In the two months since Jimmy Butler requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, plenty of reports surfaced about the perennial All-Star – with quite a few painting him in a negative light. There was talk about how he clashed with younger teammates, how he has a very demanding leadership style and how he distanced himself from Wolves teammates at times.
However, the drama that’s dominated NBA headlines in recent weeks is finally a thing of the past. The 29-year-old is now officially a member of the Philadelphia 76ers and he couldn’t be any happier.
The fun started on Tuesday night, when the 76ers arranged a team dinner at an Orlando steakhouse called Ocean Prime. With Butler and Justin Patton (who was also traded from the Wolves) just joining the team and several offseason additions like Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala and Landry Shamet among others still getting acclimated, the organization planned this night out so everyone could get to know each other a bit more.
At one point during the meal, 76ers head coach Brett Brown looked around and realized just how unlikely a scene like this seemed just a few seasons ago. After winning just 47 games in his first three years with the organization, Brown is now surrounded by two All-NBA players (Butler and Joel Embiid) and the reigning Rookie of the Year (Ben Simmons). Throw in a strong supporting cast that includes battle-tested veterans (like JJ Redick) and high-upside prospects (like Markelle Fultz) and he’s understandably feeling good about his squad.
“We all feel the energy. It’s not just the guys, it’s the coaching staff, it’s the city,” Brown said. “It’s the excitement of looking back at where we were and where we are now. To be able to look around last night… I’m looking two tables over and seeing that in between Ben and Joel, I’m seeing Jimmy Butler eating with those guys. That’s a different sight! That’s a really different sight! I think there’s just a real excitement that we got better, and we might have gotten significantly better. It sure is different from where we have been.”
The days following a trade are stressful and chaotic for any player. Wilson Chandler, who has been traded several times (including this past summer from the Denver Nuggets to Philly) summed it up best: “For a couple weeks, you’re like, ‘Oh sh*t, man. This is crazy.’”
Butler admitted that the last few days have been a whirlwind, but quickly made it clear that the Sixers should still be winning games as they work through this adjustment period.
“That’s part of the business,” Butler said. “A lot has been going on. But no matter what, we’re expected to win… That’s not an excuse.”
While fans just see the on-court adjustments after a deal, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes. The traded player is getting acclimated to a new group of teammates, a new coaching staff, a new city and much more. They also must figure out where they’ll be living. Some players crash with a teammate, but most end up living out of a hotel. When an NBA team acquires a player, they are allowed to cover the cost of that individual’s hotel room for 90 days while they try to figure out where they’re going to sign a lease.
This is the kind of stuff that Butler is dealing with at the moment, while trying to learn his teammates’ tendencies as well as a ton of new plays and terms.
For the rest of the Sixers, in addition to getting to know their new superstar teammate, they’re adjusting to life without three members of what’s essentially their second family: Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless (who were dealt to Minnesota).
The Sixers’ players found out about the blockbuster deal on Saturday morning, as they were filtering into a morning meeting. Suddenly, the players started getting tweet notifications, text messages and phone calls. Some players felt more conflicted than others. For a player like Chandler, who is still relatively new to Philadelphia and getting to know every Sixer player – Butler or otherwise – he was mainly excited and thought about how much better the team would be with the two-way star.
“Playing against him was always tough, so I’m glad he’s my teammate now,” Chandler said of Butler. “It’s obviously the biggest trade of the year; it’s probably the biggest trade that we’ll see all season. The business is the business. You lose guys and it’s unfortunate, but when it’s a guy like Jimmy coming in, it’s sort of like… you feel sorry [for them], but you know you’re gaining a great player.
“It’s similar to when I got traded to the Denver Nuggets for Carmelo Anthony. At first, I was mad. But when I actually sat down and thought about it, I was like, ‘It’s ‘Melo! I mean, I would’ve traded me too!’ It’s tough, but the business is the business. You just focus on the fact that you’re gaining a great player, someone who’s going to push us further.”
For someone like TJ McConnell, who played four seasons with Covington and three seasons with Saric and Bayless, the news was tougher to process. McConnell was the one who relayed the details of the trade to Chandler, who had left his phone upstairs.
“He was like, ‘Damn, that’s kind of messed up,’” Chandler recalled. “It’s tough. Those guys had a close connection because they were here with TJ through thick and thin.”
It’s important to remember that there are real-world implications to every move. Butler found out about the move in much the same way the Sixers’ players did: he started getting a ton of texts and calls.
“It’s crazy, because it seems like everybody knows before the people who are supposed to know know,” Butler said. “My phone was blowing up. I was only waiting on two people to tell me that this was what was going on, but I had about 35 text messages before those two people I wanted to hear from actually contacted me. That’s actually how I found out.”
