Jimmy Butler’s decision to defect from Philadelphia to Miami last offseason has had an enormous impact on both franchises. Butler’s presence in Miami has propelled the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2014 when they were led by the future Hall-of-Fame trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
With Butler leading the way, the Heat have surpassed virtually all preseason expectations, and with a roster comprised of a lot of young talent — Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn to name a few — they’re positioned well for the future and poised to be a major threat in the East for years to come. And that’s before they even add another top-tier talent in free agency in the coming year(s), which is certainly something they’ll be looking to do with Pat Riley at the helm.
To say that Butler’s first season in Miami has been a success would be an understatement. It has felt like one long honeymoon. The on-court results and the chemistry in the locker room have both been great. His Heat running mates have had nothing but positive things to say about Butler as a teammate and coach Erik Spoelstra has consistently lauded his leadership. After turbulent and relatively brief stints with the Timberwolves and 76ers, Butler appears to have finally found a happy, long-term home with the Heat in Miami.
“This is where I’m going to be for hopefully the rest of my career,” Butler said earlier this season. “I think I fit here. The way that they work, the attitude that they go about everything, it’s me in a nutshell.”
The Heat certainly have to feel good about the investment that they made in Butler last offseason. But while Butler’s presence has been a big boon for Miami, his absence has been felt in Philadelphia in a major way, as the Sixers have stalled following his departure.
After back-to-back 50-win seasons and two consecutive trips to the conference semifinals — and being a couple of unfriendly bounces on a Kawhi Leonard jumper from a potential conference finals appearance last May — Philadelphia was swept in the first round by the rival Boston Celtics this postseason, and now they’re having an existential crisis of sorts. They fired Brett Brown after a seven-year run as coach and are now searching for his successor. Plus, their prized free agent addition from last offseason, Al Horford — who was signed with the money that could have gone to Butler — is already on the trade block following a single season after failing to fully jell with young Sixers stars Joel Embiid and Ben SImmons.
The first iteration of the team post-Butler didn’t mesh well, as it desperately lacked the perimeter creation and clutch shot-making that Butler provided. The fact that Embiid was openly pining for his former teammate on Twitter while Butler was vanquishing the top-seeded Bucks in the second round only adds salt to the wound for a Philadelphia front office that has been much-maligned in recent weeks.
So, could the Sixers have held on to Butler long-term? Maybe. There have been conflicting reports on whether Butler really wanted to stay in Philadelphia, or whether the Sixers were actually interested in investing in him for the foreseeable future. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes recently reported that the Sixers were indeed prepared to offer Butler a max contract as long as he rebuffed any outside recruiting visits from other teams — a head-scratching stipulation. Butler wasn’t down with this arrangement and the two sides went their separate ways. If this is true, it’s another bad look for Philadelphia’s front office.
Trading for Butler on an expiring contract was always a risky move for Philly, especially since it had to part with key rotation players Robert Covington and Dario Saric — both on team-friendly contracts — to get the deal done. However, once the move was made, Philadelphia should have done everything possible to keep Butler, including allowing him to take recruiting meetings with other teams.
When surveying the landscape of the Eastern Conference this season, it’s impossible not to wonder “what-if” for Philadelphia. The roster that they had last season — led by Butler, Embiid and Simmons — would have certainly contended for a Finals appearance again, and with Leonard out of the picture and in L.A., the Sixers may have even been the favorite to come out of the conference.
Instead, they’re back home in Philadelphia contemplating their future, with no choice but to watch Butler try to lead the Heat to their sixth Finals appearance. If anything has become clear this season, it’s that the Sixers needed Butler more than he needed them. As such, the Sixers probably wish they could have a do-over when it comes to how they handled Butler’s free agency last summer. Unfortunately, do-overs aren’t granted in the NBA.
One team’s loss proves to be another’s gain quite often, and that’s certainly the case here for Philadelphia and Miami.