Look at how we view the 2019 Toronto Raptors because a ball bounced in.
Thankfully, for Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, the ball had enough ark and spin to rotate into the basket as opposed to away from it, which is why Leonard gave it the height it had, along with the fact that he was shooting over Joel Embiid.
But what if he didn’t? What if it bounced out? Or what if Leonard didn’t get it off in time? Or is that too complex for people to want to think about? Or do people not care to allow themselves the thought experiment because it didn’t happen? But it almost did. And a chain of events would’ve carried over, both in the short and long-term future.
In the immediate aftermath, the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers would’ve played in overtime, starting at 90 each, and who knows what would’ve happened? The 76ers didn’t even deserve to be in that position, but they were: Why? Primarily because of Jimmy Butler, who had 10 fourth-quarter points and had been the sole reason the Sixers even took the Raptors to seven and within a bounce of an Eastern Conference Finals trip. Below are the averages from that series, where only Butler topped 18 points per game, where Joel Embiid (who battled illness at times, in fairness) and Tobias Harris shot less than 40 percent, and where Ben Simmons took 8.6 shots per game despite logging 36.3 minutes an outing. The bench, and head coach Brett Brown, didn’t help matters with their respective performances. (Via Basketball-Reference.)
So let’s play this out; let’s say the Sixers win in overtime, which was entirely possible given the nature of the game. How would that have happened? Let’s use crunch time production as the barometer. That’s what matters in the playoffs anyway, right?
Here were the key players’ fourth-quarter scoring averages against Toronto, along with their shooting from the floor: Butler averaged 6.9 points per fourth on 12 of 24 shooting and 21 of 23 on free throws while leading the team logging 8.6 minutes per fourth. Embiid averaged 4.0 points through 7.8 minutes per 4Q on 8 of 16 shooting and shot 10-of-14 on free throws. Simmons posted 1.7 points through 8.3 minutes per fourth on 4 of 6 shooting and 2 of 4 on free throws. Yes, he took six shots on 50 total fourth-quarter minutes (he didn’t play the fourth in Game 5). Harris dropped 2.0 points through 8.1 minutes and shot 5-for-22 in fourth quarters. Fifth starter J.J. Redick logged 6.0 minutes per fourth and averaged 2.0 points. Both Simmons and Harris, and not Butler, were maxed by the Sixers after this series, by the way.
Safe to say that Butler probably would’ve been the driving force for them in crunch time, as he had been all series. Let’s say they do it; they outscore the Raptors in a plodding 9-7 fourth, winning 99-97, with Butler scoring six of the team’s points on 2 of 4 shooting with 2 of 2 foul shot conversions. Let’s give Embiid the other 3, making an and-one with 1:17 left or so. Cool. Then the Sixers would’ve faced the Milwaukee Bucks, who led the Raptors 2-0 in the real Eastern Conference Finals that year, then losing four straight to the eventual NBA Champions.
The Sixers lost the season series to Milwaukee 2-1; however, the first match-up came in October before the team added Butler and Harris via trades, let’s dump that. The second was in March, and all the key guys were healthy. The Sixers won 130-125 on the road, Embiid had a 40-15-6 line, Butler added 27-6-3-3, and Redick punched in 19 on 10 shots. Giannis Anteokounmpo had a 52-16-7 line but no other teammate reached 20. About three weeks later, the Bucks won 128-122 led by 45-13-6 from Giannis, despite 34-13-13 from Embiid, and 29 on 15 shots from Redick; however, Butler was absent.
Given what we know about the Bucks and Sixers since, both with parallel epic Game 5 collapse to force a win or go home Game 6’s this year, that hypothetical ECF series would’ve resided somewhere between captivating and gruesome. However, given that Butler was still on the team, and given what he did prior to his apparent fatigue in this year’s playoffs — most notably to the Bucks last year — the Sixers winning would be the safe assumption, especially since Embiid would’ve been more removed from his illness. (He averaged 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in Round 1 against the Brooklyn Nets.) It’s possible that if a ball bounces the other way, the Sixers could’ve reached the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors that year. GSW lost Klay Thompson (ACL) and Kevin Durant (Achilles) in the series; who knows?
Which brings us to last night’s 26-point collapse to the Atlanta Hawks. Would that have happened if Butler were there to stabilize and create offense for the team? You could argue, with the way Embiid has produced, adding Butler would’ve ended the series by now. You could also contest that had he stayed with the Sixers and not push for the trade to Miami, they might’ve gotten to the NBA Finals last year instead. (Worth noting that Simmons missed last year’s playoffs due to injury and only played three games in the bubble.)
It’s more of a thought exercise than it is definitive, but it’s backed by some data: The Sixers letting Butler leave might’ve been their biggest mistake of The Process. And in 2021, down 3-2 to Trae Young and the Hawks, they’re still processing — processing how the hell they’re in this position again, probably processing whether or not Doc Rivers’ presence even matters, and probably processing whether or not Simmons should’ve left in a deal for James Harden. For this current series, here are your Sixers.
Had you convinced Butler to stay, chances are Simmons and Brown would’ve had to go, at least, but in hindsight, it might’ve given you a better chance at an NBA tTitle. And, to be clear, the Sixers can still win the series against Atlanta, and theoretically, the title, but it’s Embiid — who is averaging 32.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game this series on 48 / 37 / 84 shooting while lumbering on a partially torn knee — who is doing all he can this time. The idea was to surround Embiid with the proper supporting cast in order to win a title.
In the near summer of 2021, eight months removed from a Butler-led NBA Finals berth in Miami, we’re still wondering if Simmons and Harris fulfill that standing.