departure

The biggest question surrounded the future of Jimmy Butler. The 76ers knew the risk of adding the erratic superstar in the final few months of his contract. Butler had the freedom to go wherever he pleased, and the Sixers’ uncertainty that he was the missing long-term piece certainly rubbed him the wrong way.

Tobias Harris is certainly receiving a stray blow that he did not earn, but Jimmy Butler’s point remains clear. Acting like the 76ers chose Tobias Harris over Butler is certainly revisionist history. Harris was traded to Philadelphia just a few weeks after Butler, with the organization taking a strong stance in their belief in the future of their “Big 4” (Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris).

The 76ers’ concern with Butler’s poor relationship with Brett Brown, their concern of his failure to see eye-to-eye with then 22-year-old Ben Simmons, or the belief in a need for a strong backup center (*cough Al Horford) all hold greater weight.

There were multiple reports of Jimmy Butler overstepping his bounds in team meetings, often at the expense of Head Coach Brett Brown. The decision to shift Ben Simmons to an off-ball role and put the ball in Butler’s hands during the 2019 playoffs also rubbed the prized 1st overall pick the wrong way. As great as Jimmy Butler was on the court, there were plenty of notes in the con section when breaking down the decision.

Ultimately Butler chose to take his talents to South Beach. The hard-nosed star was attracted by a place where his personality did not have to be toned down. In many ways, Butler was “Heat Culture” personified, and the franchise is currently in their second Conference Finals since the Marquette product joined the Heat- two more appearances than the Sixers have notched. Jimmy Butler certainly should not regret the leap he made; however, the 76ers’ organization should not quite hold the same confidence.

Was Jimmy Butler the Missing Pairing with Joel Embiid?

Jimmy Butler is not without his flaws. He has a combustible personality with a “my way or the highway” attitude. However, he has a competitive drive, unlike any player in the NBA. In an era where numbers and analytics are obsessed over, Butler plays with a level of passion that oftentimes trumps this. The 76ers have made it a major theme of the postseason by talking about how the current team lacks mental toughness, heart, and desire. When reflecting a few years ago and the player in the NBA who possesses all of these qualities to the greatest extent, it is difficult not to have a sour taste.

The Philadelphia 76ers have desperately tried to find the right co-star to pair with Joel Embiid when the ideal guy may have come and gone. Embiid did not firmly campaign for Butler to stay at the time, but this was a time when he had not yet earned the right to make organizational decisions in the way he has now. The pace that Butler plays with allows him to masterfully maneuver to his spots on the floor and capitalize on these shots. His ability to serve as a secondary star would be ideal next to the dominant play of Joel Embiid.

There were whispers of concerns if Jimmy Butler was truly the elite player he believes he is during his ill-feeling departures from various teams. However, these concerns did not stop Butler from averaging 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in route to sending the Sixers packing the last series.

There is no sense in losing sleep over what could have been with the duo of Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid, as the opportunity has already been missed. But as the 76ers continually waste the prime of one of the most talented players in franchise history, it does not make it easier to reflect on. Embiid will sit at home, just like the rest of us, and continue watching Butler attempt to will the Miami Heat to another Finals appearance.

As Daryl Morey and the rest of the front office obsess over what analytical changes need to be made, the loss should carry a lesson with it. The lack of intensity and mental toughness will continue to prevent the 76ers from getting over the playoff hump they continually find themselves stopped by.