Welcome to ‘Winning Culture’ the new column focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers for tapintothemainline.com. Throughout the season we will be following the Sixers and trying to make sense of going from 10 wins to hopefully 55 in just three years. Be sure to check back each week for offbeat insights, weird references, and as many words about Joel Embiid as we can write.
When they write the history of the Philly Trinity era of Sixers basketball, like most Sixers eras, it will start with a loss:
Ben Simmons debuted in a loss to the Wizards.
Joel Embiid began his playing career losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even Allen Iverson got his start with a loss to Milwaukee.
The Process Era, designed to lose, began with a win against the Miami Heat which in its own way was a loss. And so too did Jimmy Butler “take an L” in his first game wearing Sixers colors.
We should have expected it. After the Sixers pulled off the deal to acquire Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday, Sixers fandom had three full days to build up excitement for the Orlando game.
It was a weird week.
Both Embiid and Simmons had long gaps between being drafted and playing in their first games. Fans had time to develop expectations, but also get used to the idea of stars playing for the team. Instead, Butler, like Athena in Greek myth, essentially materialized out of thin air as a Sixer.
I was watching a movie with friends when I got the alert on my phone from Shams Charania that the Sixers had completed a trade. There was no reason at that moment to expect big Sixer news. Especially not news that the Sixers, who had been “star hunting,” had finally found one. The Sixers fan based began reacting in rapid-fire reaction that never really stopped until tip-off on Wednesday night.
It was a modest debut for Butler. He scored 14 points on 6-12 shooting, with four rebounds and two assists, in 33 minutes of play. He started the game alongside Embiid, Simmons, J.J. Redick, and Wilson Chandler. It was an entirely new starting lineup as Redick had been coming off the bench, as had Chander. If it wasn’t for Butler the game would have been a forgettable loss, notable perhaps only for the Sixers blowing a 20 point lead in the second half.
Despite the frustration of Wednesday night’s loss, however, the excitement for Butler’s home debut on Friday night vs the Utah Jazz was palpable. The Wells Fargo Center was packed and the mood was electric.
The Sixers organization recognized the moment and pulled out all the stops for the game. Allen Iverson was there to ring the bell, Ron Brooks was there to sing the anthem, and NBA fan-favorite Red Panda was there for halftime entertainment.
Normally people are still coming in during intros but it seemed like everyone was in their seat waiting to hear Matt Cord introduce “the 6’8” guard from Marquette.”
Despite a hokey hype video cutting scenes from the upcoming movie Creed 2 in with highlights of the Sixers, the intro was amazing. The Crowd welcomed Butler to the moment with a loud ovation.
The highlight of the whole night might have been the crowd breaking out into a thunderous “Jimm-y But-ler, Jimmy-y But-ler” chant and Butler promptly hitting a three-point shot. Early returns would imply that Butler has a similar dramatic flair to Embiid, harnessing the crowd’s energy and rising to the moment.
What About the Game Though?
The game itself was a back and forth affair.
The Jazz usually give the Sixers a game, but usually prove to not have enough firepower and tonight was no different. Despite second-year player Donovan Mitchell putting up 31 points on a Kobe Bryant like 13-35 shooting, the Jazz had trouble scoring most of the night.
The game was close until late in the 4th when the Sixers put it away with a few timely plays, including a pass from Simmons to a cutting Butler over Joe Ingles that put them ahead for good.
The game offered a good look at what makes Butler a top player. Former rookie-of-the-year runner-up Mitchell took shot after shot, bricking nearly twice as many as he hit. Butler, by comparison, Butler scored 28 points on a ridiculously efficient 12-15 shooting. He chipped in three rebounds, seven assists, and two steals.
Mitchell, a player with a singular focus this year, failed to record an assist on the evening, which combined with his 35 shot attempts, made him the first guard to do that in an NBA game in decades.
The Sixers and Jazz have developed a bit of a rivalry with Simmons winning the rookie-of-the-year last year over Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert taking defensive-player-of-the-year from Embiid.
They are both fun young teams and the matchup should be a fun one for the next couple of years if the Jazz can keep pace. The Sixers won both of last year’s games as well.
