Boomer Take incoming: I can already see the eyes rolling as I type this. I didn’t like anything about the Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony Towns fight. I’ve written as much as anyone about the Sixers’ smash mouth and bully ball approach to this season, and I love aspects of it. Let me be clear, I am not anti-toughness. I get that the team is leaning into the heel role in an NBA that has gotten progressively smaller and more finesse. “We are huge” is legit and a great way to zig while their competitors comfortably zag.
However I cannot escape the sense that a third party had a hand in this altercation, and that third party has multiple incentives aligned with creating this kind of distraction. That third party? Former Sixer, Jimmy Butler.
Overnight, as the KAT Embiid social media beef raged, a question started forming for me.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) October 31, 2019
Is Jimmy Butler so cruel that he turned two decent people against each other? Is he the real instigator here? A lot of these jabs seem sourced from him. pic.twitter.com/wM8cb5RvFf
And apparently I’m not alone in this speculation.
Jimmy Butler Is Not Your Friend
Butler, 30, has moved on to the Miami Heat. Butler is charismatic and influential. His “tough-guy with a huge smile” act is perhaps only unique to the NBA. He employs an old school psychological warfare that vacillates between bullying and tough love. He will tell you that he will press buttons to make teammates better. But he has all of the incentives to drive Embiid toward doing his dirty work against a supremely talented but admittedly gentler soul in Towns.
Butler forced his way out of Chicago, Minnesota, and almost certainly Philadelphia. He now resides in Miami and is fighting a perception that he has gone there more for lifestyle reasons than championship aspirations. He and Embiid were distant at times last year after the trade. But in the playoffs, when all of the cameras were alight and the world was watching, Butler began attending press conferences with his new best buddy Joel.
As Butler displayed his huge smile, he sat next to Embiid who needs precious little goading into the “Troell Embiid” character. Sure enough, when something controversial needed to be said, it was Embiid who did the dirty work as Butler smiled and said, “You are gonna get me in trouble up here.”
Come on Jimmy…
Killing Two Birds
So why would Butler want something like this to happen? Well for one, he got a front row seat to the sheer dominance of Joel Embiid. Butler may have hated Brett Brown’s switching defensive scheme. He may have hated the offense built around a 6’10” point guard who is all bite and no bark. Hell, he may have even hated the city of Philadelphia which, given time, may have seen through his “I just want to win” act.
He got out ASAP, but he knew he was leaving the crown jewel, not only of Philadelphia, but of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. He saw the team around him collapse the moment Embiid walked to the bench each game against Toronto. He knows that Embiid got him paid. There were plenty of “is Jimmy Butler still worth the max?” questions last December. You know Butler is thinking, “What if I could convince Joel to join me on South Beach?”
But how do you do that?
Embiid is one of the most beloved athletes in Philadelphia history. From the moment he was drafted in 2014, he has captured the hearts of a city that ached with him as he worked back from two full seasons on the sidelines, as he recovered from multiple surgeries, and as he grew into this massive force that could change the entire NBA. How do you erode that connective tissue between someone beloved by their city? Well first, you gently prod him into turning from hilarious Troell, into something darker, meaner, and less likeable.
Step 1: Amplify the nonsense
For all of Embiid’s delightful personal aspects, he is comfortable walking the fine line between playful trolling and the darker aspects of the internet. You don’t bring down a troll by arguing, you bring them down by amplifying their essence until they destroy their own likeability.
Step 2: Patience
The Sixers have made the second round of the playoffs in successive seasons. Joel Embiid loves Brett Brown more than people realize. But teams rarely remain stagnant after three straight seasons of playoff exits. One more second round exit and people in the city will turn against Brown, and ultimately Embiid. When the fanbase no longer erupts into MVP chants when Embiid is at the free throw line, does he begin to look for warmer and greener pastures? Should Brett Brown be fired? Does Joel still feel as connected to the city?
Step 3: Keep fostering a tough guy mentality
We get it Jimmy, you had it rough. You know who else had it rough? Literally everyone. I am all for the fight, and I admire the odds that Butler overcame to become the type of man who could provide this kind of generational wealth for his friends and family. We get it, you struggled. Does that invalidate everyone else on the planet who has managed to survive a world that has become harder and harder to make it? This is a complicated world, Jimmy. Thanks for making it look like you are the only one to have had it rough.
Worst case, you undermine a rival. Best case? You get Joel to force a trade to Miami or have him join you as you enter the deep twilight (midnight hour) of your career. Butler may think he is playing psychological warfare. In reality, he is just an old man baiting two younger stars into fighting. This is just sad.
I’m not taking sides in the altercation. It was mostly just Embiid imposing his will on a player who has gotten more accolades than he has perhaps actually earned. There are no asterisks when people talk about Karl Anthony Towns, and that could irk someone like Embiid, who has accomplished far more despite far more challenging circumstances. But…
Embiid bullied Towns in the game, as per the usual. The Sixers were up 20 in the third quarter, and Embiid had forced a turnover. Towns reacted in frustration, and Embiid did not back down.
I take ZERO ISSUE with this
But here is where I take issue. Joel knows this city, he lives in this city, he feels our pulse. It was absolutely a cheap and easy win for him to play the Rocky role and amp up the crowd as he headed toward the locker room after being ejected. Easy win for him, right?
But you only get so many cheap and easy wins in this world. Why waste it on a player in another conference who has yet to sniff playoff atmosphere?
If Joel is about rings, then this was simply punching down. And punching down is not what Philadelphia is ultimately about. Rocky was invoked many times Wednesday, but the reason the film Rocky resonates with people is because Rocky punched up in weight class. And make no mistake, you, me, all of us are defined by the caliber of our rivals and friends. Joel should see KAT as a twice per year W stamp and otherwise a nice guy whose family lives nearby. Period.
And this is why my mind keeps returning to Butler
“I knew somehow, someway I was going to get drug into the clash of the titans, whatever you want to call it.” This is blatant BS from Butler. He had nothing to lose but everything to gain by inciting this sort of rivalry and ultimately fight.
‘Here we go, my name is getting thrown into it.’ Jo is my guy. I knew he would be the one to throw me into it.”
Yes, Jimmy, you are the victim. Please tell me more about how you were at the practice facility at 3:30am because you care sooooooo much about winning.
Philadelphia prizes authenticity most of all. The “toughness” and “tell it like it is” aspect of the culture stem from our preference for what is real over what is glamorous.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) November 1, 2019
And this is why Butler having influence on this Embiid, KAT fight bothers me.
Philadelphia prizes authenticity, and I’m calling bullshit on Jimmy Butler. He seems to delight in leaving destruction in his wake.