Heading into the 2018 offseason, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown pledged the franchise was going star-hunting. Though the Sixers aimed to sign LeBron James or Paul George, they instead wound up signing Mike Muscala and trading for Wilson Chandler, which, um, isn’t quite the same thing.
In doing so, the Sixers both raised their ceiling and lowered their floor. Butler could cement Philly as a legitimate championship contender, but if the trade backfires, it may significantly hamper the franchise’s title aspirations over the next half-decade.
That’s a risk the Sixers had to take.
The clock was ticking on Philadelphia’s ability to add a third star alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. This upcoming summer will be the Sixers’ last chance to make a big free-agent splash before Simmons’ inevitable max extension gobbles up much of their salary-cap space.
This past summer, the Sixers were one of the few contenders with enough cap space to offer a max contract, which made them a potential landing spot for James or George. Instead, James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, George stayed with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Sixers were left empty-handed.
As ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks tweeted, that experience taught Philadelphia’s front office a difficult lesson:
The reality for Philadelphia is the summer of 2018 taught them a harsh lesson that cap space doesn’t guarantee you anything.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) November 10, 2018
In 2019, far more teams will be able to finagle enough cap space to offer a max deal, including big-market teams like the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. While the Sixers could have rolled the dice and banked on their young core to lure the likes of Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson, there’s no guarantee that approach would have worked. Had they not snagged one of those four or Khris Middleton, they may have wound up overpaying Tobias Harris, Tyreke Evans, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Jeremy Lamb.
With Butler on board, the Sixers’ star hunt is complete. They have “every intention of formalizing a long-term agreement” with Butler once he declines his player option this coming summer, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, which is likely to come in the form of a five-year, $190 million max contract. By acquiring Butler via trade, the Sixers gained his Bird rights, enabling them to offer an extra year and higher annual raises than any other free-agent suitor can dangle.
Such a contract won’t be without risk. Butler will turn 30 in September, and he has missed at least 15 games in all but one of the past five seasons. Having spent much of that time under head coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler has also averaged at least 36 minutes in each of the past five years, which begs the question of whether he’ll begin to rapidly decline as he enters his early 30s.
The Sixers have nearly 70 regular-season games — and what they hope will be a deep playoff run — before they need to make that commitment one way or the other. In the meantime, they’ll get to gauge how Butler fits with their core pieces both on the court and in the locker room.
In mid-September, Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice reported the Sixers were “extremely wary of the idea of Butler, specifically related to the clashes he’s had with young teammates in both Chicago and Minnesota.” He suggested the Sixers would “almost certainly” explore a Butler trade “if he came at a massive discount,” but they otherwise liked “what they have in place, and they don’t necessarily want to disrupt that with unnecessary or unworthy risk.”
Derek Bodner of The Athletic confirmed some around the Sixers “stressed caution over adding a potentially divisive personality such as Butler’s to the locker room.” But as Minnesota’s leverage continued to dwindle, “the asking price fell to the point where the risk was effectively mitigated,” Bodner wrote.
To acquire Butler, Philly gave up Robert Covington and Dario Saric, two-fifths of the NBA’s most productive starting lineup last season. Though Butler is a marked upgrade over Covington, the trade leaves the Sixers with flimsy bench depth and a paucity of reliable 3-point shooters outside of J.J. Redick and rookie Landry Shamet.
That lack of long-range shooting could complicate Butler’s fit with the Sixers, particularly with Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Simmons is infamously reluctant to let fly from deep, while Fultz’s rehabilitated jump shot remains a work in progress, to put it charitably. Even if the Sixers slide Redick back into their starting lineup upon Butler’s arrival, he alone won’t be enough to dissuade opponents from packing the paint and daring Simmons, Fultz and Embiid to fire away from deep.
The fit may not be seamless, but Butler will provide the Sixers with a go-to wing option who can create both for himself and others. Their offense tends to bog down in late-game situations — in 41 crunch-time minutes this season, they have a net rating of minus-14.1 — as they’ve been largely reliant on a steady diet of Embiid post-ups and free throws. Figuring out the division of touches between Embiid, Simmons, Butler and Fultz will be a challenge for head coach Brett Brown, but adding another All-Star into the mix is the NBA’s version of a first-world problem.
The Sixers likely aren’t done making moves this season, either. They still have their $4.4 million room mid-level exception, and they created a $2.5 million trade exception with this deal. Armed with the expiring contracts of Chandler ($12.8 million), Muscala ($5 million), Furkan Korkmaz ($1.7 million) and newly acquired big man Justin Patton ($2.7 million), the Sixers have myriad opportunities to shake up their roster between now and the playoffs. If nothing else, they figure to be active on the buyout market given the success they had with midseason additions Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli last year.
Losing Covington and Saric is an undeniable blow to Philly. Covington received a first-team All-Defensive nod last season, shot 39.0 percent from deep in his 13 games to date this year and has noticeably improved his ability to create off the dribble. In the first year of an affordable four-year, $46.9 million contract, the undrafted free agent would have been a cost-controlled asset for a Sixers team that will soon be bumping up against the luxury tax.
Saric, meanwhile, was always likely to become a salary-cap casualty in due time. With Embiid already on a max deal, Simmons soon to join him and the Sixers openly lusting after max-caliber free agents, it would have been prohibitively expensive to retain Saric after his rookie contract expired. According to Wojnarowski, the Sixers were “reluctant” to pay Saric somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 to $20 million annually due to their “salary structure,” which is code for “he was always going to be used as trade bait at some point.”
Given their dwindling financial flexibility, acquiring a player of Butler’s caliber without having to give up Simmons, Embiid, Fultz or a single first-round pick is a worthwhile gamble. There will be an adjustment period for the Sixers as they work to integrate Butler into their core, but this won’t be the second coming of their disastrous Andrew Bynum trade. Even if Butler goes belly-up and leaves as a free agent in 2019, the Sixers will still have Embiid, Simmons and Fultz to build around.
But if Butler doesn’t wear out his welcome for a change and meshes well with his younger teammates, the Sixers could be playing deep into May and June for the next few years.