Jimmy Butler blockbuster: Grading winners and losers

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USA Today

Jimmy Butler blockbuster: Grading winners and losers

And the Jimmy Butler saga appears to be over. For now.

On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers agreed to send Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2020 second-round pick for Butler and Justin Patton, a source told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Though the trade only involved two teams, rest assured that several teams will feel the impact of Butler’s arrival in Philly.

Let’s run through winners and losers of the blockbuster deal.
 
Winners
Philadelphia 76ers

One year ago today, the Sixers were a giant question mark, starting out 6-6 with 2018 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, 2017 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing their first full season together alongside veterans J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. The NBA didn’t quite know what to make of the young squad. Heading into the 2017-18 season, ESPN Forecast projected 33.2 wins, while Vegas slotted the over/under at 40.5 wins. They would’ve been lucky to make the playoffs.

And now? After netting Butler, they might be NBA Finals-bound. Might.

This all progressed very quickly. Simmons won Rookie of the Year (no asterisk necessary). Embiid played 63 games and averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the most dominant big men in the league.  Covington earned first-team all-defensive honors while making more than 200 3-pointers on the wing. Redick proved to be a perfect fit alongside the young crew. Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli and T.J. McConnell solidified a deep, if unpredictable, rotation. They won 52 games and earned the No. 3 seed, stunning the NBA with their ascension.

The Sixers stumbled out of the gate this season, but with Butler, they’re back in the conversation for a Finals trip. Every champion of the last decade had at least three All-NBA players on their roster. Yesterday, the Sixers had one in Embiid. They have two now and Simmons could be there soon.

Now, they’re no longer the underdog Sixers. They’re going for it all. With Saric and Covington gone, they lose two key members of their core, but this was a deal that they had to make. LeBron James is gone. The Boston Celtics are vulnerable. The Toronto Raptors are led by Kawhi Leonard, who only played nine games last season and has been on a strict no-back-to-back policy. The East is ripe for the taking.

No doubt, the Sixers will have their own issues to sort out. One Eastern Conference executive summed it up like so: “Jimmy is a terrific player, but they have some major fit issues.”

It starts with shooting. The Markelle Fultz Experiment will probably have to be put on the backburner as Butler moves into the starting lineup. Butler has serviceable range on the wing but at just 4.5 attempts from deep per game, Lonzo Ball and Aaron Gordon launch more 3-pointers than the newest Philly import. Playing Butler, Fultz and Simmons together would invite defenses to take up full-time residency in the paint.

It’s time to move Redick into the starting lineup, a move long overdue. The Sixers’ starting lineup with Redick last season boasted the top plus-minus of any five-man lineup in the league (plus-268). After one of the most bizarre rookie seasons in NBA history, Fultz replaced Redick and the lineup got off to a predictably rocky start. So much so that coach Brett Brown had abandoned it to start second halves. The lineup shot a paltry 8-of-26 on 3-pointers in 148 minutes on the court, an unsustainable amount in today’s NBA.

When healthy, Butler is a top-10 player and a two-way monster when he wants to be. Last season, Butler ranked third in ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, an all-in-one metric that estimates a player’s impact on both ends of the floor. He probably isn’t that good, but he’s a superior defender to Covington and more versatile in every respect of the game. The only time the Timberwolves have played respectable defense under Tom Thibodeau is when Butler manned the floor.

For newly-minted general manager Elton Brand, this is a big swing for the fences. But it’s not like he’s swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone. The Sixers will miss Covington and Saric’s presence inside and outside the locker room, but if I had told you one year ago – heck, one month ago -- that the Sixers would acquire Butler without giving up a first-round pick, Embiid, Simmons or Fultz in the deal, most Sixers fans would’ve scrambled to find the pen to sign right away. Nothing’s changed.

The long-term concerns are real. For the moment, forget about the five-year, $190 million contract that Butler is eligible to sign this summer. Butler has missed huge chunks of just about every season he’s played in the league. Over the last five seasons, he also ranks first in minutes per game. Those two might be related. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose have not had pretty post-Thibodeau campaigns (although Rose’s recent resurgence has been delightful). On the other hand, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver have fared just fine.

