Once the final history of the Philadelphia 76ers in the era of the Process is written, there will be many moments and decisions to reconsider. Without insight into the past, it is impossible to know which ones were the most consequential.
But it is impossible to watch what Jimmy Butler made the Sixers Tuesday night in a Miami Heat 120-85 victory in the 5th game of the Eastern Conference semifinals and we don’t wonder how different the NBA might have looked had the Sixers decided to keep Butler in the summer of 2019.
The Sixers traded for Butler last fall after he lost faith and actually pulled out of Minnesota in hopes that his competitive spirit and veteran wit would help their young superstar duo I’m Simmons and Joel Embiid to the next level.
However, it did not go as planned. While Butler and Embiid connected and remained friends, Simmons became disenfranchised because of Butler’s style of play and leadership.
They both needed the ball in their hands, which pitted them against it. Eventually it got to the point that the organization felt it was necessary to choose between them, according to team sources, and chose Simmons. He was younger and then seemed to have a higher ceiling. He was also still in a rookie-scale contract, and he didn’t need to have a big contract with a free agent. Many organizations would do the same.
But that choice hasn’t aged well, both because of how Simmons ’career has unfolded in the past two years and how well Butler has played for Heat since investing in two separate eight-figure contracts, including a four-year, $ 184 million deal last summer.
“He’s a big contender at his core,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said of Butler, who had 23 points on the team on Tuesday and kept the Sixers at seven points in a 2-on-8 shot when he was the main defender.
“When you get involved in a competition, he understands the whole thing – that you have to do it on both sides. And he’s able to compete with fierceness and an incredibly stable mind. It’s really unique – when he gets the craziest is when he’s really focused on being make sure it’s a solid winning basketball for our team. “
That ferocity and competitiveness is why Miami was so interested in Butler as he joined the free agency that summer. While other teams worried about how his body might age or whether his fiery personality would play within their organizational culture, the Heat saw the perfect fit for their style and were rewarded for their belief by appearing in the 2020 finals and first place in the East. conference this season.
In this series, Butler paid for Miami’s faith in him with his usual two-way brilliance. He also added responsibilities for playing with the play Kyle Lowry he struggles with a knee tendon problem and misses three of five games.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler’s 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists was his 10th playoff game with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists for the Heat. He is the third player in Heat history to fall behind LeBron James (47) and Dwyane Wade (43).
Only Embiid can talk about what it’s like to compete and fall behind 3-2 in this series of the best of seven behind Butler and Heat, knowing if an alternative decision is made in 2019, Butler could still be his teammate.
He rarely said it in public, but last fall, after reports that Simmons felt his partnership with Embiid had gone its course, the Sixers star admitted she was frustrated and regretted the choice to let Butler go:
“We got rid of Jimmy – which I still think was a mistake – just to be sure [Simmons] he needed the ball in his hands, “Embiid said last September.” It’s a decision they made. Like I said, that’s surprising. “
But with the Sixers now facing elimination and the possibility of wasting another year of Embiid’s climax, it’s a question that hangs over both the series and the organization.
How different would the NBA look if the Sixers chose Butler over Simmons? Could they have kept both after a painful defeat in Game 7 of Toronto and forced them to live together?
Embiid and Butler stayed close and talked regularly. They do not hide it on social networks, nor in the records. In an interview with ESPN in December 2020, Embiid said he and Butler watch and criticize each other’s games and performances.
“He always told me to be more aggressive,” Embiid said. “From time to time, when things weren’t going well and I wasn’t getting the ball, he would call me and say, ‘You’re the best player. You have to be aggressive. You won’t win if they’re not aggressive.’
“‘You have to want the ball, you have to command it, and they have to give it to you. It’s just the mentality you have to have. You have to lead those guys.'”
That’s exactly the message Embiid needed to hear as he evolved into the candidate’s MVP in 2021 and again this season.
But instead of conveying such a message to him on the bench or in the locker room in this series, Butler delivered a hammer to the Heat.
“I talk to Jo every day. Even before this series, that’s my guy. That’s my brother,” 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 hell you want to play against the best and have a chance to beat the best. And keep it over your head for years to come. But after basketball, he will still be my type. “