It feels odd that Jimmy Butler has been on the Sixers for more than a third of the season already.
At the same time, it weirdly feels like Robert Covington and Dario Saric haven’t been Sixers in forever — as if they’re simply memories from a bygone era.
Tuesday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves is the team’s first matchup against those two beloved figures in Covington (who is out indefinitely with an ankle injury) and Saric since that franchise-altering trade. It’s startling how both fans’ and the media’s views of this team have shifted so wildly in a little over two months.
There was an innocence to the team’s 2018 end-of-the-year run and early playoff success. There’s nothing like the first time, the time they exceeded all expectations and delivered a sense of wonder and thrill that only existed in fans’ rambling fantasies previously.
Last year’s Sixers were playing with house money and kept hitting on red over and over again — 17 times in a row to be exact. There was an electricity in the Wells Fargo Center that I had never experienced in my young life as a Sixers fan. The spark and goodwill that last year’s crew brought the city has faded.
Look at where we are now.
Every Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid interaction is analyzed with an unmatched intensity. Butler is criticizing Brett Brown’s coaching in team meetings. Everyone in the tri-state area has a take on whether Simmons will ever develop a jump shot. There’s a growing urgency to figure out how to best incorporate Butler into the Sixers’ system ahead of of the monstrous five-year contract worth $190 million they may be handing him this summer.
What happened to the loveable core of last spring, as Simmons flew from coast-to-coast and found Covington and Saric for knockdown threes? What happened to simply enjoying any given basketball game without trying to decipher it’s long-term effects on the organization?
Trading for Butler was a necessary risk. There is still plenty of time for Butler to acclimate himself to the club, but there’s just a cloud over the franchise right now, as every decision and move is viewed with the increased scrutiny that comes as a trade-off for having Larry O’Brien Trophy-sized expectations.
Butler may have been an underdog in his lifelong journey and path to the NBA, but he forfeits the underdog label when he’s a four-time All-Star who’s been a two-way beast for the majority of his career. Sixers fans didn’t watch him blossom from a player Deadspin infamously wrote was signed just to lose games into a First Team All-Defensive Team stopper like Covington. Sixers fans didn’t watch Butler in the wee hours of the morning through shady Turkish cable TV packages online for two years like they did with Saric.
Butler certainly is “a dog,” as Stephen A. Smith affectionately said when Butler came to Philly, but I get the feeling that the fun-loving nature of last season’s squad was sent to the Twin Cities in return.
When Saric and Covington are shown on the jumbotron tonight, they will surely receive rousing applause from the Philly crowd, as fans remember the “good ol’ days” when winning felt so simple and freewheeling. The duo will stand in stark contrast to Butler, a player who is the living embodiment of how difficult and frustrating sacrifices can be when trying to ascend from merely good to truly great.
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