76ers' Jimmy Butler starts vs. Magic, Markelle Fultz will come off bench

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Thursday, November 15, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After close to two months of speculation about his future destination, Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butlerplayed his first game for his new team on the road against the Magic on Wednesday night.

Butler's arrival, as well as the departures of both Robert Covington and Dario Saric in the trade that brought him to Philadelphia from the Minnesota Timberwolves, led to another question: What would Brett Brown do with his starting lineup?

The expectation was that the Sixers would start Ben Simmons, Butler and Joel Embiid with JJ Redick and Wilson Chandler -- suspicions that were all but confirmed at the end of shootaround when those five players were running through sets together. A short time later, Brown said that was in fact his starting lineup, which means Markelle Fultz, last year's No. 1 pick, is now officially coming off the bench.

"He's great," Brown said of Fultz. "He's great. He understands, and we can't say this enough, [Sixers general manager Elton Brand] said this ... He's got so many people in this program that genuinely care for him. He's one of the team favorites. Just look at how they responded.

"Everybody wants Markelle Fultz to do well. We understand he's 20 years old and has come in with a tremendous amount of expectations. We all get it. But I feel Markelle Fultz has been surrounded by insulation and friends and team family, and my judgment is he's fine with it.

"He's done nothing wrong. He's done nothing wrong."

Butler says that, despite the amount of attention that's been given to what his next move would be, his focus never wavered.

"I was always just focused on hoops," Butler said after the Sixers finished up morning shootaround at a suburban Orlando high school. "It's always fun when I get to compete.

"Not too many things go through my mind when I'm out here between these lines. All I want to do is compete and help my team win.

"Now I've got a job to do."

That job is to try to make good on the hopes the Sixers have of turning this team into one that can potentially reach the NBA Finals as soon as next June. The addition of Butler to the mix gives Philadelphia a talent base featuring three of the NBA's top 20 players -- Butler, Simmons and Embiid. The Golden State Warriors are the only other team that can boast of having that many.

In the case of Fultz, his shooting issues, including his double-clutch free throw Monday night in Miami, make moving him to the bench in favor of Redick, one of the NBA's elite shooters, an easy call. While Brown and others have cited his improved defense, and his numbers have been better playing without Simmons (and, thus, having the ball in his hands more), a team already somewhat compromised from a spacing standpoint with Simmons, Butler and Embiid playing together simply didn't need another ball-dominant, non-shooter out there with them.

Instead, Fultz will now serve as Simmons' primary backup, likely getting somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 minutes a night. He said nothing changes for him, whether he's starting or playing in a reserve role.

"My mindset, as soon as I step on the court, is to help my team win," Fultz said. "Every time I step on the court, every time I go in the game, my goal is to be a great teammate and help my team get the W.

"I mean, I don't know how I can keep saying it. Every time I step out onto the court, my goal is to play hard, and the more time I get out there, the more time I get to go hard. I just look to compete and make winning plays."

Making a dramatic midseason addition like this comes with complications. Butler doesn't know the team's terminology. He doesn't know its plays, or the intricacies of how his new teammates fit together on the court.

"Just being around the guys, getting to know them a little bit, and being hella confused by some plays," Butler said of what he got out of shootaround. "But, other than that, basketball is basketball."

To try to help Butler's adjustment, Brown tried to keep things simple for his new star, limiting the installation of plays to possible options for Philadelphia to use if Wednesday night's game is close in the final few minutes.

"Just try to be good at not too much," Brown said. "If it's a close game tonight, what are the one or two things we're going to do to play out of that environment? And just expect it's going to be dripped in over a long period of time where he feels comfortable on both sides of the ball.

"But today, it's about picking the things in close-game situations and saying, 'This is what we're looking for.' In that environment, he picks things up quickly. It's obvious that he's been doing this for a long time."

The Sixers will now be hoping Butler makes plenty of winning plays for them. The four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection represents the big fish Philadelphia tried -- and failed -- to land in free agency the past two summers, and the one it clearly decided it wouldn't be able to get next summer, either.

So, instead, the Sixers went all-in on Butler now, adding one of the league's elite two-way wing players to a roster already featuring one of its best point guards in Simmons and one of its best centers in Embiid. Philadelphia will now hope Butler meshes better with them than he did in Minnesota with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

"I love basketball," he said. That's where my energy comes from. I love to compete. I love to show I can help a team win, that I'm one of the really good players in the league. That's where my energy comes from. Going out there and competing and playing hard. Everything else will sort itself out."

Related Video