Marcus Hayes: ‘Tobias Harris over me?’ Reflecting on Jimmy Butler’s Sixers legacy as he returns to NBA Finals

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PHILADELPHIA — “Tobias Harris over me?”

More misleading words have not been spoken since Al Gore took credit for the internet.

In a moment of pettiness and deceit, Jimmy Butler burned his former teammate after he knocked him out of the 2022 playoffs. Four years of exhaustive reporting, refreshed since Butler roasted Harris after his Heat defeated the Sixers in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, have again proven Butler’s contention to be a falsehood perpetuated by wishful Sixers fans and Butler’s camp.

Make no mistake: At this moment, Butler is the best basketball player on the planet. He carried a 44-win Heat team through a play-in round that landed them the No. 8 seed, then past No. 1 Milwaukee in five games, past No. 5 New York in six, and past No. 2 Boston in seven. They will now face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals, starting with Game 1 at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Butler is 33, and he has been magnificent. The Sixers would be playing in the Finals if he was on their team.

Except, he’s not. And he was never going to be. This is painful, but this is truth.

It’s all the more painful for Sixers fans because Butler is back in the Finals for the second time since he left. As such, it’s appropriate to revisit the circumstances around Butler’s arrival, his tenure, and his departure after the 2018-19 season in which Butler led the Sixers to the brink of their first Eastern Conference finals since 2001.

The Sixers did not choose Tobias Harris over Jimmy Butler. They chose Ben Simmons over Butler.

Any other choice was impossible.

Innocent bystander

After the 2018-19 season Harris received a five-year, $180 million contract. Too much for too little, it turned out, but not the worst deal ever.

Butler, meanwhile, went to the Heat in a sign-and-trade, the centerpiece of a three-team deal that included the Mavericks and landed Butler a four-year, $142 million deal. The Sixers received Heat guard Jason Richardson.

Simmons got a max deal, a five-year, $170 million extension after that season. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time.

Sixers coaches and management decided during the semifinals against the Raptors that Simmons’ refusal to shoot from the perimeter made it impossible to play him at point guard. As a result, Butler ran the team. Simmons, who was selected first in the 2016 NBA draft, had converted from power forward after the Sixers took him. He wanted to play point guard only.

The situation was epically toxic.

The Sixers locker room in Toronto was about 400 square feet. Simmons’ locker was in the corner opposite Butler’s. This was not coincidental. Butler sat next to Joel Embiid. This, too, was not coincidental. You could’ve built the Berlin Wall between the two factions. Not only were Butler and Simmons not speaking, they weren’t even looking at each other.

Butler’s presence would have torpedoed Simmons’ future with the Sixers. Simmons and Butler simply could never have coexisted. The Sixers were sure Simmons would force a trade rather than play another minute with Butler.

The Moment

It’s easy to forget that the summer of 2019 was the most significant inflection point in the history of The Process. Embiid and Simmons represented the fruit of a six-year strategy in which the Sixers lost on purpose to compile valuable draft picks, which they used to draft blue-chip players or used to trade for veterans.

Four of those picks, including two first-rounders, were used to acquire Harris at the deadline in 2019. The Sixers were never going to let him walk after making that sort of investment.

Butler? He essentially cost the Sixers three-and-D forward Robert Covington and Dario Saric. And, unlike Harris, Butler arrived as damaged goods.

Butler had alienated and humiliated his Timberwolves teammates and forced a trade. He was a high-mileage 29-year-old with four first-round playoff exits and no conference finals appearances. Harris was a 26-year-old Boy Scout entering his prime. Simmons was a 22-year-old unicorn who had won Rookie of the Year in 2018 and had been an All-Star in 2019. His ceiling was supposed to be Magic Johnson; maybe even LeBron James.

The Sixers were terrified that one day, while Butler and Embiid stalled in the early rounds, Simmons would return after being traded and say, as he left the court triumphant:

“Jimmy Butler over me?!”

The friction

Butler now plays for rigid bosses in Miami, where Pat Riley is president and Erik Spoelstra is coach, and he has remade his image in Miami, an image that was pretty sketchy in 2018.

Within a month of his arrival in Philadelphia via trade in November, Butler had become so overbearing that Embiid requested a trade, according to a high-placed Sixers source. Ownership talked Embiid out of that. Butler quickly learned that his future in Philly revolved around his relationship with the franchise’s cornerstone, so he formed an alliance with Embiid that remains strong today.

But not even the Jimmy-Joel alliance could convince the Sixers to keep Butler over Ben. Trading Simmons would have been admitting that the tank-a-thon strategy was wrong, and they simply couldn’t bring themselves to that admission.

Further, according to several members of Brett Brown’s coaching staff, Butler routinely was insubordinate. He would crash coaches’ meetings at which players were not invited or welcome. He would mutter criticisms of Brown’s strategies during games, knowing full well that cameras would pick them up, if not microphones.

Sixers ownership was souring on Brown & Co. in this, their sixth season, as they struggled to match wits with the NBA’s best, but Brown had turned Embiid and Simmons into All-Stars, had taken the team to consecutive conference semis, and had just lost to the eventual NBA champion Raptors. They had good reason to believe Brown was the right man to finish the job — and better reason to think Butler was no reason to poison the water for Brown going forward. Brown has said publicly he was willing to work with Butler indefinitely, but privately Brown has said he was relieved to see Butler take his talents to South Beach.

The painful aftermath

On the same day Butler was traded, the Sixers signed Al Horford to a four-year, $97 million contract. This, too, was not an either-or proposition between Butler and Horford. Horford was signed to start at power forward, but his arrival also ensured he no longer would be able to stop Embiid for the Celtics in the playoffs. Further, Horford was insurance against further injuries to Embiid, who had proven fragile (and continues to do so). Horford was 33 and in his 13th season. He battled knee issues all year, the worst of his career. It was the worst year of The Process, too.

Horford was part of the Sixers’ pathetic first-round exit in the 2020 playoffs held in the COVID-19 bubble. Simmons suffered a knee injury and didn’t play in the playoffs. Brown got fired.

And Butler led the Heat to the Finals.

It was a nightmare scenario for Sixers fans.

It is a nightmare again.

Soon after being hired in 2020, Sixers president Daryl Morey traded Horford to Oklahoma City, which then traded him back to Boston, where he helped the Celtics reach the NBA Finals in 2022. Horford then beat the Sixers in the 2023 semis as the Sixers blew a 3-2 series lead.

Then, of course, on Monday night, Butler and the Heat beat Horford and the C’s in Game 7 of the conference finals.

Simmons, presumably, watched from home. Simmons was the man the Sixers chose over Butler; the man who collapsed in the 2021 playoffs; the man who refused to report for the 2021-22 season; the man who forced a trade to the Nets. And now he’s injured again.

Which brings us back to: What if Jimmy Butler had remained a Sixer?

Short answer: It was never going to happen.