76ers have their 'Big Three,' but success is no guarantee

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Philadelphia 76ers’ path from national embarrassment to respectable franchise was anything but conventional, so their first voyage with Jimmy Butler was bound to fall in line.

Butler was mostly passive as he took baby steps in acclimating himself with new teammates, a new system and, presumably, a break from the drama that has followed him since issuing his trade demand to the Minnesota Timberwolves two months ago.

In perhaps a fitting scenario, the 76ers allowing a 21-0 fourth-quarter run to the Orlando Magic in their 111-106 loss at Amway Center probably felt normal in some ways because the focus, at least, was on basketball and how Butler will help a team that has struggled late in games to take the next step.

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He saw first-hand where his control will be necessary, and should he walk into practice yelling, “You need me!” — the way he did with Minnesota — nobody would have room to object.

Jimmy Butler kept it cool in his debut with the 76ers. (AP)
Jimmy Butler kept it cool in his debut with the 76ers. (AP)

Butler played it cool in his 33 minutes, only taking two shots in the fourth quarter and the last was when the game was out of reach. He preferred to cede space to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who are still learning on the fly, and in Simmons’ case, he’s adjusting to the league catching up to his allergies outside the paint.

When things settle into some level of normalcy, that’s when Butler is supposed to come in.

“He comes in and he’s trying to do the right thing,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “He’s trying to figure everybody else out. They’re trying to figure him out, and it’s going to take some time.”

The bold move calls for a quick adjustment, but there promises to be some growing pains in the interim — and it appears Butler is content to play the long game as opposed to coming in and taking over, which is when he’s at his fiery best.

“I shot the ball when I was open,” Butler said. “Passed it to the open guy when they were open, played it to the best of my ability.”

With Butler, the 76ers have turned into the most intriguing team in the Eastern Conference nearly overnight, and even though there’s a path to becoming the representative in the NBA Finals, it’s not clear which route this bunch can take to get there.

“In some ways, the loss, we’ll find tremendous benefit,” Brown said. “You don’t just click your heels and win NBA games.”

But isn’t that sort of what GM Elton Brand expected by aggressively going after a star in the prime of his career? The fast-forward button was pressed late Friday night when the trade was all but consummated.

Brown should know better than anyone these changes take on a life of their own, and even if the debut went as they all hoped, rocky moments would be ahead.

One could call it a process.

There were flashes, moments in which you could see the star trio mesh in late-game situations. At one point in the fourth quarter, Butler drew the defense on a pick-n-roll with Embiid, shoveling it to the big man who rumbled toward the basket before finding two defenders in his path. All the while, Simmons was making his move from the weak side with a cut as Embiid found him for an uncontested dunk.

Other moments were expectedly choppy as the Magic made a run, with Terrence Ross hitting late triples to conclude matters.

But even as the 76ers grow, questions will have to be answered. Butler is by far the most accomplished player on the roster, but the furthest he’s ever gone in the postseason was Game 6 in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Bulls sputtered before falling to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.

J.J. Redick was a reserve on the Orlando Magic team that went to the Finals in 2009 and played as a main cog on some promising yet underachieving teams with the Clippers.

The rest of the roster has yet to experience the postseason aside from last year. Simmons is in his second year of playing professional basketball. Markelle Fultz is working through his own issues, and it’s impossible to project what he’ll turn into down the line.

Wednesday night proved some certainties are on the way. But the pains are inevitable, and the growth isn’t a guarantee.

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