Aggressive Jimmy Butler shines in Sixers' win over Kings

Aggressive Jimmy Butler shines in Sixers' win over Kings

For those who wanted to see Jimmy Butler be more assertive on offense, Friday was your night.

Butler was aggressive early and often, scoring a game-high 22 points in a 123-114 Sixers’ win over the Kings at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

Butler had a pretty simple explanation for why he played so well.

“It was 75 degrees outside today,” Butler said. “I just feel good. Like for real, that weather, that 75 degrees, my body felt good, we were rolling. I think everyone was comfortable. We realize how important each and every one of these games is down the stretch so it’s time to take it up a notch or two.”

Of course it wasn’t just about the weather. Butler warmed to the task inside the arena.

The 22 points were nice, but what stood out more was Butler looking to get his. The four-time All-Star took 14 shots from the field and also hit 6 of 7 from the line. He also has enjoyed and flourished in his role as facilitator, especially with the team’s second unit.

It was a different Butler than we’ve seen at times, one the Sixers are hoping shows up in the postseason.

“We will not — I’ll say not even close — we will not be as good as we can be without him playing like he plays and like he played tonight,” Brett Brown said. “I’m the coach and I got to figure out the best way to do this. Some of [it’s] with substitutions and rotations. Some of it’s his teammates recognizing. Some of it’s on him. Somewhere in the middle, if we could all meet … 

“He’s just incredibly gifted. He really is so athletic that he can make plays through that physical presence and skill package. We need him. We need him. That’s the bottom line.”

There’s been a lot of talk about Butler’s role and the number of shots he takes. Here’s the thing about Butler: he’s never been a volume shooter. Even when he was “the man” in Chicago, the highest amount of shots he averaged in a season is 16.5.

That’s not to say that there aren’t times when Butler should be a little more selfish. But if anything, it should be encouraging given how unceremonious his departure from Minnesota was. He recognizes the talent that’s around him and is fitting in with it.

“He was particularly aggressive tonight,” JJ Redick said. “I thought every time that he felt like he had a matchup that he just went at that person’s neck basically. He made plays. He ended up with [seven assists] so it wasn’t just scoring the ball, it was driving, creating havoc. Just a level of aggression he’s shown that at times for us and we’d love to see that every night for sure.”

While much has been made about his offensive output, there have been a few troubling moments on defense. Butler came to the Sixers with a reputation of being one of the best two-way wings in the game, but there’s been a few occasions where he’s failed to keep the game in front of him.

Friday was not one of those nights. In fact, this may have been the best overall performance Butler has had as a Sixer.

“I just go out there and do what I’m asked to do for the most part, to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “Play with a little bit of energy, guard, gamble a lot, and mess up on those gambles the majority of the time, but I just think it’s fun. It’s definitely fun to win, but it’s fun when everybody’s playing like that.”

When the Sixers are rolling, they’re playing fast and they’re moving the ball. When Butler is rolling, it’s normally in pick-and-roll and iso situations. But that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Come playoff time, they’ll need to be able to play both ways.

By the way, the playoffs start in mid-April, which means the weather should be decent.

That’s good news for Butler and the Sixers.

“Snow gone. We good,” Butler said. “I’ll be ready to rock.”

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Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Everyone was in shock when Elton Brand was able to acquire Tobias Harris before the trade deadline.

Harris was having an All-Star-caliber season, flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting line and on his way to a big payday this offseason. 

When the move was made, and after Harris’ red-hot start with the Sixers, bringing him back seemed like a no-brainer. But Harris stumbled to the finish line and had an up-and-down playoff run. 

Should the Sixers bring back Harris and see what this loaded team can do with a full season or let him walk and secure the team’s depth? The answer isn’t black and white.

Harris’ first eight games as a Sixer were remarkably good. He averaged 21.9 points and shot 55/42/83, looking every bit like the player they traded for. His clutch 32-point performance in the team’s first win against the Thunder in forever was a virtuoso performance. He was outstanding and played closer.

Over the last 19 games, Harris averaged 16.7 points and his line went down to 43/27/85. That is a precipitous drop off. His playoff numbers were OK and reflective of his uneven performances. What will stick out most to fans is his 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 4 against Toronto. That series loss is still raw and that game very well may have swung the series, so it’s fair.

But who outside of Jimmy Butler was consistently good in the second round? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both struggled mightily in just their second postseason. Even Butler himself had a rough Game 7.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of Harris’ career. This was his eighth NBA season, but he’s just 26 years old. He’s also improved markedly over the course of his career. He was pretty much a non-threat from three for the first six years of his career, shooting just 33 percent on less than three attempts per game. Over the last two seasons, he was over 40 percent on over five attempts while being traded twice.

