How Sixers are trying to get best out of Jimmy Butler on offense

How Sixers are trying to get best out of Jimmy Butler on offense

Both player and coach disputed the notion that the exchange was “disrespectful” or “confrontational.” But neither Jimmy Butler nor Brett Brown disagreed with the report that Butler had “challenged” Brown about his role in the Sixers’ offense, just the characterization of that challenge during a film session in Portland.

Brown admitted Saturday the offense was still evolving to better suit Butler’s strengths in pick-and-roll and isolation. However, it didn’t sound as if he had any radical changes in mind.

So that we don’t get too twisted about this pick-and-roll thing, there is truth to that, but not to the point that, ‘Oh, now we gotta run 20.’ It’s not going to happen. We have other things going on in our offense.

Since then, Butler and the Sixers have played a home-and-home set with the Wizards, trouncing Washington Tuesday night and falling Wednesday. 

On the very first possession of Tuesday’s win, Butler came off a pin down screen from Joel Embiid before running a side pick-and-roll with Embiid. 

For a coach who had said he wasn’t going to run 20 pick-and-rolls per game, it was an interesting opening play call. 

Two wrinkles 

One of the Sixers’ favorite actions for Butler, as we’ve noted before, sees him make an “Iverson cut” and receive the ball on an unoccupied side of the floor.

Outside of this basic, original action, the Sixers have various other looks — for instance, Butler can reject one or both screens if the defense takes away the first read. And Brown has a creative version of the play in which Butler exploits the aggressiveness of a defender denying him the ball and goes back door for a lob.

One option we’re starting to see more is the second screener (Mike Muscala in the example below) giving Butler a side ball screen after he’s received the ball. 

In the third quarter Tuesday night, we saw Embiid have a key role in this action. Embiid, the first screener for Butler, gets a cross screen from the man on the opposite block, Furkan Korkmaz. When Thomas Bryant fronts Embiid, Wilson Chandler flashes to the top of the key. Butler hits him, and the Sixers execute a perfect high-low to Embiid. 

There’s no problem with the initial, isolation option for Butler on occasion, but the Sixers seem to now be incorporating more complex looks with greater frequency.

The flow of the offense 

As he said he would, Brown does appear to be calling a few more pick-and-rolls for Butler. Outside of the structure of the offense, Butler’s teammates also seem to be giving him more ball screens.

Muscala, in particular, is a fan of the “throw-and-chase" — in order words, he often passes Butler the ball and then follows his pass to give Butler a screen.

On the play below, Butler drives baseline off a throw-and-chase from Muscala and finds Ben Simmons inside.

The on-court understanding between Butler and his teammates is obviously still developing — it certainly didn’t look great Wednesday night in Washington, although you could say the same of the Sixers’ performance in general. Butler and Simmons, though, already play off each other very well.

Simmons has a decent feel for when, where and how to get Butler the ball. This play below from Tuesday night is simple enough, but it’s the kind of thing that’s easier said than done. 

With the Sixers in the midst of a sluggish start, Simmons brings the ball down the floor quickly and Butler establishes position in the mid-post. Simmons makes a solid pass fake, gets the ball to Butler, and lets him go to work.


2 plays to keep an eye on 

Even though he’s not going to do anything drastic, expect Brown to continue adding layers to actions already in the Sixers’ playbook.

He showed one new look off a play he’s been running frequently after timeouts called “Elbow rub,” per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.

Here’s an example of that play, with Embiid curling around Jonah Bolden’s screen for the lob. 

In this variation, Butler takes Bolden’s spot and immediately flashes to the top of the key, while Embiid seals deep. 

The play didn’t work against Washington, but it’s something the Sixers might continue to explore. Another option could be Butler coming to the top of the key and Embiid giving him a ball screen. 

Finally, the play below from Wednesday is notable because of the personnel, not because there’s anything remotely new about it.

The Sixers typically run “Elbow” with Embiid and JJ Redick. It’s the dynamic two-man game with infinite permutations that are seemingly impossible to stop.

We saw that play a lot in Butler’s debut, just with Butler in Redick’s spot. Wednesday night, it popped up again.

Though Embiid and Butler running “Elbow” might simply have been a byproduct of Redick being sidelined by lower-back tightness, perhaps Brown will start calling it with that pair again more often as an easy, already installed method to get two of his best players working in tandem.

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If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

If they face Celtics again in playoffs, how can Sixers beat Boston?

The Sixers have 24 games left, and each one of them matters with playoff seeding at stake. But their March 20 matchup vs. the Celtics might matter a little more than the others as the Sixers will aim to avoid a season sweep against Boston.

