PORTLAND, Ore. — The 76ers shook up the Eastern Conference race on Saturday when they agreed to a seismic trade that will bring four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia.
The 76ers’ roster was significantly altered because the package was focused on players rather than draft picks. Starters Dario Saric and Robert Covington will be sent to the Timberwolves, along with backup guard Jerryd Bayless, according to multiple reports. Nevertheless, the deal is widely being viewed as a coup by the 76ers, as Butler can now team with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to form one of the league’s most fearsome trios.
It remains to be seen how outsized personalities such as Butler and Embiid will mesh, but the talent level is undeniable. Through the first month of the season it had appeared that the Raptors, Bucks, and Celtics — despite some early struggles — were likely to emerge as the top three teams in the East.
Now the 76ers will be viewed as more of a threat. The Celtics and 76ers will face each other three more times during the regular season, with the next matchup coming on Christmas Day at TD Garden.
Butler, who had become disgruntled in Minnesota, has been a second-team All-Defense pick in each of the last four seasons, and has been a third-team All-NBA selection the last two seasons.
Butler will likely gobble up one of the All-Star slots that a Celtic other than Kyrie Irving may have been seeking, but that is the least of Boston’s worries. When Butler is at his best, he is a fierce, physical, competitive player, and very little will come easily against him.
The Celtics had looked to acquire Butler in the past, but now their roster is considerably more established than it was then, and there was no deal that would make any sense. When Butler and Gordon Hayward are at their best, Butler is still the better player, but the talent gap is certainly not massive. The issue for Boston is that right now, Hayward is still finding his way after missing almost all of last season with an ankle injury.
Butler played just one game against the Celtics last season, but it offered a glimpse of his unusual defensive versatility. In the matchup he spent 21 possessions guarding Jaylen Brown, 15 guarding Irving, and 12 defending Jayson Tatum.
Two seasons ago, Butler nearly led the eighth-seeded Bulls to a stunning upset of the top-seeded Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 22.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. The Celtics rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the series after the Bulls’ Rajon Rondo suffered a hand injury.
The 76ers are a poor 3-point-shooting team, and Butler has never been known as a 3-point gunner. And on the surface, the departures of floor-spacers such as Saric and Covington would seem to make this area even more of a weakness. But Covington and Saric, respectively, are just 35.9 and 35.1 percent 3-point shooters in their careers. In nine total games against the Celtics last season, Covington made just 13 of 49 threes.
Butler, meanwhile, has converted 34.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his career, in line with the players for whom he was traded. But in 19 career games against the Celtics, he has made just 26.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
Lineups including Butler, Simmons, Embiid, and Markelle Fultz could struggle mightily from long range, though, not to mention the fact that all four are ball-dominant players. The Celtics already have the league’s top-ranked 3-point defense, allowing opponents to make just 30.5 percent of their tries from beyond the arc.
This trade will open a roster spot for the 76ers, who are also acquiring Justin Patton in the deal. And Philadelphia will likely look to add some shooting, either soon or during the buyout season in March. Last season, the 76ers acquired Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli after their contracts were bought out by their previous teams.
Despite his bitterness toward the Timberwolves, Butler’s play has not dipped this season. He is averaging 21.3 points on 47.1 percent shooting, along with 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. And he figures to be more rejuvenated and motivated now that he has joined a Philadelphia team that could become a threat to reach the NBA Finals.
But for the Celtics, the focus should not be on how Butler will change the 76ers. Boston, which is 1-3 on its current road trip and is facing a difficult game against the Trail Blazers on Sunday night, must work to figure out its own issues first.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.