Jimmy Butler and Brett Brown didn’t expect a fluid, flawless transition when the Sixers acquired their third star. They knew it would take time to maximize Butler’s talents.
But, speaking about his role in the Sixers’ motion-heavy offense at his introductory press conference on Nov. 13, Butler was hopeful it would all work out.
It’s different, I won’t lie. I had the ball a lot when I was in Minnesota, but that doesn’t mean I can’t play the style of basketball that’s played here. That was just what I was asked to do when I was there. I don’t think that’s a problem. I’m great at sharing the ball, moving without the ball. If I need the ball, I’ll go steal it, go to the other end and lay it up. Go get an offensive rebound.
There’s more than one way to get the ball. I think the way these guys play, sharing the ball, setting screens, slipping, all of that good stuff, I think that’s actually easier than having to create all the time in iso situations and off the pick-and-roll.
After playing in 21 games with the Sixers (during which the team is 15-6), it sounds like Butler has shifted his stance, according to an ESPN report.
“Butler has expressed a desire to teammates to play in more traditional pick-and-roll and isolation sets, rather than trying to find his place in the Sixers' free-flowing offense,” Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne write.
The report notes Butler “has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system,” though Wojnarowski and Shelburne say Brown had no issues with a recent exchange in Portland that some witnesses considered “disrespectful.”
All of this begs the question: Are the Sixers using Butler the proper way?
Though much of Butler’s offense has indeed come within the flow of the Sixers' normal actions, Brown does have two sets he often runs specifically for Butler.
We covered one in an earlier film review.
To get Butler an isolation look, the Sixers have him make an “Iverson cut” on top of two screens to an unoccupied side of the floor.
When teams overplay for this action, Butler can reject one or both of the screens.
Brown has also introduced a couple smart counters to teams denying Butler the ball, including a high-low lob from the second screener to Butler.
The other staple for Butler is just called “Loop,” and it’s as simple as it sounds. Out of a “Horns” alignment (two players at the elbows and two in the corners), Butler rubs off a screen and loops up to get the ball at the top of the key. Then the high post on the opposite side of the floor gives Butler a ball screen.
We saw a lot of the play below in Butler’s Sixers debut.
Butler makes an Iverson cut, then gets staggered ball screens from Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. For whatever reason — perhaps the analytics showed it wasn’t efficient — we haven’t seen it much lately.
Another action the Sixers tried a few times in Butler’s early days with the team was “Elbow,” better known as the dangerous two-man game between Embiid and JJ Redick. They plugged Butler into Redick’s spot.
They’ve since reverted to running that play almost exclusively for Embiid and Redick, which is reasonable enough given how well those two execute it.
From time to time, we've also seen a two-man game between Simmons and Butler. Simmons will bring the ball down the floor, directly into a dribble handoff with Butler on the wing.
On Dec. 2 vs. the Grizzlies, the pair improvised off that action well, running a pick-and-roll with Butler as the ball handler and Simmons the screener.
You can understand why Butler would want more of these sort of plays that accentuate his strengths in tandem with Simmons and Embiid.
That said, it’s not as if he’s been terrible in the Sixers’ offense. He’s still averaged 18 points on 46.2 percent shooting (38.8 percent from three-point range) and 3.2 assists. His usage rate with the Sixers is 22.7 percent, not far below last season’s 24.3 percent mark.
One number that could merit concern is that Butler is only averaging 8.1 drives per game with the Sixers, 4.0 fewer than last season. It would be his lowest drives per game in a season since 2014-15.
But again, we’re talking about a 21-game sample size, one in which the Sixers have won 71.4 percent of their games.
There’s no doubt Brown can do a better job of using Butler by interspersing more pick-and-rolls and isolations within the Sixers’ offense. Maybe Butler’s forceful feedback will assist in that process.
Regardless, any coach in Brown’s situation would require time to figure out the best ways to use three stars who don’t intuitively fit together.
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