Today, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick discuss how the Sixers can beat the Celtics if the two teams meet again in the playoffs.

Monday, they looked at who should be part of the Sixers' playoff rotation (see story).

Wednesday, they'll review their expectations for the rest of the season.


While the new-look Sixers will likely be a better team the next time they see the Celtics, there’s plenty to take from the previous matchups.

Some teams are a tough matchup for Joel Embiid and others for Ben Simmons. Boston is the rare team that gives both All-Stars problems. Al Horford is the rarest of players that can guard both. 

Most NBA fives are susceptible to Embiid’s pump fakes or they can’t keep up with his footwork, often leading to fouls. That’s not the case with Horford, who has the discipline, strength and quickness to hang with Embiid. It’s a matter of Embiid making better and quicker decisions — especially against double teams.

With Simmons, it’s just about valuing the basketball and picking his spots to be aggressive. Boston is excellent at getting back in transition, where Simmons normally excels. Simmons is often better when he’s attacking, but against the Celtics he may be better off letting the game come to him, like he did last Tuesday.

The other thought, knowing how much Embiid and Simmons have struggled vs. Boston, is to run the offense more around Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. 

Butler was the best player on the floor against the Celtics last week. We’ve briefly seen the Butler experiment at point guard. I’d be interested in seeing it more against Boston. It could allow Butler to be in control of the offense and allow Simmons to play a traditional four spot.

Harris struggled in the loss last week, but had good looks. He’s been with the team for less than two weeks, so Brown and his teammates are still figuring Harris out and how he fits in the offense. They have 24 games to find the best way to get Harris more involved. Doing so could come in handy if they face the Celtics again in the playoffs.


I think there are three keys to the Sixers beating the Celtics: 

1. Make Joel Embiid’s life easier
We know Al Horford defends Embiid very well. Embiid just can’t draw fouls or score inside with ease against Horford the same way he does against other big men. That’s fine.

The Sixers can help Embiid by spacing the floor properly when he gets the ball, making the occasional, smart split cut off him, and recognizing that he’s not always going to be their best offensive option. Sometimes Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler are going to be the right player to turn to down the stretch.

2. Play to Ben Simmons’ strengths
The current reality is Simmons, without a reliable jump shot, likely won’t be as effective offensively vs. the Celtics as he is against others teams. Boston does a great job neutralizing the athletic advantage Simmons usually possesses. Again, that doesn’t have to kill the Sixers.

I’ve mentioned it a bunch in the past, but it bears repeating — Simmons has gone from a poor post player (21 for 70, or 30 percent last season) to one of the better post-up players in the NBA this season (50 for 99, or 50.5 percent).

It would make sense for the Sixers to use Simmons more at the power forward spot than normal vs. Boston in lineups with Jimmy Butler or T.J. McConnell at the point. 

3. Prioritize defense
As we saw last season, Boston is masterful at exposing defensive liabilities. Players like Furkan Korkmaz can’t see the floor against the Celtics. JJ Redick’s minutes might need to go down. McConnell, though he’s been very good recently against the Celtics, will probably only be playable if he’s asked to defend smaller guards like Terry Rozier. 

In all likelihood, Brett Brown will need to ride his best defensive players — Butler, Embiid, Simmons and Harris. The Sixers have the talent to beat Boston, but Brown has a challenging task navigating the matchup troubles which the Celtics present. 

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Sixers' new starting 5 is on Sports Illustrated cover

Sixers' new starting 5 is on Sports Illustrated cover

If you're a Sixers fan, you better hope the Sports Illustrated cover jinx is not a real thing.

The Sixers' new, formidable starting five is on this week's cover of SI, posing around the words "Process This." You'd imagine Sam Hinkie is reading with pride. 

Interesting to note how all five guys have a hint of a smile besides Joel Embiid. His competitive side sometimes gets overshadowed, but Embiid definitely looks like he means business on the cover with that cold stare into the camera.

Tobias Harris wishes his teammates had gone all-in on the smile.

In the issue, The Crossover staff at SI re-previews the highly competitive Eastern Conference, taking stock of where the Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and Raptors stand after an eventful trade deadline.

So did Philly just build the most talented team in the East — or a very expensive runner-up? Whatever the answer, the experiment seems an appropriate extension of the Process," Andrew Sharp writes. "You don’t have to love every move, but you can’t help but admire the ambition.

Fair enough. 

Eleven years ago, Elton Brand was on the cover.

The question then was, "How far can Elton Brand take the Sixers?" It's still a relevant question, although at this point, the Sixers' fate falls largely on the team Brand has helped assemble. But there's no doubt Brand is again a big part of the Sixers' return to the national spotlight.

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