When the definitive history of the Process-Era Philadelphia 76ers is written someday, there will be many moments and decisions to revisit. Without the benefit of hindsight yet, it’s impossible to know which were the most consequential.
But it’s impossible to watch what Jimmy Butler did to the Sixers Tuesday night in the Miami Heat’s 120-85 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and not wonder how different the NBA might look had the Sixers chosen to retain Butler in the summer of 2019.
The Sixers had traded for Butler the previous fall after he’d lost faith and basically snarled his way out of Minnesota in the hopes his competitive spirit and veteran savvy would help take their young superstar duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to the next level.
It did not go as planned, however. While Butler and Embiid bonded and have remained friends, Simmons became disenfranchised by Butler’s playing and leadership style.
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Both needed the ball in their hands, which pitted them against each other. Eventually it got to the point the organization felt it needed to choose between them, according to team sources, and it chose Simmons. He was younger and at the time, seemed to have a higher ceiling. He was also still on a rookie-scale deal, and not due for a massive free-agent contract. Plenty of organizations would’ve done the same.
But that choice hasn’t aged well, both because of how Simmons’ career has unraveled in the past two years and how well Butler has played for the Heat since it invested in him with two separate eight-figure contracts, including a four-year, $184 million deal last summer.
“He’s a great competitor at his core,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler, who had a team-high 23 points Tuesday and held the Sixers to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting when he was the primary defender.
“When you get into a competition, he understands the full deal — that you have to do it on both ends. And he’s able to compete with a ferocity and an incredibly stable mind. That is really unique — when it gets the craziest is when he’s really locked in on making sure that it’s solid winning basketball for our team.”
That ferocity and competitiveness is why Miami was so interested in Butler as he approached free agency that summer. While other teams worried about how his body might age or whether his combustible personality would play within their organizational cultures, the Heat saw a perfect fit for their style and have been rewarded for their belief with a Finals appearance in 2020 and the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season.
In this series, Butler has paid off Miami’s faith in him with his usual two-way brilliance. He added playmaking responsibilities with point guard Kyle Lowry struggling with a hamstring issue and missing three of the five games.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler’s 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists was his 10th playoff game with 20 points, 5 rebounds & 5 assists with the Heat. He’s the third player in Heat history to reach the total behind LeBron James (47) & Dwyane Wade (43).
Only Embiid can speak to what it’s like competing and falling behind 3-2 in this best-of-seven series to Butler and the Heat, knowing if an alternate set of decisions had been made in 2019, Butler could still be his teammate.
He has rarely addressed it publicly, but last fall, after a report that Simmons felt his partnership with Embiid had run its course, the Sixers star did admit to being frustrated and regretful of the choice to let Butler go:
“We got rid of Jimmy — which I still think it was a mistake — just to make sure [Simmons] needed the ball in his hands,” Embiid said last September. “That’s the decision they made. Like I said, it is surprising.”
But with the Sixers now facing elimination and the possibility of wasting another year of Embiid’s prime, it’s a question that hangs over both the series and the organization.
How different would the NBA look if the Sixers had chosen Butler over Simmons? Could they have just kept both after a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss to Toronto and forced them to coexist?
Embiid and Butler have stayed close and talk regularly. They make no secret of it on social media, or on the record. In an interview with ESPN in December 2020, Embiid said he and Butler watch and critique each other’s games and performances.
“He was always telling me to be more aggressive,” Embiid said. “At times, when everything wasn’t going right and I wasn’t getting the ball, he would call me and be like, ‘You are the best player. You need to be aggressive. You guys are not going to win if you are not aggressive.’
“‘You need to want the ball, you need to command it, and they need to give it to you. That’s just the mentality that you got to have. You’ve got to lead those guys.'”
It was exactly the message Embiid needed to hear as he evolved into an MVP candidate in 2021 and again this season.
But instead of delivering that kind of message to him on the bench or in the locker room in this series, Butler has been delivering the hammer for the Heat.
“I talk to Jo every day. Even before this series, that’s my guy. That’s a brother to me,” Butler said of Embiid. “It’s a privilege to play against him. Obviously, to be on the same team with him, as I was in the past, but damn you want to be able to play against the best, and have an opportunity to beat the best. And hold that over one another’s head for years to come. But after basketball, that’s still going to be my guy.”