Who knows how Butler will look in five years when he’ll be making well north of $40 million. Will he be worth $190 million? The Sixers don’t have to answer that now. Though there’s usually a wink-wink agreement in trades like these (see: Chris Paul), the Sixers aren’t obligated by any rule to offer him $190 million this summer. If Butler implodes his third locker room in four years, then they can part ways and not be stuck with his contract.

Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James should send a thank-you note, or at the very least an Instagram shout-out, to Thibodeau for trading Butler to the East. The Lakers might fall into the playoffs at this point. One could make an argument that, on Saturday morning, every team in the West (OK, maybe not Phoenix) could plausibly see themselves as a playoff contender. Now, James has one less team to worry about.

At 5-6 and with coach Luke Walton already reportedly getting needled for his performance, the Lakers face an uphill climb to get into the playoffs. Lakers fans will be happy to know that FiveThirtyEight projections still give them a 70 percent shot of getting in. The Butler deal will nudge that higher.

Miami Heat
Yes, it might seem like they “lost” out on the Butler sweepstakes, but the Sixers are further up on the totem pole than the Heat and Butler provides more marginal value to them. For the Sixers, Butler gives them a Big Three and a real shot at the East title. If the Heat would’ve gotten Butler, they wouldn’t be demonstrably closer to a 50-win team, because it would likely mean giving up Josh Richardson.

It’s not a stretch to think Richardson is a Baby Butler. He’s a high-energy bulldog of a defender and already a better 3-point shooter than Butler. He doesn’t have the same handles, but like Butler, he’s worlds better than he was coming into the league. Richardson is 25 years old and already averaging 20 points per game as the focal point of the Heat’s offense. He’ll also make $11.6 million in 2021-22, about $30 million fewer than Butler’s expected annual salary.

Pat Riley, who is turning 74 years old in March, could have gotten desperate and cleared out the cupboard for Butler. Something like Richardson, Bam Adebayo and a first-rounder sounds reasonable. But Riley was wise to sit tight. The Heat should let this keep growing.

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have to feel good about their Butler haul. For one, they received a first-round pick in a deep draft that ended up being the No. 7 overall pick. Some might argue that they got lucky by landing Lauri Markkanen, but there were plenty of talents available at that spot. Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith, OG Anunoby, Adebayo, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Smith, John Collins and Zach Collins were all still on the board when the Bulls made their pick. If it wasn’t Markkanen, they’d still be fine.

And then you throw in Zach LaVine, whose lengthy ACL recovery held sneaky tank value for the rights to draft a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. LaVine is still a sieve defensively, but he’s fourth in scoring and doing so efficiently. Kris Dunn, also acquired in the Butler deal, could be a solid starter, which didn’t look to be the case in Minnesota.

It’s not entirely logical to compare the two deals at two different junctures. But what just played out in Minnesota? It could have been a real scenario for Chicago, to let Butler stew and watch his trade stock plummet. Instead, the Bulls made the deal in the summer before the season, something the Timberwolves probably wish they did.

Losers
Minnesota Timberwolves

This wasn’t a bad deal for Minnesota. It wasn’t a great one either. The problem was the wait.
President of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau could have capitulated to Butler’s trade demand before training camp when it was clear he wanted out. Instead, they held firm and it only got uglier from there. Butler threw a now-infamous tantrum at practice, capping it by reportedly shouting, “You ****ing need me” to general manager Scott Layden. Friday night, after playing 41 minutes against the Kings, Butler told The Athletic’s Sam Amick “that **** has to stop.” I’m sure there’s more we don’t know.

Letting this saga get to this point was a mistake on Minnesota’s part. It lowered their leverage in trade talks and, as a result, they ended up settling for a pair of rotation players with questionable upside and no first-round picks.

