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How Good Is The Sixers’ Brand-New Big Three?

For more than a month, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau had a common refrain when asked about the Jimmy Butler saga: The team couldn’t allow itself to be distracted by the dysfunction and the rumors surrounding their star swingman, who requested a trade before camp.

But after Friday’s loss in Sacramento — which left Minnesota winless on its five-game road trip — even Thibodeau came to the realization that things were unraveling too quickly this way, and that the club could no longer try and split the middle on this highly awkward situation.

As such, the Timberwolves on Saturday finally dealt Butler to the highly talented Sixers, while Philadelphia sent over Robert Covington and Dario Saric, a couple of solid players who can be part of the Wolves’ future while potentially helping Minnesota win right now, too1.

If there’s a significant takeaway here, though, it’s that the Sixers are truly going for it. In doing so, they’re sacrificing a considerable amount of depth, cohesion and patience, essentially cashing those in to land a third star. The Butler trade increases Philly’s probability of reaching the NBA finals from 11 percent to 16 percent in our projection system — a mark that puts them more in line with the Celtics (17 percent) and Bucks (18 percent), while still well behind the Warriors (67 percent) and Raptors (41 percent).

Figuring out Butler’s exact fit will take time for Brett Brown and his team. Ben Simmons is already one of the NBA’s best passers and one of the most physically imposing guards. Yet it could be a challenge to ask Simmons — all but allergic to attempting jumpers so far — to play without the ball more than he already does, while sharing the floor with fellow non-shooter Markelle Fultz. Butler is far better than Simmons at making an impact away from the ball, but he, too, is most comfortable when he has the ball in his hands. He was usually Minnesota’s best passer and de-facto point guard, while also calling his own number several times a game; especially in clutch scenarios.

Without Covington and Saric, the team loses two of its outside shooters, which figures to shrink the floor even more around Joel Embiid and Simmons. This could create problems for the turnover-prone club, especially in postseason, where the lack of spacing hurt the Sixers against the Celtics. (Also, while the addition of Butler could help take pressure off Embiid, there is a chance the shift could throw Embiid out of the incredible rhythm he’s been in lately.)

There are some ways that Philadelphia could circumvent the problem. Finding more time for JJ Redick, one of the league’s most reliable marksmen, is likely one solution. Whenever the Sixers use him in on- and off-ball screens, defenses have to account for his presence as a shooter. But most offensive adjustments with this new core will likely threaten playing time for Fultz — not ideal for the No. 1 overall pick from a year ago, who needs more true lead ball-handling opportunities in order to develop his game.

The bigger risks at play here for Philly are rooted in how they value Butler long-term, given that he’s a free agent after this season. He presumably wants a max contract worth $190 million over five years — a steep commitment for a player with so much mileage on his tires already.

If things were to fail spectacularly for some reason, the Sixers could simply let Butler walk this summer (a step that would be jarring, since they just gave up two good players). But it will be worth watching how Butler functions with cornerstones like Embiid and Simmons, since he’s had run-ins with younger teammates at his last two stops. Assuming the trio jells just fine, Philadelphia will again be an interesting team to watch in free agency, as they could create up to $19 million in cap space after signing Butler to a max deal.

As for the Timberwolves, our projection system feels they came out of this trade well, too. They went from a 35-percent probability of making the postseason before to 44 percent now. Just as losing Covington and Saric hurt Philly’s spacing, they should help Minnesota’s. The Timberwolves ranked just 22nd in 3-point attempt rate heading into Saturday’s game. (Our previous projections also accounted for the uncertainty around Butler’s situation, so having two solid players locked in for the rest of the season helps their rating as well.)

While this deal won’t fix the Wolves’ god-forsaken defense2, both players are under solid-value contracts, and leave Minnesota with far more flexibility than they would’ve had with Butler. The biggest challenge now rests with Thibodeau, who seemingly dragged his feet in pulling the trigger on a Butler trade in hopes of squeezing every win out of this situation he could, even as it became brutally clear that he needed to be dealt (Separately: While we know it likely wouldn’t have benefitted Thibodeau, can we definitively say that this offer is better than four future first-rounders from Houston?). Thibodeau could be on the hot seat, and the reality of relying mostly on youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — each on max deals of their own — may not have given him the utmost confidence in returning to the playoffs.

The best-case scenario for Thibodeau and his young duo is that they do find a way to reach the playoffs with Towns dominating in a new role, as the team’s No. 1 option on offense without Butler.

But at the end of the day, we figure to be talking about this trade well into April and May — and possibly even June — because of what it could mean for the Sixers. If anything, this deal for Butler gives them at least a portion of the star power they sought this past summer.

Neil Paine contributed to this article.

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Footnotes

  1. The Sixers also tossed in Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick, while Minnesota sent over Justin Patton, a 2017 first-rounder who’s struggled with injuries and logged just one career appearance so far.

  2. Yes, Covington is an All-League defender, but Butler is a good wing defender in his own right, and should be able to replicate enough of what Covington can do on that end.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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