Breaking down how Butler fits with Sixers

 nbcsports.com  11/10/2018 11:12:45 PM 

For Jimmy Butler, the off-court drama has gotten a lot of headlines — the trade demand, the locker-room arguments, the heated practices.

It’s easy to let all that overshadow Butler the basketball player. In the wake of general manager Elton Brand’s trade for Butler, let’s break down what the Sixers got in Butler, what they gave up and how Butler will fit alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

What they got

The Sixers now have the third star they need to be a viable contender. 

In short, Butler is one of the best two-way players in basketball, a four-time All-Star and four-time selection to an All-Defensive team.

Over the past four seasons, Butler has averaged 21.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

One quality about Butler that’s often overlooked is how little he turns the ball over relative to his usage rate. He had an 8.9 turnover percentage over the last four years. Given the Sixers’ struggles with turnovers, that’s an appealing skill Butler possesses, albeit a far less important one than his stellar defense or ability to score in isolation.

What they gave up

Saric and Covington were both key players for the Sixers.

Though Saric is understandably beloved for his heart, we saw in the early part of this season how his value diminishes when he’s not making shots. Regardless of the effort he gives, it just doesn’t look like Saric has the tools be a good NBA defender. In the playoffs, opponents will continue to exploit Saric’s lack of quickness, as the Celtics did in May. 

Covington, on the other hand, is an exceptional defender. He showed at the beginning of this season that his First Team All-Defense campaign last year was no fluke. 

Butler will, of course, take Covington’s job of guarding the opposition’s best perimeter scorer every night. Ironically, Butler and Covington are tied for the third most steals in the NBA this season, with 23 each. Covington also has 23 blocks, by far the most of any wing in the league.

Covington’s three-point shooting may also be missed. While Covington and Butler are close as far as three-point percentage (35.8 percent vs. 35.2 percent over the last four years), Covington was a much higher volume shooter. 

Butler's fit

The most obvious question is how Butler, Simmons and Embiid will all share the ball.

Embiid should still be the focal point of the Sixers’ offense — he has 77 post-up points this season, 24 more than any other player. His 31 percent usage rate is third in the league.

Butler (22.7 percent usage) and Simmons (21.8 percent) need plenty of touches as well. 

Unfortunately, Butler is not the kind of player who can thrive in a secondary, off-ball role. He shot just 33.7 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts last season. 

The Sixers may want Butler to increase his volume of three-point attempts, since Butler, JJ Redick, Landry Shamet, and, to a lesser extent, Embiid, are now the team’s only regular three-pointers with Saric and Covington gone.

Given Markelle Fultz’s continued unwillingness to fire from long range (he hasn’t attempted a three in five games) and the fact that Simmons doesn’t appear to have added a mid-range jumper to his game, Butler will need to provide the Sixers some spacing.

Outside of the Sixers’ stars, the trade has wide-reaching implications. Will Fultz stay in the starting lineup, or will Redick return to provide some much-needed shooting? With Saric gone, who starts for the Sixers at the four — Wilson Chandler? Mike Muscala? Should Simmons be used more often in the post to give Butler room to operate on the perimeter?

Brett Brown will have to answer all those questions. 

For now, he has another star, one who brings excellent perimeter defense and shot creation, previous weaknesses for the Sixers. When the Sixers need someone to get their own shot with the game on the line in the postseason, throwing it to Embiid is no longer their only option.

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Brett Brown, then interim general manager, sat in front of a pack of reporters on draft night explaining his decision to trade Mikal Bridges, the 10th overall pick, to the Suns when he famously said the Sixers were "star hunting … that's how you win a championship."

Then, during his end-of-the-season news conference, Brown said he feels like "another high-level free agent is required." The summer came and went and the Sixers didn't land LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.

The Sixers on Saturday afternoon finally landed that elusive third star by agreeing to acquire Jimmy Butler from Minnesota, league sources confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Butler isn't LeBron, he's not Kawhi. He may not be the perfect fit. There was some credence in waiting it out. The price tag stings, especially for The Processors.

Dario Saric and Robert Covington are fine NBA players. Saric is beloved by Sixers fans for his heart and goofiness. (Spoiler: He came overseas.) Covington is the poster child of The Process — a nobody acquired by Sam Hinkie who turned into one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.