Butler is thrilled, though. Not only is the ongoing saga in Minnesota over, he’s joining a team that’s expected to contend in the Eastern Conference, and they have a wide-open championship window since his star teammates Embiid, 24, and Simmons, 22, are so young.
On Wednesday morning, Butler showed up early to the Sixers’ shootaround so he could talk with Coach Brown and try his best to learn some of the plays. However, Philadelphia uses very different terminology than most teams, so Butler admitted to “being hella confused on some plays” after shootaround.
“I am going to lock into [the playbook] and figure it out once they give it to me,” Butler said. “Next game, I guarantee I will know a lot more than I did this game.”
While he may have felt confused, his teammates were impressed by how well Butler was learning everything on the fly.
“He actually picked up stuff pretty fast – way faster than I’ve been able to pick up stuff so far,” Chandler admitted with a laugh. “It’s just that our language, the terminology, is different from most teams. They just refer to things differently. I’m still trying to figure it all out.”
National reporters from around the country flew in to witness Butler’s debut in Orlando. The Sixers’ shootaround was held at a local high school. The school’s employees were extremely accommodating, but it’s clear they didn’t realize the shootaround would be such a circus. Whenever a journalist from a new media outlet showed up, the assistant principal had to call someone from the school district to get approval. As more and more people showed up, the two ended up just staying on the phone with each other rather than continue to call back and forth.
After shootaround, Butler was putting up shots with McConnell and all eyes were on the star forward. Not only was the horde of media members watching and filming his shots, some Sixers players and staffers stopped what they were doing to observe their new acquisition. Butler had fun with it, throwing up some shots like Steph Curry with no follow-through and tossing up crazy lay-ups (and pretending to be fouled by an invisible defender).
Eventually, Butler spoke to the media and preached patience. Right now, everyone in the Sixers organization is trying to temper expectations and make it clear that there’s a lot of learning and growing that must be done in the coming weeks and months.
“We have a lot to work on and we still have to get used to playing together, but he brings something to the team that we didn’t have before – [the ability to] create shots and be able to make shots off the dribble,” Embiid said. “[But] we have a lot to work on, especially when it comes to spacing and learning to play with each other.”
“It’s like having three giants in the room when you have Joel, Jimmy and Ben,” Chandler said. “It’s going to take time, but I know everybody’s mindset. I know everybody wants to win, so a lot of guys are putting pressure on themselves and saying [we should make the] NBA Finals or Conference Finals. And I think when you have a great team and you’re a great player, you should [have that belief and set those expectations].”
Before the start of Wednesday night’s game against the Orlando Magic, Butler sprinted from the locker room just before player introductions. As he emerged from the locker room, he got cheers. He ran to the bench and was completely locked in, staring at the floor and taking in this moment. When Butler’s name was announced, the Orlando crowd gave him a huge ovation – one of the loudest that any player has received in Amway Center this season.
The Sixers ended up losing Butler’s debut game to the Orlando Magic, 111-106, on Wednesday night. Butler finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and shot 6-of-12 from the field. It was clear that he had only been through one shootaround and still had a lot to learn – from a terminology standpoint and chemistry standpoint.
Again, the company line is that it will take time to get Butler acclimated, but everyone is optimistic about the team’s ceiling. Not only was Butler learning on the fly, it was also just the fifth game that fellow starter Wilson Chandler has played with the team. He missed all of October with a hamstring injury and he’s still getting healthy, playing just over 20 minutes per game. He told HoopsHype that after this week, his minute restriction will be lifted.
While the loss was a disappointment for a Sixers team that had been on cloud nine, there were certainly positives to take away from the game.
At one point, Coach Brown showed off a versatile, small-ball lineup of Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler. Simmons was playing point guard on offense and center on defense, guarding Magic big man Nikola Vucevic.
“It’s great and it’s very important in today’s NBA,” Chandler said of the team’s versatility and uber-small-ball lineup. “You can have a lot of success with that. Back when I first came into the NBA, there were only a few teams doing that – Phoenix was doing it and then we did it in New York a little bit with Mike D’Antoni. Now, you almost have to be able to match up against small-ball lineups.
“I think we can do both really well. We can play big since we have Joel, who is arguably the best center in the league, and we can go small to match-up with teams like Golden State and Houston and whoever else goes small. Now that we’ve added Jimmy to the mix – a guy who’s a great defender and a great offensive player – the sky’s the limit. There’s no limitations to what Coach Brown can do with the rotations.”
Embiid admitted he was “pissed” after the loss to Orlando; he was upset that he was pulled out of the game in the first quarter despite having the hot hand (he had hit a trio of three-pointers) and by how poorly he played the rest of the game. However, Embiid was excited about two things: Butler’s defensive abilities and a handful of nice two-man plays between the All-NBA teammates.
