When the news of the Jimmy Butler trade lit up my phone Saturday morning, my first thought was “wow, the Philadelphia 76ers just fast-forwarded their development.” About twenty minutes later I started thinking “how is this team going to look with Butler?” An hour after that, I found myself thinking “wait, does this trade even make sense?” Now, after thinking that question through I realize the answer is no. In fact, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility this trade made the Philadelphia 76ers worse.
That’s not meant as a knock on Jimmy Butler. Butler is a terrific player on both ends of the floor. He gives you highly capable isolation offense and stellar man-to-man defense. Amidst the many (and sometimes salacious) reasons cited for why Butler wanted out of Minnesota is his questioning Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns’ commitment to success. To me, that signifies a player who truly wants to win. Theoretically, that talent and attitude should be a welcome addition to any team.
Unfortunately, the Philadelphia 76ers may be the one outlier to that rule. It comes down to simple X’s and O’s here: the Sixers have an incredible lack of three point shooting. That’s just not sustainable in the modern NBA.
At the time of this writing, Ben Simmons has not attempted a single three point field goal. Simmons has started all twelve games thus far, is averaging just under 32 minutes a game and has not tried his hand a single long ball. I’m not saying he needs to be Steph Curry 2.0. But he is a complete non-threat to shoot the ball and defenses know it. Meanwhile, the other former number one pick in the Philadelphia backcourt, Markelle Fultz, is shooting 30% from three. You read that right: an NBA team with deep playoff aspirations is starting a point guard that refuses to shoot the three and a shooting guard who isn’t very good at them, either.
Jimmy Butler has never been known for his three point shooting. He’s a career 34% three point shooter. Yes, you can basically pencil him in for 20+ points per night. But most of those come off the dribble or working in the mid range. He’s not helping to spread the floor much.
That leaves sharpshooter J.J Redick. Redick has averaged 44% from deep for his career and is widely recognized as one of the better shooters in the game. However, this season he’s averaging 38% from three. Redick is the only current player on the Sixers’ roster who figures to play big minutes and force defenses to constantly rotate out to him at the three-point line. Even if he were back up to his career average, that’s still not enough shooting for today’s game.
Which leaves us with our final big piece, Joel Embiid. Look, Embiid is terrific. He has a truly refined post-up game, which is unfortunately a dying art form. He occasionally pulls moves that remind you of the great Hakeem Olajuwon. I can think of no higher praise for a big man than to compare him to The Dream. But what do all those gorgeous post moves need to be a their most effective? Space.
We may watch this new Sixers’ roster unfold and confuse it with the long discussed sequel to Space Jam. As in, the Space is going to be jammed up. (Okay, not my best joke but I’ve always wanted to reference Space Jam in an article and this was my chance). Poor attempts at humor aside, think about how this team is going to run half court sets as currently constituted: everything I have ever learned about basketball tells me it isn’t going to work. You have a ferocious post presence in Embiid which is great. Meanwhile, you have an iso scorer in Butler who prefers to work around the mid-range area. That can work. It worked for Shaq and Kobe. But you know what helped make that work? Derek Fisher. Robert Horry. Guys who you had to respect from the 3 point line enough that you couldn’t blindly clog the lane to take away the space Shaq and Kobe needed to do what they did best. Embiid and Butler will have Redick and that won’t be enough.
Then there’s Simmons. Simmons is a remarkably unique talent. With his size, ball handling ability and court vision, he can drive defenses crazy. However, those passing lanes aren’t going to be as open as he would like them to be because of the logjam in the middle. Embiid, Butler and Simmons are going to take a 50 foot wide space and reduce it to about 25 feet. There simply won’t be enough room to work. Simmons needs to be built around the way you want to work around Rajon Rondo or LeBron James before he could shoot: surround him with shooters, let him penetrate and either attack the rim or kick it out. The Sixers are missing the outside weapons for that formula.
The weirdest thing about this is that it seemed like Philadelphia had this figured out last year. “The Process” seemed to finally be paying off. They had Embiid and Simmons as cornerstones, which they still do. But their regular season success and strong playoff showing (for a young team) was built off of using those two along with a lot of three point shooters. Defenses would have to collapse on Embiid post-ups or Simmons’ drives and the knock-down shooters were there. Redick was supported by guys like Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and Robert Covington. Belinelli and and Ilyasova were allowed to walk over the summer as free agents. Covington was sent to Minnesota as part of the Butler deal. Included in the deal was Dario Saric, a nice player with more potential still to be reached. Saric is a 35% three point shooter for his career. As a stretch-four, he was a great compliment to Embiid and Simmons. Most importantly, he helped give them the room to work that they needed.
All of this leads to the most important question of all: does Philadelphia actually have a plan? Or was “Trust the Process” just a catchy phrase to pacify the fans while the front office just made it up on the fly? I’m beginning to suspect the latter is the case.
Sure, Philadelphia got praise last year for their resurgent season. They shamelessly tanked for years. They landed both Embiid and Simmons and it seemed to all be coming together. The Butler trade calls all of that into question. Did they just jump at a big name because they’ve had a slow start to the season? Was there ever actually a process?
The Sixers made plenty of mistakes during this whole multi-year escapade. They missed on draft picks. Michael-Carter Williams won Rookie of the Year for them, then faded into NBA journeyman obscurity. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor were top lottery picks that didn’t pan out, either. Realistically, had they made better decisions, Philadelphia should have reaped the benefits of the process years ago.
Then there’s Markelle Fultz. Simply put, Markelle Fultz’s jump shot is broken. While the main cause of this seems to have been a shoulder injury, the cause doesn’t matter. The result is all that does. Fultz is averaging 8 points per game and is trending towards being a massive draft bust. The Sixers traded up to get him at number one and may have completely blown the pick. Keep in mind, they could’ve drafted Jayson Tatum. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 but taking Tatum number one was a very reasonable possibility. But they went with Fultz. Imagine how much brighter the future of this team would’ve been with a core of Embiid, Simmons and Tatum.
Despite my reservations, it could all be a moot point. Maybe the Sixers’ have more moves up their sleeve. They could make trades for shooters to compliment the new core (Seth Curry could be a nice fit). Or maybe Brett Brown can make this offense work without great three point shooting. Even so, they’ll often be trading two points for three with their opponents. Simple math tells you how that will work out in the long run.
For the sake of good basketball, I really hope I’m wrong about this trade. If I’m right though, the Sixers may have just shot themselves in the foot. Unfortunately, that might be the longest range shot they’re capable of hitting for a while.