Brand showed his hand Saturday — the Sixers GM wants to win now. This is a brand new regime and really, isn't this what The Process was all about?

Boiling The Process down to its simplest form, wasn't the motive always about acquiring assets and eventually turning them into superstars?

The Sixers drafted two with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Embiid is special and continues to do things that blow our mind. Ben Simmons is a 6-foot-10 magician.

The only thing missing was that third star. The Sixers went star hunting this past summer and didn't connect. Markelle Fultz could still someday turn into a star, but the Sixers are past that.

After a 52-win campaign and winning a round in the playoffs in 2017-18, the Sixers set their eyes on winning the Eastern Conference this season. That simply wasn't viable without a third star to complement Embiid and Simmons.

That's not to say the Sixers couldn't compete in the East without that third star. But the East looks tougher than expected. We knew about the Celtics. We knew about the Raptors, who, with Leonard, look like the early-season favorite to win the East.

We expected the Pacers and Bucks to be in the conversation but both look tougher than predicted. If anything, the East is looking stronger than we thought, which reiterates the need to acquire a third star.

What if Leonard decides to stay in Toronto? Not only would the Raptors continue to be among the best in the East, but it would also take away another potential option for the Sixers via free agency.

There was no guarantee the Sixers could hit on landing a star next summer in free agency, and realistically, there aren't many big-name options that we could really draw a path to Philly for.

Butler is a proven superstar and will immediately certify the Sixers as a contender in the East this season — worry about Butler's contract situation later, though ESPN reported the Sixers and Butler "fully expect to reach a deal on a long-term contract this summer."

Sure, stars break free all the time and the argument the Sixers could have waited for the perfect fit is valid. Embiid and Simmons are young and they have plenty of time.

But at the end of the day, this very well could have been the Sixers' final shot at bringing in a third star. Brand was rightfully aggressive in acquiring Butler even if he had to sacrifice two legitimate complementary pieces.

Losing Saric and Covington hurts. But the Sixers desperately needed a third star, and Butler is that. We can worry about how Butler gels with Embiid and Simmons tomorrow. For now, the Sixers are a significantly better team with Butler than they were without him.

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What are the 76ers getting in Jimmy Butler? A guy that stuffs the box score.

Butler over the last five years is among the NBA's leaders in scoring (12th), rebounding (31st among guards and small forwards), assists (32nd) and steals (seventh).

How will it work out for the Sixers? Time will tell. But the numbers are pretty impressive! 

Let's take a look!

• Butler has averaged at least 20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1½ steals in each of the last five seasons. He and Russell Westbrook are the only players to do that each year since the 2014-15 season.

• Since the start of the 2014-15 season, nobody in the NBA has averaged more minutes per game than Butler. He’s averaging 37.3 minutes per game (over 277 games). Only two players are within one minute per game of that figure — James Harden (36.7) and LeBron James (36.6).

• Butler ranks 12th in the NBA over the last five years in fewest turnovers per minutes played with 1.7 every 48 minutes. Butler’s career average of 1.6 turnovers per 48 minutes played is sixth best in NBA history among players who have averaged at least 35 minutes. He trails only Horace Grant, Kerry Kittles, Wesley Matthews, Michael Finley and Peja Stojakovic.

• Butler has played 468 career games and amassed 7,728 points, 723 steals, 2,287 rebounds and 1,585 assists. He’s one of only 16 players in NBA history with at least 7,500 points, 700 steals, 2,200 rebounds and 1,500 assists in his first 468 games and the first since Westbrook in 2015. Among the others who’ve reached all those plateaus this quickly are Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and James.

• Butler has 171 20-point games since the start of the 2014-15 season, 14th most in the NBA and ninth most among guards/small forwards. He has 119 games with 20 points and five rebounds since opening day 2014, which is the ninth most in the league during the same span.

• Butler has five seasons averaging 20 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 1½ assists per game. That’s already tied for 11th most in NBA history with Rick Barry, Paul George, Hakeem Olajuwon and Pierce. Only Larry Bird, James, Jordan and Barkley had more such seasons in their first eight years in the NBA. 

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

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