Ramona ShelburneCloseESPN Senior Writer
- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Jimmy Butler has aggressively challenged coach Brett Brown on his role in the offense, complicating an already tenuous chemistry among the team’s Big Three hierarchy, league sources told ESPN.
Butler has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system, including a recent film session in Portland that some witnesses considered “disrespectful” and beyond normal player-coach discourse.
Brown has told people within the organization that he had no issues with that exchange and considered it within the confines of the relationship that he has developed with Butler, sources said.
While a source close to Butler contends that his intense, direct style can come off as combative as he is trying to make clear his viewpoints, Butler’s sluggish assimilation into the Sixers environment is causing some concern about his long-term viability and fit with the organization, league sources said. Nevertheless, the franchise’s full focus and resources remain on making this new partnership work this season and beyond.
The Sixers acquired Butler, a four-time All-Star, in a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in mid-November. The Sixers (25-14), who are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, are 16-8 since the deal — 15-6 when Butler plays.
Butler missed Friday’s practice with an upper respiratory infection, according to reports. The 76ers host the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.
Brown, who signed a contract extension in the offseason, remains a popular figure with ownership and management. Around the organization, there’s an urgency for Brown and his coaching staff to stabilize the situation, sources said.
Ownership has been committed to making the Big Three of Embiid, Simmons and Butler work, especially with Butler’s free agency looming this summer.
Brown had already spent significant time working on the sometimes-tenuous relationship between Simmons and Embiid, and those challenges have been compounded by the urgency to introduce Butler into the Sixers’ dynamic.
Butler has expressed a desire to teammates to play in more traditional pick-and-roll and isolation sets, rather than trying to find his place in the Sixers’ free-flowing offense, league sources said. In searching for answers, Butler has met privately with Brown and his coaching staff, as well as general manager Elton Brand, league sources told ESPN.
Butler, 29, can become a free agent this summer, and the organization’s preference has been to re-sign him to an extension. Rival teams believe Butler will eventually decide to take meetings with interested suitors in July. Butler’s preference has been to sign a more lucrative deal to remain with the Sixers, but it’s clear that there are issues to be worked out before that comfort level fully exists.
Brown talks often about the challenge of growing his group of young stars together into a championship-level team, in the same way San Antonio (where he’d been assistant on coach Gregg Popovich’s staff) did with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
“What’s most — by a mile — lately, on my mind, is the growth of a team, and the cohesion and the ability to share in somebody else’s success,” Brown said after Tuesday’s victory over the LA Clippers. “The ability to communicate candidly, to coexist. That’s all I care about.
“We’re coming together. We have a new opportunity. You don’t just click your heels and throw Jimmy Butler in and everybody’s going to be playing the same way and style. It [doesn’t] work like that. So my job is to grow a team. Ben and Jo, Jo and Jimmy, go anywhere you want. Those four are huge. Playing together is what’s always, by a long shot, on my mind.”
That challenge was evident Tuesday night when Simmons inadvertently elbowed Embiid in the face as both went up for a rebound. Cameras caught Embiid, who suffered a broken orbital bone last season in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz, expressing frustration with Simmons — who was close to a triple-double at the time — for pursuing a rebound that Embiid was positioned well for.
Both players downplayed the incident afterward.
“I felt an elbow on my face, and I kind of freaked out because that’s my same face I had surgery on. That’s why I lost it,” Embiid said. “It’s a basketball play. Nothing to talk about.”
Said Simmons: “Coach tells me to crash the boards, so I just went to the boards.”