ORLANDO — The Philadelphia 76ers lost their first game with Jimmy Butler on board, 111-106 at Orlando on Wednesday — blowing a 16-point lead as Orlando went on a 21-0 run over the third and fourth quarters. Afterward, Butler and Sixers coach Brett Brown made it clear than any lack of familiarity, or lack of preparation, was no excuse for losing. In the NBA, you either win or you don’t. Nobody cares about circumstances.
That said, Butler hardly had a chance to look at the playbook before taking the court with his new teammates. The Sixers went over a few late-game packages, but not much else, during a short shootaround on Wednesday morning. They were more or less winging it. Still, Brown liked a lot of what he saw. He liked some of the two-man stuff between Butler and Joel Embiid, who hooked up on a backdoor for Butler’s first Philly bucket. He praised Butler’s defense, and there’s no question Philly has the potential to become a defensive monster in relatively short order.
“I think defense is where it’s always going to start for us,” Butler said prior to his debut. “We’ve got a group of guys that can switch a lot of different things, guys that actually want to compete and want to play defense.”
Butler might’ve been jabbing his former Minnesota teammates with that last assessment, but he’s right about the Philly defense. For the most part, they commit defensively and they’re extremely versatile. Look at the clip below, with Butler pressing up on Evan Fournier, who needs a pick just to get some daylight, only to have Embiid come flying into his space.
Factor in the length and athleticism of Ben Simmons, the versatility of Wilson Chandler, and even Markelle Fultz, who can bully small guards on the ball and make athletic switches and blocks, and Philly’s defense should become a top-five unit as long as everyone stays healthy. (Health is very much a question with this suddenly pretty thin team, however. We’ll get to that.) Some of this obviously will take time, and it may not be evident in the 76ers’ next game, Friday night against the Jazz (7 p.m. ET, available on fuboTV through the NBA League Pass extension here).
As for the offense, there is no question that Butler — once he learns the playbook and begins to assimilate himself, and eventually assert himself — makes the Sixers better. How much better, and whether they still need to make another move, is a matter of opinion. For that, we turn to the thoughts of a league scout whom I spoke with at length, about all things Butler and Sixers, on Wednesday.
NOTE: Scout’s takes in italics
Overall assessment of the trade
“It definitely makes [the Sixers] better. They needed a move like this. It gets them out of, kind of, running in place, in my opinion. I like [Robert] Covington. I like [Dario] Saric a lot. But to get Butler for that package, that’s a steal. If he doesn’t re-sign this summer, maybe you don’t look back on it as quite such a great deal. But right now, it’s a big win for Philly.”
How Butler makes Sixers better
“First off, he’s competitive. And that stuff isn’t fake. That’s infectious. He’s going to be that dog. They’re going to be tough, you know that for sure. Also, [the Sixers] needed that one-on-one guy bad. Simmons isn’t that guy. They were always going to be limited in the half court with the ball always in his hands. You can put the ball in Butler’s hands and he can do so many things with it. He can just go get them a bucket, whether it’s scoring for himself or drawing attention. That’s something they haven’t had.”
I’ve talked to a lot of people about the importance of having a guy — or preferably multiple guys — who can create shots for himself and teammates. Tony Parker. Mike Conley. Damian Lillard. They all say the same thing, that with all the switching defenses do these days, having a guy who can just flat-out beat his defender one-on-one is imperative.
“It gets to the point where you can’t run a ball screen, or activate certain defensive triggers, because there’s no reason for anyone to help with the switching,” Conley told CBS Sports. “Ultimately, it’s all about forcing help. So now the best option is often to hopefully get that mismatch off a switch, throw it out and let the guard break down his defender one-on-one, and hopefully force the help that way.”
Butler is a guy who can do this. He can create offense when the offense doesn’t create for itself. Simmons can create in transition. Embiid can post and play two-man game. But as currently constructed, the Sixers only have one truly reliable one-on-one option, and Butler is it. Come playoff time, they’re going to be able to ride him, especially late in games, and that adds an element they just didn’t have last season when the Celtics schemed so mercilessly against Simmons, and his inability to shoot or even consistently create offense for others, that he lost substantial and meaningful minutes to T.J. McConnell.
On what the Sixers still need
“The lack of depth scares me. You send out two rotation guys and get back one. One injury and they’re screwed. It makes Markelle Fultz super important, and he hasn’t shown to be ready for that. Does it get to the point where Jimmy has to play 40-45 minutes a night? Also, the lack of shooting [team-wide] is going to be evident. That’s why for me this trade doesn’t move the needle as high as Toronto or Boston in the East. I’m really curious to see what [the Sixers] do next, because they can’t stand pat. By getting Butler, you’re saying you’re all in for a championship. But this team isn’t there yet. Last year [Marco] Belinelli and [Ersan] Ilyasova really moved the needle. Those were huge pieces. Who’s going to be that guy this year? You hear [Kyle] Korver’s name out there. You know there will be buyout guys. I definitely don’t think they’re done.”
How does this trade effect Simmons’ role?
“To me, this is the biggest question. Simmons is going to have to accept a little bit of a new role, and be off the ball more and be OK with that, and understand how to keep the spacing in different ways. That’s going to be a challenge because of the lack of shooting. He can’t just stand still. If you get them in a half-court set, and you just put Ben in the corner, teams just aren’t going to guard him. His man’s going to be in the lane basically double-teaming Embiid or mucking things up for drivers. You can say he should cut, but if he cuts, it might not have the same effect as someone else cutting because [his defender is] laid so far off him anyway. It’s a unique set of circumstances.
