Jimmy Butler trade: Sixers deal Process heroes to form new Big 3, ending tension between long- and short-term thinking
With Dario Saric and Robert Covington out the door, the Philadelphia 76ers are entering a new era
In September I went to Philadelphia for a live podcast. Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie's name and/or face. More than one wore a K.J. McDaniels jersey. There was a guy wearing a Super Mario hat with "Super Dario" on the back of his No. 9 jersey. Before Dario Saric took the stage for an interview, 24-year-old writer Shamus Clancy read him a love poem.sold out the venue formerly known as The Electric Factory. Many attendees wore shirts adorned with former
The big surprise of the evening was an appearance from new Sixers general manager Elton Brand, just two days after his introductory press conference. Brand told co-hosts Spike Eskin and Michael Levin that he was very encouraged by what he saw from 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz in the offseason.
"They talk about adding a third star," Brand said. "We may develop one. Between him, Dario, it might be in-house already."
The comment drew raucous cheers. Seven weeks later, Robert Covington (the special guest at The Rights to Ricky Sanchez's lottery party in May), veteran guard Jerryd Bayless and a future second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for forward Jimmy Butler and injured big man prospect Justin Patton. Philadelphia has its third star, and, just as important, the tension between long-term and short-term thinking that has surrounded the franchise can be put to rest.Saric, fellow Process hero
Last week in Brooklyn, before the Sixers' worst game of the season, coach Brett Brown addressed the Markellephant in the room: Fultz and Ben Simmons are having a hellacious time trying to play together. They both see themselves as point guards, neither is a threat as a jump shooter and, in the 121 minutes in which they've shared the court, Philadelphia has only scored 95.9 points per 100 possessions. (The Phoenix Suns have scored a league-worst 98.6 points per 100 possessions this season, the only team in the league with an offensive rating under 100.) Even with , Philly has been below-average on offense.
Brown pointed to the fact that, when one has played without the other, the numbers have been impressive. He also expressed optimism that they could make it work.
"Those two on the floor together, we're all trying to get through it," Brown said. "I'm trying to have it all, where I can grow those guys and plan 'em together and then give the team the best chance and Markelle the best chance to play well. And that is with the ball. It's a work in progress, for sure."
The Sixers are no longer trying to have it all. In the big picture, they aren't simultaneously talking about making the NBA Finals in June and attracting a superstar free agent in July. In the more immediate sense, adding Butler, another ball-dominant playmaker and a capable-but-not-deadeye shooter, will give them a good reason to move Fultz to the bench. Their Big 3 is Joel Embiid, Simmons and Butler, and everybody else will have to fit in around them. If Fultz turns out to be the star he looked like he'd be coming out of Washington, Philadelphia will be sitting pretty. If he doesn't, it will not be catastrophic.
If the Sixers are sending a message with this deal, it is that they are going all-in. Butler will be 30 at the start of next season, when he will presumably be re-signed on a five-year deal worth the max or near it. Long-term flexibility, however, was becoming less and less relevant by the day anyway. The summer of 2019 was always going to be Philadelphia's last chance to sign its missing piece before the end of Simmons' rookie contract. It is theoretically possible that it could have added Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, or Butler himself. Maybe you believe it would have been better off standing pat and making a strong play for Kemba Walker or Khris Middleton. The risk, of course, is that the Sixers could have come away with nothing.
As far as star triptychs go, Embiid, Simmons and Butler are unique because they are elite at both ends. Covington made First-Team All-Defense last season, but Butler is even more of a menace when defending the league's best scorers. Philadelphia has the foundation for a top-notch defense for years to come, and, on the other end, Butler's presence will go a long way toward solving the problem the Boston Celtics exposed in last year's playoffs: The Sixers didn't have enough creators.
The front office will need to find a way to bolster the bench and add more shooting. Philadelphia has looked shallow all season, and it just traded two starters for one. If you take a broad view, it is easy to get excited about the idea of a fully realized Fultz and a developed Zhaire Smith flanking the three stars, but in the meantime Brown will have to be deliberate in how he manages his rotation and balances his lineups, particularly when it comes to floor spacing.
Fortunately, the Sixers already employ the most aggressive staggering strategy that the league has ever seen. The next few months will be about figuring out what works before the playoffs. The next few years will be about finding or developing players who complement the core.
After the trade was reported, I called Clancy, the writer who read Saric a love poem. He had just tweeted a photo of himself hugging Saric onstage, joking that it was a touch of death. We agreed that Saturday marked the end of an era.
"It's super, super bittersweet," Clancy said. "Because I think you have to make that trade every time. They were getting capped out in 2020. You needed a third star, even if it's not the most perfect fit in the world. It's just bittersweet because [Saric] seemed like such a glue guy. He was so fun to watch. He had some fun 3-point moments in the playoffs last year that really felt like, oh my god, he could be a really cool fourth man on a championship team and have the quote-unquote 'Dario Game' at one time in the future in the playoffs against Boston or Toronto or something and be kind of an under-the-radar legend in this town in a way. Like a cult hero, I guess. But he's still a cult hero now."
Clancy started blogging about the Sixers in the 2012-13; the next year, when they had two first-round draft picks, he monitored Saric's play for Anadolu Efes. He liked Saric's basketball IQ and his pass-first style and thought he could fit in any system next to all sorts of players. Philadelphia drafted Saric in 2014; when he came over in 2016, he was the runner-up for Rookie of the Year.
"He sort of symbolized the hope of The Process in a way," Clancy said. "This was some guy overseas and he wasn't coming over for years and, at the same time, we really weren't seeing the fruits of The Process' labor for years … so when he finally came over and he sort of exceeded my expectations in a way, it just felt like a lot of vindication."
Covington embodies The Process in his own way, the diamond in the rough who was plucked away from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and eventually earned a $62 million contract. He was the only Sixer who played a game in their 18-win 2014-15 season; now T.J. McConnell is the only one who played in their 10-win 2015-16 season and, startlingly, the only one who shared the court with a rookie Embiid just two years ago.
Neither Saric nor Covington are cornerstones, but they sort of felt that way to those who watched them establish themselves as the kind of players who can be traded for someone like Butler. Clancy is planning to buy Saric's Timberwolves jersey -- the Prince-themed version, obviously -- as soon as possible.
"It's just weird to not think they're part of the Sixers anymore," Clancy said.
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