“He’s a great one-on-one defender and, when he switches guys, he’s amazing too,” Embiid said of Butler. “His great defense is one of the things he’s going to bring to the team. I think he [nearly] led the league in deflections. He’s got great hands. We just lost someone like that in Cov, but we got Jimmy and we all know what his reputation is on the defensive end.
“We had a couple passes where he cut backdoor and we had a couple of handoffs where we found each other, which is something I usually do with JJ. That’s one thing we have to take advantage of because I feel like JJ and I are really unstoppable in our two-man game. Having Jimmy and executing those type of situations with him, I think he takes us to a whole ‘nother level.”
Simmons came away impressed as well, saying several times that it’s really fun to have a weapon like Butler when you’re a facilitator.
“Jimmy is going to fit right in,” Butler said. “Just the way he plays, the way he sees the game, the way he runs the floor. It’s going to be a lot of fun… the way he can spin for lobs, read plays the right way and make plays [for himself]. He can score the ball, and he’s a great defender. He just knows how to guard certain guys because he’s been in the league for a while. He knows [how to slow down] whoever he’s matched up against. His basketball IQ is very high.”
Butler was understandably frustrated after the game, but he raved about Embiid, Simmons and Redick.
“Joel is a hell of a player,” Butler said. “Whenever you put really good basketball players out there on the court, it’s always going to look good as long as you play basketball the right way and I think we all do that, we just came up a little bit short… I love Ben, man. He’s such an unselfish player. He plays hard, pushes the ball in transition, guards [multiple positions]. He’s only going to make everybody around him better, which is going to make himself better [too]. We just need him to keep playing the way he is playing… JJ has been big. He’s been teaching me where I was supposed to be on the floor in different situations. He’s obviously a great player, a great shooter, a great passer and all of that good stuff, but he’s also been an incredible leader. He’s an incredible leader to everybody, including myself. I need that at times as well. I’m glad to have him as a teammate.”
While he was terse at times, Butler was downright giddy when discussing the team’s defensive upside.
“Man, [I’m excited about] what we’re capable of on the defensive end,” Butler said. “If everybody in on the same page and we are getting our hands on the loose balls and securing the rebounds and taking off the other way? Whew. I mean, that’s the most beautiful part of the game to me. I think we can be really good – really good – on the defensive end. Whenever we are locked in and firing on all cylinders, I’ll be very happy with our defense. That’s the most important thing to me.”
However, the most interesting quotes of the day may have been about Butler’s leadership. Every player who spoke after the game seemed to agree on one thing: Butler’s demanding style will not only be tolerated in Philly, it’ll be encouraged. While Butler received some criticism for pushing his former Wolves teammates too hard and asking too much of his peers, the Sixers seemed to welcome it.
“At one point, he told me I was communicating defensively, but I wasn’t being loud [enough]. Then, he came to me and told me I need to be loud,” Embiid said. “That’s what I want him to do; he was pushing me. I like that. I need to do my job. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league.”
When told that Butler is all about playing hard, Embiid was quick to point out that they have this trait in common.
“I don’t think there are any of us who don’t play hard. That’s what we do for a living, that’s what we get paid for and that’s the culture [here],” Embiid said. “Our culture is all about defense and playing hard. That’s what our guys have been preaching for the past four or five years.”
“He is a positive guy,” Simmons said of Butler. “He’s a really positive guy in the locker room. He’s cool. He wants to be here and he wants to win. He’s always going to be one of the first guys in the gym, which we love. He is someone who is going to push everyone. He is going to help a lot.”
“You read all of these stories about him; you read about what kind of person he is, what kind of guy he is in the locker room. I think he’s just passionate about winning and he’s kind of aggressive, so it’s taken the wrong way sometimes,” Chandler said. “But from what I’ve experienced, he just wants to win and he’s aggressive and he’s really open about that. But he’s a great person, a great teammate. He talks with you, he communicates a lot. I think he comes off the wrong way to certain guys, but I understand where he’s coming from, so I think he’s a great teammate.”
When asked if it’s hard to stay patient and wait for this team to come together, Butler answered without any hesitation.
“It’s not hard at all; so far, we all get along,” Butler said. “I think that’s the first thing. We all want each other to be great. We’re all talking, telling each other where we’re supposed to be and what we see out there on the floor… [I love] how hard they play; I think that’s the one thing you notice more than anything. They play so incredibly hard. They want to win. That makes me smile, because that’s who I am as a person every single day.
“I love to play the game of basketball and tonight, I was able to just go out there and hoop [without any distractions]. That was the first time I’ve been able to do that this season.”