After Boston’s Opening Day massacre of Philadelphia, Joel Embiid said, “this is not a rivalry. I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.” Over the last two seasons, the Celtics are 11-3 against the 76ers, including a 4-1 Eastern Conference semi-finals series win last May. But after today’s acquisition of Jimmy Butler, Philly might have tipped the scales.
The Celtics are very familiar with Jimmy Butler. When he became available before the draft in 2016, there was a reported flirtation with Butler coming to Boston, but Danny Ainge ended up using that #3 pick on Jaylen Brown (who coincidentally, works out with Butler often in the off season). A year later, the Celtics eliminated Butler and the Bulls in the playoffs after going down 0-2 and losing home court advantage. Even this summer, there were rumors swirling that Butler and Kyrie Irving were plotting to join forces next July, potentially in New York.
But now, Butler is heading to the City of Brotherly Love, a now ironic nickname after Jimmy burnt bridges with his teammates and head coach in both Minnesota and Chicago. The simple math is that in the East’s arms race, the Sixers now have a Big Three in Butler, Embiid, and Ben Simmons. On paper, they should be able to now compete with Toronto, Milwaukee, and Boston after a slow start.
The big question will be chemistry. On the defensive end, they don’t lose much slotting Butler in Robert Covington’s spot. He’s a four-time All Defensive 2nd Team-er and should create a stout trio of two-way players next to Simmons and Embiid. The big question is on offense. Last season, Brad Stevens forced the pair of young superstars to be, well, superstars. The Celtics could afford to defend Embiid and Simmons with single coverage with Aron Baynes and Al Horford and stayed home on shooters like Covington, J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, and Ersan Ilyasova, particularly in the playoffs.
With Butler now in the mix, Stevens will have to trust his bullpen of wings to stop the four-time All Star. Jimmy Buckets doesn’t address the Sixers’ glaring need for shooting, but GM Elton Brand took the next step in completing The Process: trading in chips to bring in a proven star.
In terms of the bigger picture, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that Butler and the Philly front office are optimistic on a new contract for next summer. That could potentially still leave $21M in cap space next summer and make Philadelphia a landing spot for another near max player. The trade raises questions about Markelle Fultz’s future however. He’s been brought along with kid gloves so far, but the Sixers are now in win now mode. Butler is 29-years-old and if we know anything about Butler, he will want to win immediately.
Are the Sixers now better than the Celtics? That’s hard to tell with Boston still trying to integrate Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a roster that thrashed Philly last season. However, off the floor, they do have more options to get better. Ainge still has the uncertainty of Terry Rozier to determine, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown under team-friendly rookie contracts, and the potential of four first round draft picks next summer that includes one from Philadelphia in the Fultz-Tatum deal last summer. The addition of Butler to the Atlantic Division could force Ainge to zig or zag depending on how both teams shake out before February.
The Celtics will see the new look Sixers on Christmas Day.