“Brett Brown has to be creative, and he will be. He’s got some good stuff. He’ll get Simmons moving, setting cross screens, running some pick-the-picker action that he can come off of, and that will make his defender have to chase. He’s going to have to be OK being a screener and almost kind of a decoy when Butler is handling. He’ll draw attention as long as he’s moving, but is he going to move and cut hard? Like, look at JJ Redick. He’s not always getting a shot, but he’s always sprinting his ass off and taking defenders with him. Will Simmons commit that same way? Or is he just going to kind of lollygag through it?
“I’ll be honest with you: When I scouted Simmons at LSU, I put Brandon Ingram ahead of him simply because I didn’t know if Simmons loved the game. I think he does now. He’s proven he’s a pro. He goes hard for the most part. But what about when he’s not playing the way he wants to play? When the ball’s in his hands and he’s making plays, his talent shows through. But it’s another kind of [buy-in] to go like that all the time, not just when you’re pushing and have the ball, you know? Hopefully Jimmy can get that [kind of effort] out of Ben. He couldn’t do it with Wiggins, but I think Ben is tougher than Wiggins. … There are a lot of dynamics in play. It’s never black and white putting a team together and matching up skill sets and not knowing how guys will take to new roles. It’s really difficult.”
Brett Brown addressed this question about Simmons’ off-ball prospects prior to Butler’s debut, saying that as the Sixers move forward they’ll try to make the best use of Simmons off-ball by using him, as the scout alluded to, as a cutter, and also by “turning him loose as an offensive rebounder.” One of the other things Brown talked about doing with Simmons is sort of hiding him along the baseline, almost behind the backboard in that kind of dead area. Stretched out to the 3-point line, defenders won’t follow him. But on the baseline, he’s far enough out to keep the lane open but close enough to attack on lob passes and drop-offs if his defender leaves him.
The Sixers have been trying to do this same thing with Fultz, but Fultz isn’t the 6-foot-10 finishing presence Simmons is. If used properly, he can be a monster finisher around the rim with the attention that Butler and Embiid can, and will, draw. Watch this next clip. Simmons brings the ball up, but the action doesn’t really start until Butler has the entry pass and Simmons cuts through to the baseline. Butler penetrates and draws a crowd of three defenders, kicks to Embiid, who drives and draws three defenders of his own. All the while, Simmons, who has gone from his typical role of creating offense to being in position to finish it, is just hanging out on the baseline.
This is obviously nothing special on Simmons’ part. It’s just a matter of being in the right place and ready to receive a pass. The Sixers will need more off the ball than this, as the scout said, hard cuts and hard picks and occasional post-ups when he gets a switch. There are ways to make this work, but it’s a bigger commitment because of his inability to shoot. If he doesn’t commit to movement, even a player of Simmons’ caliber can be largely neutralized fairly easily in the half court, if not become a downright burden.
Right now, where do you put Philly in the East?
“Toronto is No. 1. They’re loaded. Depth. Defense. Kawhi [Leonard] is that star player you need in the playoffs. The Celtics are playing funky right now, but even still, they haven’t been that bad. They’ll be there at the end. I’d put them behind the Raptors. Again, I don’t think Philly is a finished product, but right now I’d put them in that two-to-four range with Boston and Milwaukee.
“I like Milwaukee, but they’ve got some problems. Like, Brook [Lopez] and [John] Henson, those guys can’t really be on the floor against good, playoff small lineups. I feel like Milwaukee is going to win a ton of regular-season games but be a disappointment in the playoffs. Nobody can guard Giannis [Antetokounmpo] right now, but when you get a playoff team for seven games in a row, they’re going to have five guys basically defending him. Everyone shading, walling him off. He’s going to be so frustrated. You just can’t barrel through everybody every time in the playoffs. So now you’re relying on the Khris Middletons and Eric Bledsoes to make a lot of shots. Bledsoe is streaky in the sense that, is he going to lift you in a playoff series when Giannis isn’t getting wherever he wants? In spurts, maybe, but for a whole game? For a whole series? Then with Middleton, he’s good, but he’s not Butler. Coach Bud has given that team some of the structure it didn’t have under Jason Kidd. He gets creative with Giannis, which you have to do. But I’d still put [Philly] above Milwaukee, even with the Giannis factor. I think you can count on them a little bit more now, just in knowing where their looks are going to come from.
“What I’ve noticed in the last few years, which in a way makes my job easier, is that teams don’t run many plays anymore. They just want to get out in transition and go one-on-one or shoot right away. The Lakers, for example, they’re just throwing it ahead and trying to get to the rim. There’s not much to that. I think that’s what kind of got Philly last year, right? When they were in transition and pushing with shooters, Simmons is tough. But when you get into the half court, you eventually need some structure. Guys need to know where their shots are coming from. Like, JJ Redick, he knows when that ball goes to the elbow, I’m getting a staggered [screen], and I’m going to set my man up, and I’m going to sprint off and have an open shot in my comfort zone. Players need that. Of course there are LeBrons and Kevin Durants where it doesn’t matter, they can get any shot they want. But for most guys in the league, that structure matters. … I think Butler gives the Sixers more structured options, and like, those shots you can just count on.”
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