PHILADELPHIA — In the three seasons since Jimmy Butler joined the Miami Heat, the Philadelphia 76ers were swept in the first round of the playoffs once, and eliminated in the second round twice — in seven games by the Atlanta Hawks last season, and most recently by Butler’s Heat in six games. The series concluded with Miami’s 99-90 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night.
With the win over the Sixers, the Heat advanced to their second Eastern Conference finals appearance in three years. They made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2020. The symbolism here is pretty clear: Butler moved on to bigger and better things, while the Sixers have remained stuck in the proverbial mud, despite several roster makeovers.
Butler’s stellar play against the Sixers had to feel like salt in the wound for the organization. The multi-faceted forward was downright dominant in the six-game series as he posted averages of 27.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists per performance. His play was so superior that it had Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid openly lamenting the loss of Butler as a teammate after the Heat closed out the series on Thursday night.
“I’m happy for him. I won’t sit here and say I didn’t wish he was my teammate,” Embiid said of Butler. “I still don’t know how we let him go. But I wish I could have gone to battle with him still. But it is what it is. Just got to keep building and keep trying to reach that goal.
“Obviously that’s my guy, that’s my brother,” Embiid added. “I mean, it’s tough. But I’m so proud of him. He’s playing at an unreal level right now. He’s something else right now. And I’m proud of him for being at this level and carrying them and what he’s been able to do.”
Clearly, the feeling of respect that Embiid has for Butler is mutual, as Butler had some high praise for Embiid after Game 6.
“I’m proud of him,” Butler said of Embiid. “Yes, yes, yes, I still wish I was on his team. I definitely love the Miami Heat, though, man. I’m glad that I’m here. But I got so much respect and love for Joel Embiid.”
Embiid and Butler played together for less than a full season in Philadelphia, but they clearly developed an extremely close bond during that time — a bond that continues to this day. Yet while Embiid’s comments were intended to credit a friend, they could also be interpreted as a subtle shot at his own organization. The organization that allowed Butler to relocate to Miami despite his burgeoning chemistry with Embiid, and the organization that has failed to build a better team around Embiid in the three years since then.
If Embiid was completely satisfied with Philadelphia’s roster as currently constructed, it’s unlikely that he would be publicly pining for the days that he wore the same uniform as Butler. But, given the way that the Sixers performed in the postseason, Embiid shouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo.
The team’s depth clearly needs to be improved. Plus, the Sixers have yet to find a secondary go-to guy as reliable as Butler. Maybe Tyrese Maxey will grow into that player one day, but he’s not there yet. James Harden was supposed to be Embiid’s co-star, but his lack of aggression in the postseason was alarming, and not indicative of a player who you want to build around long-term. At this point, Harden may be a superstar in name only.
Speaking of Harden, here’s what Embiid had to say about him following Game 6: “Obviously, I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected him to be ‘Houston’ James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, as with all of us, [he] could’ve been more aggressive.”
That’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement, especially when contrasted to his comments about Butler. Though he would never acknowledge it publicly, it seems pretty clear that Embiid would prefer to have Butler to go into battle with, as opposed to Harden, and with the way that they both performed in the series, it would be tough to disagree.