Saric has been quietly awful this season. The 25-year-old is shooting 36 percent from the floor and looks lost offensively while trying to play next to Fultz. His rates were down across the board, not just in the scoring department. His PER fell from 15.8 last season to 8.2 this season, his deflection rate is half what it was last season and his game overall has been amiss. 

The Timberwolves bought low on Saric, but they should be happy with Covington. He’s a super-long 3-and-D specialist who should fit nicely next to Andrew Wiggins. But Timberwolves fans will learn quickly that “RoCo” struggles to create his own shot and rarely gets to the line. Richardson would be a Jimmy Butler replacement. Covington is not a Jimmy Butler replacement. That said, he provides some much-needed stretch to the Wolves offense, sinking 37.2 percent of his 3 over the last two seasons.

No one’s feeling sorry for the Timberwolves here. They have Karl-Anthony Towns. But it was clear that the chemistry never really came together between he and Butler. This season, the rift had gotten to point where it’s clearly poisoning the on-court product. Last season, Butler assisted one of every 7.4 Towns field goals. This season, Butler has assisted on only eight of 89, or one every 11.1 baskets. Not surprisingly, the team’s offensive rating with Towns and Butler on the court has fallen from to 115.2 points per 100 possessions to a rotten 103.9 points per 100 possessions. And remember, points are up league-wide. It was time to pull the plug.

And the Timberwolves did just that. There’s some honor in trying to play it out this season, but this is when Thibodeau’s strong relationship with Butler was supposed to come in handy.  It should have been clear to Thibodeau the President that this wasn’t going to work out. But Thibodeau the Coach may have instead prioritized retaining talent in order to return to the playoffs. By waiting and ending up with a so-so package, they likely cost themselves wins down the line.

Houston Rockets
You think the Rockets could use Butler right now? Of course, they could. Like Philadelphia, the Rockets were one star away from serious contention for a Finals spot. Now, one of those gettable stars is off the board.

From the start, it was tough to see how they’d come up with the on-court assets to rival Philadelphia’s package. They weren’t giving up Clint Capela and the rest of the roster isn’t brimming with young studs. It’s clear now that the Timberwolves wanted actual players rather than long-term picks. Houston’s reported offer of four first-rounders and some filler wasn’t going to get it done.

The Rockets need a shakeup of some sort (and we’ll get to this another day). Their offense is in shambles and their seventh-ranked defense last season is now ranked 21st. Yeah, they could use a two-way star, but now he’s suiting up for the Sixers. Silver lining: At least that star is out of the Western Conference.

Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee
Each of these elite powers have already pummeled the Sixers this season. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that.

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

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NBC Sports

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, the 2024 second-round pick and the 2025 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

For Portland, Trevor Ariza isn’t impactful enough for this to be seen as more than a cost-cutting move. Ariza, at 34 years old, has struggled to find the same level of play that made him a key player on the Houston Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in 2018.

Ariza has bounced around the league in his twilight years. In the last two seasons, Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento and now Portland have hoped he can help lead a middling team to the playoffs, but none so far have had much luck in that department. In his prime, Ariza represented the 3-and-D standard. But his mobility isn’t what it once was, leaving him as best suited for a bench role.

In Portland, he’ll be thrusted into the starting lineup by default, with Rodney Hood (Achilles) out for the season and Bazemore going to SacTown. With only a $1.8 million of $12.8 million guaranteed for next season, the Blazers can let Ariza go this summer for a small price if they’d like to change direction. The cost savings will be substantial for a 18-25 team with the largest tax bill in the NBA; The Blazers will slice their luxury tax bill to $7 million and save $12.5 million in salary overall. 

In basketball terms, this is mostly a sideways move for both sides. Neither Bazemore nor Ariza ranked higher than seventh in minutes per game on their respective teams. Ariza had found a larger role for the Kings recently, but inconsistent production made him expendable from the Kings’ perspective. 

The Blazers were wise to cut back their 2019-20 spending, given that their playoff chances have been dwindling. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has them at a 26% chance of making the postseason in the West. Most execs I’ve spoken to expected Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside’s expiring deals to be flipped before the deadline. One down, another to go?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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NBC Sports

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.