Given that improvement, it’s also fair to project Harris’ playoff play will improve. Before playing in 12 postseason contests with the Sixers, Harris’ only other playoff experience was when the Pistons were swept in the first round in 2016. Like Embiid and Simmons, this taste of failure could fuel him. It’s also fair to believe that improved performances by the Sixers’ young All-Stars could open more things up for Harris.

When you start talking money, it gets exceedingly more complicated. Signing Harris and Butler to near-max deals and giving Simmons his first max extension would push the Sixers over the luxury tax. It’s something that Josh Harris has repeatedly said would not be a problem. At that point, you’d be looking at a bench full of young, cheap players  and veteran ring chasers. 

If you let Harris walk, you could look on the free agent market and perhaps sign a trio of Terrence Ross, Corey Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, as an example. There’s also a greater chance you could bring back JJ Redick and/or James Ennis and/or Mike Scott. That could ultimately be the more attractive option if you’re able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

If Butler leaves, you almost have to keep Harris. While the loss of Butler would sting, you’d be in solid shape building around the trio of Embiid, Simmons and Harris, all 26 or younger. If you don't strike early enough with Harris, he's going to have other suitors. He may have a little patience, but he's not going to wait forever.

Brand’s intention at the time of the Harris deal was to keep all four star-caliber players. While Brand said he was happy with what he saw out of Harris and Butler, was it enough to bring both back? 

It’s as difficult a decision as Brand will face this offseason.

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He's not perfect, but Jimmy Butler is worth the risk for Sixers in free agency

He's not perfect, but Jimmy Butler is worth the risk for Sixers in free agency

Jimmy Butler is flawed. Even he would tell you that. He’s grated teammates in the past with his uncompromising personality, looks nothing like a star in certain offensive schemes and has an extensive injury history.

Flaws and all, Butler is a player the Sixers should be willing to commit a lot of money to (up to the maximum of $190 million), and for a lot of years (up to five, which only they can offer), if their competition demands it. Retaining Butler for a bargain would obviously be preferable to giving him five years and $190 million, though, given the way he boosted his stock in the postseason, they very well may need to pay him the max. 

The concerns about Butler’s locker-room presence are fair in the context of his acrimonious exits from Chicago and Minnesota. All indications, however, are that he’s formed strong relationships with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Brett Brown (see story). Simmons and Embiid have both glowed about how Butler has facilitated their growth as leaders.

Butler also appears to have genuine respect for his teammates. He had a lot of fun in Philadelphia as well, another element that was evidently missing with the Timberwolves. 

“What hurts most about this loss is we had a great group of guys that would ride for one another,” Butler said at his exit interview Monday. “It was special. We enjoyed playing with each other. You couldn’t mess with anybody on the team because somebody was always going to be there, in your face. But to think that this roster might not be the exact same next year, that’s what really hurts.”

The worries about the heavy minutes Butler has logged and the injuries he’s suffered are valid, too. However, there wouldn’t be a burden on Butler to play 40 minutes every night alongside Simmons, Embiid and, potentially, Tobias Harris. Butler averaged 33.2 minutes in his 55 regular-season games with the Sixers, his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Sixers have the freedom to manage his load in the regular season and be cautious with injuries to ensure they get the best version of “Playoff Jimmy.”

It is very possible that Butler’s play would decline in the fourth and fifth year of a long-term contract. With the Sixers shooting for a title now, that’s a sensible risk. If Butler can help lead the Sixers to a championship at 31 years old, the trade-off of him being expensive and diminished at 34 years old would be worth it.

As we expected when he first arrived, the on-court fit with Butler wasn’t perfect. He prefers pick-and-rolls and isolations and thrives in those settings, while Brown had built his offensive system around ball and player movement. Butler often faded into the background for the first three quarters of a game, relegated to a passive role, before taking command in the fourth quarter.

But Brown, Butler and the Sixers eventually identified and began to hone a few things that work. The potential of the Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll is immense, and it’s been clear since their early days together how dangerous Simmons and Butler can be in tandem when the Sixers push the ball.

Butler cleans up familiar weaknesses for the Sixers with perimeter defense and turnovers. His 6.9 turnover percentage was the lowest of any Sixers regular. And, as “the adult in the room,” he’s one player you can depend on for tenacious effort. If the Sixers want to avoid the exasperating inconsistency we saw this season, the stability of retaining Butler and the impact of having a competitor like him can’t hurt.

No, he doesn’t have a spotless past, and there are legitimate questions about his future, but Butler’s imperfections shouldn’t obscure his value. Elton Brand took a big risk in acquiring him, and he’d be smart to take another to keep him.

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