Just one year after the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler, he is in Miami and the long term effects of the deal appear to few for all teams involved.
Player movement is the new normal in the NBA. Even stars, many of who would have been deemed irreplaceable by their former teams in the past, have been on the move and there seems to be no end in sight. This merry-go-round of trades and free agency has become so pronounced that of the 25 players selected for the 2017 All-Star Game, 17 of them have switched teams since that game was played.
Predictably, considering the caliber of players involved, most of these trades have already had massive effects for at least one of the teams that made them. The Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Pistons and, with that trade, they were able to lay the groundwork for relevancy post-Lob City and then transition into their new Kawhi Leonard and Paul George era; the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins and, in return, received Buddy Hield who already looks like one of the most promising shooting guards in the league. And perhaps most consequentially, the Raptors made separate trades for Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, both of whom were vital pieces in the team’s 2019 championship run.
The two biggest trades that happened this summer were the Anthony Davis and Paul George deals which will likely affect the futures of the Clippers, Lakers, Thunder, and Pelicans not only this season, but through the first half of the 2020s, if not beyond, in light of how many promising prospects and draft picks were involved.
However, there is one deal that felt important at the time, which has quickly become if not irrelevant, not the world shaker it was originally expected to be. Just over a year ago, on November 12, 2018, the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves agreed to a deal that would send Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Sixers in exchange for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick. Yet there are not as many lingering effects from this trade as one would expect. Butler is no longer on the Sixers, Saric is on the Suns, Jerryd Bayless is overseas, and Justin Patton is in Oklahoma City.
Jimmy Butler did help the Sixers out a lot last year, making game-winners, and providing clutch playmaking and defense, leading the team to at least a few victories seemingly on his own. Yet now, one cannot help but wonder, would they have been better off just holding pat and not getting rid of Saric and Covington so early in their careers? When Butler left for Miami over the summer, the 76ers were able to acquire Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade so they were at least able to get something for Butler, but it feels like a scant return in light of all they gave up to get him in the first place. Couldn’t the Sixers use their shooting and Covington’s defense? Wouldn’t he likely be a better presence on the team than Josh Richardson?
The Sixers, are of course, doing fine without Jimmy Butler so far this season. They still have Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris from last year’s team which would be enough to make them title contenders on their own. However, with the addition of Al Horford, the team has the potential to be truly great and while they are still a work in progress, their ceiling appears to be as high as any team’s in the league. It does not feel like the Sixers have yet figured out how to maximize the unimpeachable talent in their starting five in order to become the team they are capable of being.
Surprisingly, the Miami Heat have a better record than the Sixers so far this year, being 12-5 and fourth in the East. Besides Butler, the Heat do not have any other stars, but the promising performances from rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro alongside the emergence of Bam Adebayo have the Heat looking much better than many expected. Originally projected to be a marginally good playoff team, they instead look like one of the best teams in the East so far this season.
Finally, there’s the Timberwolves who are doing well thus far, finding themselves seventh in the West behind expectedly great performances by Karl-Anthony Towns and a less expected breakout year from Andrew Wiggins. Covington is, of course, playing a large role in the team’s success by being one of the best 3-and-D wings in the league, providing reliable shooting and great defense on a nightly basis. While Covington’s services may be more useful to a contender, if Towns and Wiggins continue to play as they have, he could very well be the difference between the Wolves being a legitimate playoff contender or an also-ran by midseason.
Perhaps if Kawhi’s infamous Game 7 shot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals bounces out instead of in, the Sixers win in overtime and move on to the Conference Finals, or maybe even the Finals where they might have potentially won a title. If that had happened, then the Butler trade would have been worthwhile, inherently justifying itself even if Butler still decided to leave Philadelphia after the season. Of course, the shot fell and that’s often how the fate of the league, and of potentially league shaking deals are determined, cliche as it may sound: by the way the ball bounces.