Basketball

Bob Ford: The Sixers must confront the Jimmy Butler dilemma

The 76ers have a lot of decisions to make this offseason as they sort through the remains of a good playoff run that ended up several bounces short of great. At the moment, the status of coach Brett Brown is occupying a good deal of the bandwidth following the team's seventh-game loss to the Raptors in the conference semifinals.

Did going two games deeper into the postseason constitute an improvement over last year, which was the measuring stick for success as stated by ownership and the front office? That's a thin difference, but no thinner than the distance between a falling-away jumper that hops around the rim before dropping in and one that bounces away.

We'll see about that one eventually. In the meantime, the most tangible roster decisions are the ones the organization presented itself by bringing in upcoming free agents Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Do you try to sign both, or just one, or neither?

Butler, in keeping with his career history, has made things difficult for his current team. His play throughout the postseason was excellent. Not perfect, but he consistently brought the kind of fearless playoff attitude that the Sixers otherwise lacked at times. The numbers were plenty good (19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds), but what he did can't be quantified that easily.

That performance puts the Sixers in a quandary on several levels. If they sign him to a maximum contract of five years for $190 million, they will satisfy a fan base that identifies with his style of play and his on-court demeanor, but they will also have to accept ceding a great deal of control to Butler (not to mention the $190 million).

Butler, who turns 30 in September, is a strong personality. With both Chicago and Minnesota, he railed against some teammates who didn't meet his work standards, and created significant organizational friction. There is no doubt Butler has made the Sixers aware of his opinions about the current roster, about the work habits of its two best players, about the coaching staff, and about whatever else crossed his mind.

"I think he realizes how different a human being that I am," Butler said about Brown on Monday, after a brief exit interview with the coach. "I can be difficult at times, but it's from the right place. I want to win. I work so hard and study my game and everybody else's ... (Brown) asked my opinion on a lot of different things. I would legit be in the coaches' meeting whether they wanted me in there or not, because I wanted to know what was going on at all times."

The postseason showed that the team's offense operated more efficiently at times with Butler playing on the ball and Ben Simmons drifting off somewhere else. This also wasn't perfect, because Butler tended to dominate things, but it did make the opposition worry that the guy with the ball might actually shoot it now and then. In that way, Butler's play shot an arrow into the organization's insistence that Simmons can be a championship-caliber point guard, and keeping him around might further undermine that tenet.

So, yes, it's a quandary, and an expensive one. It is trickier still because the team gave up a lot in trade to get Butler, and the trade was engineered at the ownership level, where folks are not fond of admitting mistakes.

That's the team's side of things. What does Butler want, aside from a big contract?

"Technically, knock on wood, I'll get a max contract anywhere I choose to go," Butler said. "So, you're talking (the difference between) four-year or five-year, that's more than enough money, anyway. I think I still have more than enough money now from my first deal."

Butler has earned $77 million in his career, and while he could get that extra year in Philadelphia on the next contract, four years somewhere else would still bring in somewhere around $150 million. Butler is clearly saying the Sixers need more than a checkbook to keep him around. What other terms he would demand is unknown, but we do know he isn't shy about asking.

"You always want to be able to win. That's the key for me for sure. You're looking at coaches, looking at the city. There's a lot that goes into it," Butler said, "But for me, as long as I've got my people with me, everybody knows I'm cool if they're happy."

Butler has a small group that lives with him, and includes a driver, a workout partner and others who facilitate his daily activities. He said he would consult with that group regarding his next step.

"We'll get all the families together, go on a short vacation, sit down, and knock it all out," Butler said.

It's difficult to believe that Butler will sift through his free-agent options depending on what the cook thinks, but he is a different guy, so maybe that's true. Either way, he was clearly not pawing at the door to remain no matter what.

"The journey's been amazing," Butler said. "I don't know where it goes from here, but I am very appreciative of the time I have been here."

That didn't necessary sound like an epitaph, but it did sound like a guy who has made his feelings known, has options, and will now wait to see what happens here.

Decisions, decisions. The Sixers have given themselves quite a few of those. They set a bear trap to land Butler and it worked. The flip side of that, of course, is now they have to deal with the bear.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Bob Ford is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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