Philadelphia 76ers

Nylon Calculus: What is Jimmy Butler so mad about?

As outsiders, it’s easy to make generalizations, to misunderstand the actual dynamics happening on the court and overlook legitimate reasons for a player to be frustrated. For example, how could Butler be upset with his role in the 76ers offense when, numerically, he’s getting almost the exact same opportunities he received in Minnesota? In Philadelphia, Butler has been attempting 20.7 field goals per 100 possessions with a usage rate of 23.1 percent, almost identical to his 20.9 field goal attempts per 100 and 23.2 usage rate in Minnesota.

Obviously, the difference is the nature of those opportunities. For example, Butler is less involved in close games with Philadelphia — his clutch usage rate has fallen to 23 percent, from 28 percent with the Timberwolves. He’s also creating less of his shot opportunities himself — 62 percent of his made field goals in Minnesota were unassisted, about the same as Kyrie Irving’s number this season. Since joining the 76ers, that number has fallen to 39 percent, about the same as Thad Young.

Average touch length and several other player tracking possession stats are currently unavailable on the NBA’s website but insights provided by Sportradar and NBA Advanced Stats into Butler’s pick-and-roll opportunities can help inform what’s going on. The table below compares Butler’s statistics as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in Minnesota and Philadelphia, for his three most-likely screener pairings (Gibson, Dieng, Towns for Minnesota; Embiid, Simmons, Muscala for Philadelphia).

Butler is handling the ball in pick-and-rolls far less often but, from a team perspective, those players have been producing the exact same return in Philadelphia as they were in Minnesota. The difference is that the screener is getting the opportunity to score far more often than Butler. He is getting fewer opportunities to create with the ball in his hands and when he is creating, the structure of the Sixers offense is set-up to more of those scoring opportunities funneled to the big men.

This makes sense. Certainly, no one likes to have their skill set marginalized and Butler has the body of work to prove he can produce more if he’s given the chance to. The question, of course, is whether that’s in the best interests of the team or just Butler.

In the more constrained role in which he’s playing in Philadelphia, Butler is part of a much more successful offense — the 76ers are scoring a very strong 111.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, much more than the 104.5 points per 100 possessions the Timberwolves managed. But that number drops precipitously, to 105.7 points per 100 possessions, if we filter down to just minutes when Butler is on the floor with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (the scenario when he would seem to be relinquishing the most on-ball responsibility). That offensive efficiency mark ranks 161st among the 250 three-man units that have been on the floor together for at least 350 minutes this season.

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Changing the dynamic of the offense when those three are on the floor certainly risks disrupting the rhythm of Embiid and Simmons, or simply aggravating them and making chemistry issues worse. But that trio has been on the floor for about 17.5 minutes per game, barely outscoring opponents and putting up points at a rate well below their theoretical ceiling. Working to stagger minutes more could be a partial solution — the team’s offensive efficiency has been great with Simmons and Butler on the floor and, while not great, at least stronger when Butler is on the floor with Embiid. However you feel about Butler’s personality and interpersonal skills, he may have a point — there would seem to be upside for the 76ers in adjusting how they go about trying to score when their three best players are on the floor together.

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