Philadelphia 76ers: Jimmy Butler needs to show up in the playoffs

Jimmy Butler | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Jimmy Butler has been struggling in recent weeks. He needs to show up when the Philadelphia 76ers’ playoff run begins.

Since joining the squad in November, Jimmy Butler has offered the Philadelphia 76ers perfectly solid production. He’s averaging 20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 45 games with the team. His .470/.336/.875 shooting splits, while not great, aren’t terrible either.

Despite his solid production, though, Butler’s tenure in Philadelphia has been somewhat underwhelming. It’s clear he’s still adjusting to a new role, often passing up quality shots in favor of distributing to teammates or more challenging looks.

He’s also avoiding the three-point line, with his shooting numbers plummeting after the All-Star break. For an offense so reliant on spacing, his sudden unwillingness to hoist triples could turn problematic in the near future.

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On top of his awkward offensive stretch, Butler is struggling, to some degree, on defense. There are definite flashes that match his reputation, but he’s been average overall — a clear downgrade from Robert Covington. He tends to have off-ball lapses and struggle pushing through screens.

If the Sixers continue to receive uncharacteristic production from Butler, it could negatively impact both the team and Butler himself. The ramifications will also be far-reaching, affecting both the 2018-19 season and beyond.

One theory, however, could dissolve some of those concerns. What if Butler is saving himself for the postseason?

After years of working under the Tom Thibodeau’s burdensome regime, the mileage on Butler’s body is well-known. He even took a rest day in the Sixers’ win over Cleveland on Tuesday — something the hard-working, I-just-want-to-compete Butler of old never would have done.

It seems as though Butler, who rested early in the season and during last year’s All-Star Game, is beginning to understand the need to preserve his aging body, not unlike LeBron James in Los Angeles. While that’s obviously not ideal in the short term, it could help Butler save energy for the postseason.

The Sixers have enough firepower, especially post-Tobias Harris trade, to survive with Butler picking and choosing his spots. If he’s more passive in a game’s first three quarters, the Sixers can still find enough offense to score until Butler carries the mantle late in games.

If that’s the case, there’s reason to believe Butler would provide a more spirited approach in the postseason. That would mean a return to normal on offense, looking for more shots and launching threes on a regular basis. It would also mean All-Defense caliber performances as the primary defender on elite-level players.

Butler feels like the fifth option on some nights. It genuinely feels as though he’s LeBron-ing it — waiting for the right moments to exert maximum effort. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially when it means someone like Butler is recognizing his basketball mortality. The importance of longevity.

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He still needs to pick it up, though. If Butler doesn’t follow the regular season with an inspired postseason, it could complicate his future quite a bit. Teams will still line up in free agency, but an underwhelming postseason — following an underwhelming season — at age 29 won’t bode well for his value.

It might cause teams to shy away, allowing the Sixers to underpay or shorten his extension. That’s not inherently bad. But it could also have the opposite effect, forcing the Sixers to outbid other teams despite his obvious lack of fit and continuity.

On the open market, Butler is still worth a max contract, though five years is a difficult sell for anyone with durability questions. I would still advocate for the Sixers striving to keep him, with the hope being a whole offseason could better cement his fit on offense.

Even so, re-upping Butler’s contract after a year of uncomfortable production and reported locker room issues would put the Sixers in a volatile position — one the front office would like to avoid.

A return to the mean would solve a lot of those issues. If Butler can thrive come playoff time, the Sixers will have little reservation when offering a contract extension next summer. It would also reassure the increasingly skeptical fanbase, offering a reminder of just how talented Butler is.

Before the season, many considered Jimmy G. Buckets a borderline top-10 talent in the NBA. That hasn’t been the case in 2019, but the two-way talent still shines through every now and then. Even at his worst, he’s lifting the Sixers late in games.

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Whether it should be the expectation or not is questionable, but the Sixers need a strong playoff performance from Jimmy Butler, just as much as he needs one individually. It would ease of a lot of tension while also helping the Sixers compete in the cutthroat Eastern Conference.