Heading into Jimmy Butler’s Sixers debut, there was plenty of excitement, but also considerable consternation about his fit with his new team.
After the Sixers’ 111-106 loss to the Magic on Wednesday, we finally have some film to break down after what felt like weeks waiting for Butler to play.
Let’s look at the skills Butler showcased, how the Sixers used him in his debut, and the way his role might develop.
Because Butler had just one shootaround with his new team, the Sixers’ playbook for him was understandably limited. Instead of installing a bunch of new actions for Butler, Brett Brown plugged him into a couple plays the Sixers have already installed and used them often.
A 1st taste of the playbook
Brown called the first play of the game for Butler, having him make an "Iverson cut," then use staggered screens from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, with Embiid popping behind the three-point line and Simmons rolling. Butler passed up an open mid-range opportunity.
The Sixers kept returning to that same play, knowing Butler’s affinity for the pick-and-roll. On the second time they tried it, Butler made a solid read to deny the screens from Simmons and Embiid and drive baseline, but then threw a pass into no man's land.
However, this action did get Embiid two open three-point shots, with the defense collapsing on Butler.
The other play Brown ran over and over again with Butler put the Sixers’ new star in a position JJ Redick typically occupies. The Sixers love this action at the end of games, entering the ball into Embiid at the elbow and having Redick curl up into a dribble handoff from Embiid.
While it’s a basic play, Redick and Embiid seem to have countless options off it, because the two have a great understanding of each other and make smart, instinctive reads based on how the defense is playing them.
There are early signs the two-man game between Butler and Embiid also has a fair amount of potential.
As expected, Butler didn't always make the perfect read. He probably should've either taken a mid-range jumper or thrown a lob to Embiid on this third-quarter play.
Here, the two-man game freed Butler for a wide-open 17-footer. That's a shot you can bank on him hitting more often than not.
Again, the result wasn't positive on this final example of the two-man game between Butler and Embiid, but the play itself was encouraging. Butler notices that his man is overplaying the dribble handoff, so he darts up as if he's going to get the ball from Embiid, then cuts backdoor.
While he gets called for an offensive foul, there's real promise in the Embiid-Butler two-man game, especially as Brown incorporates more actions and spots on the floor where the two can play off each other.
"You can see how you can put [Jimmy] and Joel in different actions and situations that as we practice and they have sort of a greater familiarity than 24 hours, I can see some really good things happening," Brown told reporters. "Especially with those two together.
"You see it and you saw it even in shootaround. Jimmy really was trying to go out of his way to find Jo and vice versa. When you strip it down to simple action, they’re going to be creative enough and skilled enough to find different things that other coaching staffs don’t expect. I feel like although we lost the organization of the tiny few things we put in, he put us in decent positions."
Creating his own offense
When the initial action doesn't create an open look, Butler has the ability to make something productive out of nothing.
On the play below, he attacks Evan Fournier’s closeout and pulls up for a smooth mid-range jumper.
The Sixers were sorely missing Butler’s shot creation ability. Even as he learns the nuances of the Sixers' offensive system, he can make a big immediate impact just by improvising and making intelligent plays.
Here, Butler denies Amir Johnson's ball screen and slithers through the defense for an easy lay-up.
Moving off the ball
Butler was excellent against the Magic at reading the situation and cutting hard into open space, like on the play below.
He was constantly alert for opportunities to cut back door and take advantage of his man falling asleep, as D.J. Augustin did on this play.
He caught Fournier off balance on this play early in the game, and Embiid delivered a nice bounce pass to Butler, who hung in the air for a tough finish.
We already knew that Butler is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA.
He's a tenacious on-ball defender, as you can see in the sequence below. Butler hounds Fournier, not giving the Magic guard any space to drive, and eventually forcing a shot clock violation.
Wednesday, we saw how Butler now has the luxury of being ultra-aggressive with a rim protector of Embiid’s caliber behind him. On the play below, Butler is a step behind Fournier, but it doesn’t matter — Embiid blocks him at the rim.
Though Butler allowed penetration from Augustin on this third-quarter play, Embiid's presence deterred Augustin from attempting a shot.
With Embiid roaming the paint, Butler should be free to gamble for steals and play tight, physical defense. The worst-case scenario of him getting beat off the dribble results in his man encountering Embiid in the paint. That's not such a bad result for the Sixers.
As Brown continues to integrate Butler, we should see some more creative options that capitalize on his strengths as a shot creator and ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Butler already gave a sense of the different dimensions he can add to the Sixers' offense in his debut just by playing within himself and reading the game off a couple basic sets.
There's every reason to think Butler can grow into a more diverse, effective role that incorporates his outside shooting (he attempted just one three-pointer in his debut) and playmaking abilities. He's a legitimate two-way star capable of fitting well into just about any offense. Wednesday gave us an early sense of what he brings to the table and how he fits alongside Simmons and Embiid.
We'll learn much more once he has the chance to play a few games with his new team, as Brown and Butler himself develop a greater understanding of how to maximize Butler's talents.
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