Perhaps the only one who didn’t get what they wanted: Minnesota President/Coach Tom Thibodeau, once Butler’s biggest champion and perhaps soon a victim of this whole saga.
With Butler set to make his 76ers debut on Wednesday night, we’re turning to our panel of NBA experts for some true or false about what comes next.
Jimmy Butler will be bad for the 76ers’ chemistry
Jerry Brewer, sports columnist: False. While Butler has had his issues with some teammates in Chicago and Minnesota, he will be on his best behavior initially in Philadelphia because he’s playing for so much money in free agency next summer. He can’t go to Philadelphia and ruin their young core after the damage he did in Minnesota and expect to be paid like a top-10 player. I also think the 76ers have a better locker room and a more responsible team than the Timberwolves had. Joel Embiid plays hard on both ends of the floor, which Butler will appreciate. Ben Simmons can create a ton of open looks for Butler. JJ Redick is a solid veteran that Butler can befriend and avoid feeling like he’s running a day care in Philly.
Kevin Blackistone, sports columnist: True. If you’re into analytics, the 76ers just broke up the best starting five in the league, based on net rating, to fit in Butler. They also shrank their strike zone by swapping out two guys in Robert Covington and Dario Saric who shoot lots of threes, which is all the NBA rage, for a guy who mostly doesn’t. And if you’re into history, Butler didn’t get along with budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Now he’s got to get along with Simmons, Embiid and Markelle Fultz. Poor Markelle.
Candace Buckner, Wizards beat writer: Both true and false. While Jimmy may be harsh, maybe even a bully, on younger teammates, Embiid and Simmons don’t seem like shrinking violets. They should be just fine when Jimmy goes full Jimmy — but second-year player Fultz, who spent his rookie season trying to build up his confidence and find his jumper, is who I’d be worried about under Jimmy’s iron-fisted leadership.
Jesse Dougherty, Nationals beat writer: False. Full disclosure: I was asked into this discussion because of my Philadelphia roots, and my fascination with (and support for) “The Process” started by former general manager Sam Hinkie some six years ago. Good to be here. Long live creative roster-building. The easy prediction is that Butler will shake the chemistry that has become a hallmark of the 76ers' rise back to basketball relevance. Butler’s forced exit from Minnesota paints him as a brash and selfish guard who can’t jell in any locker room (even if that’s unfair). Simmons has not yet shared a backcourt with another player who can handle the ball, so that should be interesting. And Embiid’s outsize social media presence is bound to tick off a teammate at some point . . . right? I really don’t think so. Winning can make even the most clashing personalities mesh, and I don’t even see Butler, Simmons and Embiid as being all that different. And since they’re going to win — at least against most teams, if not the NBA’s elite quite yet — Philadelphia should not have to worry about this. But ask this question after their eventual playoff exit this spring and there is probably a totally different answer.
The Timberwolves will still be a bottom-10 team at the end of this season
Brewer: True. Minnesota clearly has the talent to turn around this season, especially with Covington and Saric looking like ideal, role-playing fits on this roster. But the Timberwolves are shot. There’s no trust on that team anymore. Thibodeau sold them out for Butler, and guys such as Towns and Wiggins won’t forgive their coach easily. The Timberwolves won’t be as bad as they’ve been, but it’s going to take a new season and more changes in order for them to heal and eliminate of some of the immaturity.
Blackistone: True. They gave up a 20-point-plus per game scorer who was a lockdown perimeter defender for complimentary parts. That doesn’t make them as good as, and certainly not better than, Utah, Sacramento or Houston, the West teams that are floundering so low. And Sacramento is a poor man’s Sixers; the league will soon be hailing the Kings.
Buckner: True. But if they wear more of those spiffy throwback “Classic”-edition jerseys, they’ll be top-10 best dressed.
Dougherty: False. If for no other reason than that the Butler saga has now come and gone, this is a good trade for the Timberwolves. Covington and Saric gives them two versatile defenders and floor spacers (if Saric rediscovers his jumper), and that could play well on a roster with Towns and Wiggins. Covington, specifically, is a great wing defender and has the potential to be a premier knockdown shooter if he can iron the cold streaks out of his game. There is still a chance the Timberwolves will still be a bottom-10 team, but it won’t be because of the pieces they added in Butler’s place. And since 16 (!) teams make the NBA playoffs, doesn’t bottom-10 still translate to “pretty much in contention”?
A core of Butler, Embiid and Simmons can win a championship in the next five years
Brewer: False. That’s a strong top three players, for sure, and Philly has advanced from “The Process” to the pursuit of championships. You’re talking about three of the league’s top 20 players on one team. Not many NBA teams have that kind of talent at the top of their roster. But this new Big Three needs help. Boston is still loaded with stars and role players. Toronto has plenty of depth around Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard. Even Milwaukee feels like a more complete team. And those are just the prime contenders in the East. The Sixers need more — more development from Fultz, more shooters, more frontcourt depth — to play at a championship level.
Blackistone: False. If Kawhi Leonard stays with the Raptors, their big three with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka will be the East’s most dominant the next few years. Then there’s the Celtics' young roster which could mature to be better than all. It’s not as easy as one, two, three.
Buckner: False. The Sixers still lack depth and though Jimmy thinks Jimmy is a superstar, Jimmy’s no LeBron. He’s not going to carry a top-heavy team past a deeper Western Conference challenger.
Dougherty: True. It really depends on how the 76ers build from here, and how the offense actually looks once Butler is inserted this week, but Philadelphia should have a chance to win it all with this group. There are, of course, factors the 76ers can’t control — what the Warriors look like for the next half decade, how the Celtics' roster shapes up once Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are up for a second contract, where Kawhi Leonard ultimately lands, and so on — yet they are now only a few moves away from having a championship-caliber team to pit against the league’s already-built title contenders. Losing Covington and Saric made them really thin on the wings, and if Fultz never finds his shot, the 76ers are going to need another guard who can create his own scoring chances with the second unit. They also could use a floor-spacing forward who can guard multiple positions. So they essentially need a Covington. Good luck finding one at the same discounted price.
Tom Thibodeau’s days in Minnesota are numbered
Brewer: True. Thibs didn’t just fail his team in this Butler fiasco. He failed his owner, Glen Taylor. And let’s not even get into the numbers that Zach LaVine is putting up for Chicago. On so many levels, the Timberwolves got this wrong, and it’s hard to see the team moving forward with Thibodeau leading them. It is probably a matter of when he’s getting fired, not if.
Blackistone: Half true, or half false. Timberwolves President Thibodeau should be fired for only getting a wing and a biscuit for Butler. Timberwolves Coach Thibodeau should flourish with the albatross of a bad attitude removed and the addition of two guys who can space the floor for Towns to dominate the paint.
Buckner: False. Maybe as president of basketball operations, but not as a head coach. While Thibodeau can still be an effective coach, if he’s given time, his role in revamping the Timberwolves into the 2014 Chicago Bulls should come to an end. Besides the coach/president trend seems to be a thing of the past.
Dougherty: False. Going to take this question very literally and say it’s a stretch that Thibodeau’s days are numbers. There is a chance his months are numbered, since Minnesota is talented enough (and now much deeper with Covington and Saric) that shortcomings should probably fall on the coach. But the whole Butler situation, and now a reshaped roster, has likely bought Thibodeau an extended chance to turn this thing around.
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