On the same day Doug Pederson accepted the head coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jimmy Butler dropped 53 points, with the Chicago Bulls, on the Philadelphia 76ers. That was January 2016. In the midst of a 10-win 76ers season. Before Dario Saric came over. Before Sam Hinkie was forced to resign. Before Carson Wentz was drafted and the subsequent Super Bowl run. I was at that game with friends, and it was an absolute joy to watch Butler do whatever he wanted against the 76ers. It’s come full circle, in some way, with the report Saturday that the 76ers have acquired the 29-year-old disgruntled forward.
Trading away Robert Covington stings. He did everything asked of him. In Friday’s win over the Hornets, there’s a highlight of Kemba Walker crossing him up for a basket, but in reality, Covington played one great defensive game. Just like he has so many times, no matter the circumstance. Covington showed up, even though he was often the scapegoat. In the first two and half months of Joel Embiid’s rookie season, Covington couldn’t buy a basket, shooting below 30 percent from three. The boos were loud. Literally anytime he missed a shot the crowd let him hear it. But he kept shooting. He found his stroke in January, shooting above 35 percent the rest of the season. He had a monster eventual game-winner against Portland that January. He had the winning bucket against his new Minnesota team, too. He was never going to be a go-to scorer. He lacked dribbling skills and vision. He was streaky, just like pretty much everybody else in the sport, from three. When things opened up for him during Ben Simmons’ rookie season, he shot the ball better. He’s going to help Minnesota’s defense immensely. I’m sure people are happy he’s gone, but that’s a bunch of bullshit. Covington worked his tail off each and every night. He made the 76ers competitive on defense, especially when Embiid missed so many games his rookie season.
Butler solves the void left by Covington on defense. He’s one of the best defensive perimeter players in the NBA. It’s why trading for him makes so much sense. There are serious questions about overall offensive fit since Simmons needs the ball in his hand to be most effective. Embiid has been an absolute monster this season, leading the NBA in free throws per game while ranking second behind Steph Curry in points per game. Butler can be a catch-and-shoot scorer, but he’s also a terrific one-on-one creator. It’s a good problem to have, though. So many instances it felt like only Embiid or JJ Redick could create their shot. But adding Butler to the mix opens things up in a major way. It probably will take time to patch things up but there’s no reason why Philadelphia cannot be a top offense at some point.
In July 2016 I came home from work and immediately opened my laptop to watch a livestream of a man departing an airplane. Of course, it was Saric arriving in Philadelphia because he would be playing his rookie season despite many saying otherwise. For those who don’t know, the 76ers drafted Saric in 2014 but he had already been under contract in Europe. He said he’d be over in two seasons, but financially speaking it made more sense for him to wait even longer to earn a bigger contract. Saric, who prides himself on being principled, said screw making more money: I want to play in the NBA. Even if Saric came over and sucked, fans would have loved him forever because of that. But he didn’t suck. And that makes losing him suck even more. Watching Saric play basketball the past two years have been great. He celebrates in weird, quirky ways at times. His postgame interviews never failed to make people laugh. You saw him really find his offensive footing during Games 4 and 5 in the series loss to the Celtics last May. But there was always that unknown. He was never quite as good to be considered an All-Star, meaning he was expendable. It is, as they say, a star league.
Head coach Brett Brown said on draft night 2018 the 76ers were in the business of star-hunting or star-developing. They made an offer for Kawhi Leonard but were turned away. LeBron James was never signing in Philadelphia. Same can be said for Paul George. Butler caused issues in Minnesota. Like a full-career worth of issues. There is baggage attached with Butler, that’s for certain. But he’s one of the very best players in basketball. And it’s worth the risk.