Brett Brown discusses Jimmy Butler, locker-room culture and raised expectations for still-flawed 76ers
Butler adds a lot to the Sixers, no question, but he doesn't fix everything ... and Brown knows it
MIAMI -- Jimmy Butler is officially a Philadelphia 76er. The trade was legitimized on Monday, and prior to a matchup with the Heat, Sixers coach Brett Brown talked at length about everything from Butler's game -- and what he specifically brings on both ends -- to the fabric of his iron-fisted personality that Brown feels "mirrors the spirit of Philadelphia."
"Defensively, and the physicality that he plays with, he's a fierce competitor," Brown said. "It's a perfect fit for the city and for our program."
Brown refers to the Sixers as a "program" a lot. There is a college feel to the team in that way. A bond that has been built over the last six years of the now-famous -- or infamous, depending on how you choose to look at it -- process. This is Joel Embiid's team. Ben Simmons is pure alpha. We know how slotting alongside two young franchise cornerstones in Minnesota went for Butler. How he will fit into this Philly locker room, before the basketball stuff is even considered, was not something Brown and the Sixers took lightly. He and Butler talked about that and more on a FaceTime call, then again on the phone. Brown did his research long before that.
"I've followed him for years. I've paid attention. Like, this [trade] didn't just happen," Brown said. "There were rumblings for a while. We're very protective of who we bring into the program. It's not like anybody's welcome. You do your homework. And [Jimmy] is for sure welcome."
"I get whatever things that fly around, but this is the NBA," Brown continued. "This is my job. How we integrate [Jimmy] into a pretty strong culture [is my job]. We're six years in, so it's not like we don't have, like, a way we behave, and how we play. It's been on display. We've been doing this for a while. So to absorb Jimmy into a culture and in that locker room, I am fearless. I am incredibly excited. Because what I do know is he cares and he competes. You take those two qualities, and all the other stuff I'll figure out.
" ... I'm not naive enough to think it's all crystal clear and everything is fine off a 20-minute call. I just feel like, you know, he's easy to talk to, you can tell he wears his heart on his sleeve, he plays with passion, and not many people would say it's not real. It's a genuine way he acts and that's who he is, and I'm attracted to that."
Playing hard and competing like Butler does is certainly a coveted virtue. But make no mistake, Butler is being welcomed in Philly, first and foremost, because of his talent. Yes, the Sixers need the locker room dynamics to mesh, but when Minnesota's asking price dropped as low as Robert Covington and Dario Saric (with all due respect -- those guys are good players), with no future first-round picks included in the deal, this became about Butler's talent simply being worth the minimal risk of the locker room not working.
On the court, we know what Butler brings. As Brown alluded to, this defense can be a monster with Butler, Simmons and Embiid giving the Sixers three All-NBA-level defenders, two of which can comfortably switch one through four. Simmons can guard one through five in a pinch. Embiid is plenty capable on the perimeter and protects it all on the back side. The Sixers are already a stout defensive team. Butler stands to make them flat-out scary.
"Then you come over to the offensive side of the ball," Brown continued in his appraisal of Butler's value. "We run the least pick and rolls, and the least isolations, of any team in the NBA, for a reason. We don't believe it's our strength. We pass more than any team in the NBA. We move. We post Joel [Embiid]. But that [style of play] has a lifespan when it gets to crunch time. Butler gives us an All-Star, take your pick, in pick and roll, isolation, [etc ..] It's a really great fit."
In other words, you can't count on moving the ball and posting Embiid to create consistent shots down the stretch of games, particularly in the playoffs. I've talked to a lot of people about this -- Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, CJ McCollum, Mike Conley, scouts across the league. They all say the same thing: With all the switching defenses do these days, possessions are often going to devolve from a series of failed actions into a somewhat inevitable scenario in which somebody simply has to beat his man one-on-one.
Simmons, for his inability/unwillingness to shoot, is not that guy in the half-court. Markelle Fultz certainly isn't that guy. J.J. Redick -- who problematically represents the bulk of the Sixers' half-court perimeter offense as he runs off unending dribble hand-offs looking for a tough, contested shot on the curl -- needs his shots created for him. Posting Embiid, as good as he is on the block, isn't a steady-diet type plan. Butler, then, becomes the one guy you can depend on to create shots for himself and teammates in the half court.
That doesn't mean there aren't questions, or that Butler is some kind of a cure-all for what Brown describes as the Sixers' illnesses -- which include turnovers, giving up too many offensive rebounds, and most of all, shooting. To that point, I've talked to more than one person in the league who doesn't feel the Sixers are done maneuvering. Kyle Korver is available. Trevor Ariza could become an option at some point. The Sixers landed Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in the buyout market last season, and it took their team to another level.
Still, for now, all we can go on is the roster that's in place, and from a shooting standpoint, it's flawed. Philly lost two reliable 3-point shooters in Covington and Saric and only got one back in Butler. The expectation is that Redick will return from the bench to his traditional starting role. If Fultz continues to start, that would be Simmons, Redick, Fultz, Butler and Embiid.
It should not, however, be considered a lock, that Fultz will hang onto that fifth starting spot for long.
Now that Butler is on board, the expectations are raised, and Brown is not shying away. "You welcome that," Brown said. What that could mean as far as the patience the Sixers have shown in trying to develop Fultz, and build his confidence and overall game to a point where he can be a dependable playoff option, is anyone's guess. What we know is that having Simmons and Fultz on the floor together -- two guys who are complete non-shooting threats -- is a problem that's only going to get worse as the regular season turns to the playoffs and defenses start attacking weaknesses like a gimpy gazelle in the Serengeti.
Plus, what little success Fultz has experienced this season has come mostly in his minutes apart from Simmons, when he can at least control the ball at the top rather than serve as an off-ball player who can't shoot and therefore doesn't have to be guarded. A scout I talked to recently said this is killing the Sixers, who are trying to force Fultz to work with only minimally positive results to go on. If Fultz does go to the bench, from a purely shooting standpoint, rookie Landry Shamet would add considerable spacing as another 3-point threat to go alongside Redick and Butler. Wilson Chandler, who is presently on a minutes restriction, is another option as a floor-stretching forward who would give the Sixers four good-to-great defenders, all with the perfect size to become downright nasty as a switching unit with Embiid protecting the rim on the backside.
"In my head, I know. In my mouth I'm not going to say it," Brown said of his starting-lineup plan. "My hope is that it is something that is well thought out, I know it's well thought out, and we'll talk about that in Orlando."
Orlando is Wednesday night. Butler's expected Sixers debut versus the Magic.
This thing is just getting started.
It has the potential to end up somewhere pretty special.
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