The Jimmy Butler era in Philadelphia got off to a bit of a rocky start.
The two-way star played his first game for the 76ers on Wednesday, joining the starting lineup and looking sharp at times in a tightly-contested game. But Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic spoiled his debut, hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer with 8.7 seconds remaining to send Philadelphia home with a 111-106 loss.
Earlier in the day, Butler had admitted that things might not jell on the court immediately, as he had spent just one shootaround with the team. When asked how he would make up for the lack of familiarity, he said: “Playing hard.”
“I think that when you play hard and move the ball and guard,” he added, “the ball will go into the basket.”
The words looked fairly prophetic after Philadelphia outscored Orlando by 35-23 in the third quarter and appeared to be cruising to victory. Their lead reached 16 points in the fourth quarter, but the Magic roared back thanks to big performances from Nikola Vucevic (30 points, 8 rebounds), Ross (15 points, 7 rebounds) and Aaron Gordon (17 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds).
The loss marred not only Butler’s debut but also Joel Embiid’s first career triple-double. Embiid, Philadelphia’s All-Star center, had 19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and J.J. Redick added 22 points and 6 assists. But the 76ers were hindered by a quiet night from Ben Simmons (9 points) and a loss of production at power forward, where Dario Saric — one of the players traded for Butler — was replaced by a combination of Wilson Chandler (14 points) and Mike Muscala (5 points). Butler finished with 14 points and four rebounds in 27 minutes.
Despite the unsteady performances, Philadelphia could take encouragement from the play of Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, who was moved out of the starting lineup as a result of the trade. Fultz has endured some serious struggles in his two seasons in Philadelphia, and has often seemed miscast in sharing a back court with Simmons, but as the point guard for the 76ers’ second unit he scored 8 points on 4-of-6 shooting and looked far more comfortable than he had in recent weeks.
But even in a loss, the day was all about Butler, the team’s newest star, who will be asked to form a Big Three with Embiid and Simmons.
Butler, a 29-year-old swingman, was taken 30th by the Chicago Bulls in the 2011 draft. He worked hard to develop his game under Coach Tom Thibodeau, turning himself into a star in Chicago. Over the previous four seasons — one of which came after a trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves (that allowed for a reunion with Thibodeau) — he averaged 21.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals a game, making the All-Star team in all four seasons and the N.B.A.’s All-Defense team in three.
But drama unfolded in Minnesota during this off-season when it became clear that Butler did not intend to stay in Minnesota beyond his contract, which ends after this season. Butler pushed for a trade, but Thibodeau was reluctant to give up on the player he had developed, and the team’s owner, Glen Taylor, moved slowly to make a deal. The Miami Heat and Houston Rockets both offered packages that some viewed more favorably than the final deal with Philadelphia, but when all was said and done, Butler and Justin Patton were sent to Philadelphia in exchange for Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, Saric and a 2022 second-round pick.
Despite all the uncertainty swirling around him, the 6-foot-8 Butler insisted he was always “just focusing on hoops.”
Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown and General Manager Elton Brand both talked highly of Butler’s quality.
“I made this move because I believe it’s what’s best for our team,” Brand said during a news conference on Wednesday. “We have a championship window and it’s important that we do whatever it takes to capitalize on it.”
Butler, who seemed happy to have a deal finally settled, said he believes he will be a good fit for the hard-working city of Philadelphia.
“I’m not the most talented guy,” he said. “I’m not the best shooter. I’m not the fastest guy. I just work hard.”
He added, “It doesn’t change now. I’ll take it up a notch. I think the city will love that.”
Fans in Philadelphia will get to see that effort firsthand when the 76ers host the Utah Jazz on Friday.