Winning Philly’s Hearts and Minds
It was Saturday night against the Hornets where Jimmy Butler cemented himself as a Sixer in the hearts and minds of the fanbase. A week after the trade was agreed on the Sixers were playing in their fifth home and away back-to-back on the season, and their third game in as many weeks against Charlotte.
This was the sort of game that will get talked about for a long time. The Sixers jumped out to an early lead before the Hornets clawed back into it, eventually taking a lead in the 3rd. The teams went back and forth the rest of regulation.
I say the teams, but in reality, it was Kemba Walker vs the Sixers.
The Sixers have had an immense amount of trouble guarding the 6’1” Walker in previous games, and Saturday he ramped it up a notch. Walker would finish with 60 points on the night on 21-34 shooting. The first player to score more than 50 points on the Sixers since Jimmy Butler himself did the feat when he was with the Chicago Bulls.
Butler spent most of the night chasing Walker around picks and watching him nail contested jump shots. Walker was a hurricane and Butler, despite his defensive prowess, was a storm-tossed ship trying to stay afloat.
The game went down to the wire in regulation with the Sixers having a chance to win it as time expired. They draw up an isolation play for Butler who created space on a fadeaway and missed the shot. It was a solid chance but it came up short. The game would go to overtime.
Neither team could get an advantage over the other in overtime, but with less than a minute to play and the score tied, Jimmy Butler truly began making himself a Sixers legend.
The Hornets had the ball with 32.7 seconds left and put it in the hands of Walker to win it. Butler stuck to him like glue and when Walker made his move driving to the basket, Jimmy stayed with him and as the shot went up he went up too and blocked it.
Then, in a move emblematic of Butler’s never-give-up reputation, he jumped again as the ball looked to be going out of bounds and swatted it over his head directly into the waiting arms of Wilson Chandler. It was an incredible defensive play and gave the Sixers possession with the game tied and 11 seconds to go.
With the ball in hand, the game clock ticking away in overtime and a chance to win, the Sixers ran the same play they did at the end of regulation, putting the ball in Butler’s hands. He dribbled the clock down to fractions of a second, then launched a three-pointer over Dwayne Bacon.
The shot was true and the Sixers had won.
They brought Jimmy Butler in as a finisher and he finished the Hornets. It was an exhilarating finish. I would urge you to look up video of the last minute or so of the game if only to hear Marc Zumoff’s all-timer of a call.
Good Things Come in Threes
This is how the Philly Trinity Era of the Sixers begins. With a loss, a win, and then a game that will go down in Sixers’ lore.
The NBA has been in the “Big Three Era” since the Boston Celtics proved “anything is possible” and traded for Kevin Garnett in 2007, and after years of trying, the Sixers finally have theirs and the expectations are going to be sky high going forward.
The Philly Trinity is the best big three in the conference now.
For instance, take the Toronto Raptors who got noticeably better in the offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka are all good players.
The Celtics big three consists of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and … Gordon Hayward? Ibaka has never made an all-star game. Hayward has never made an All NBA team. You can say the same of Ben Simmons, but he’s had less time. Last year Simmons received more ALL NBA team votes than Al Horford, Kyle Lowry, and Ibaka. He had almost as many (36) as Kyrie Irving (42).
I’m not even sure who you would call the big three in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo is miles ahead of Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon or Eric Bledsoe. There is an argument to be made about who the best player in the East is, but it’s really only between three people: Giannis, Leonard, and Embiid.
I don’t know if the Sixers are better than Milwaukee, Boston, or Toronto, but simply on talent and star power of their top three players, the Sixers are out in front of the field.
And so we leave the original Process behind us. The goal was always to get stars to Philly and now they are here.
Joel Embiid is a 76er.
Ben Simmons is a 76er.
Jimmy Butler is a 76er.
The Philly Trinity.
Welcome to the moment.
Jacob Jones-Goldstein has written about the Sixers for Roundballrev.com, loves statistics, and Trusts the Process. He dabbles in fiction, watches a lot of movies, and goes to more concerts than he should.