After his Miami Heat dispensed of the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, Jimmy Butler said he still wishes he were teammates with Joel Embiid. In Butler’s walk-off interview, ESPN’s Jorge Sedano asked what he told Embiid after the buzzer.
“That I love him,” Butler said. “I’m proud of him. 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.”
In his press conference after the 99-90 loss in Game 6, Embiid made it clear that the feeling is mutual.
“Obviously that’s my guy, that’s my brother,” Embiid said. “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.”
Embiid gave credit to the Heat, their coaching staff and their front office, then continued about Butler: “I’m happy for him. I won’t sit here and say I didn’t wish he was my teammate. 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 gotta keep building and keep trying to reach that goal.”
Butler and Embiid were teammates for less than one full season, and no iteration of the Sixers since then has been better. On May 12, 2019, exactly three years before the Heat eliminated them in Game 6 of the second round, they lost Game 7 in Toronto on Kawhi Leonard’s legendary, four-bounce buzzer-beater.
That team’s full-strength starting five — Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler, Tobias Harris and Embiid — played only 161 minutes in 10 regular-season games, but was downright dominant: 121.9 points per 100 possessions on offense, 102.5 per 100 on defense. It had an even better point differential in 173 playoff minutes, but that was that. In the 2019 offseason, Butler made his way to Miami in a sign-and-trade and the Sixers signed Al Horford in free agency.
Butler and Embiid were thick as thieves during their short time together, and their team came literally as close as one can get to defeating the eventual champions. In the 204 minutes they shared the court in that seven-game series, the Sixers outscored the Raptors by 76 points, or 18.3 per 100 possessions.
So why did Butler end up leaving? In a 2020 story for Bleacher Report, Yaron Weitzman reported that Philadelphia was worried about Butler continuing to clash with then-coach Brett Brown and his presence complicating things for Simmons — in the Toronto series, Butler became the Sixers’ primary playmaker, relegating Simmons to a limited, off-ball role in the halfcourt. The Sixers were reportedly attracted to Horford because he could credibly defend Giannis Antetokounmpo and start at center whenever Embiid missed games.
In Game 6 against the Raptors, Butler scored 25 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished eight assists, while Simmons scored 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished six assists. The Sixers won the game, and it was easily Simmons’ best all-around game of the series. Afterward, ESPN’s Zach Lowe asked Simmons about spending more time off the ball, in the dunker spot.
“It’s not about being in the dunker, because [my role] is definitely not that,” Simmons told Lowe. “I’m more valuable than that.” Simmons added that he had played there before and “just made more plays from there tonight.”
Writing for Fox Sports last summer, Weitzman reported that Simmons was frustrated when Butler essentially became the point guard, and that management was concerned that Simmons wouldn’t handle it well if this continued, which played a role in Philadelphia deciding not to stay in the Butler business. In late September, after someone “with knowledge of Simmons’ outlook” told The Athletic’s Sam Amick that Simmons believed his partnership with Embiid had “run its course,” Embiid backed up the prior reporting about Butler’s exit, adding that he disagreed with the front office’s decision at the time — and still does.
“It was kind of surprising to see what was said,” Embiid said. “Even going back to the reason we signed Al. We got rid of Jimmy, which I still think was a mistake, but he needed the ball in his hands and that’s the decision they made.”
There is an extremely long list of what-ifs about the 76ers spanning the six years since Embiid made his NBA debut. Even if they hadn’t sent Simmons to Brooklyn for James Harden after a trade request, and even if they hadn’t lost to Butler’s team in the playoffs a few months later, once again falling short of the conference finals, “What if they had kept Butler?” would have to be near the top.