The offseason is make-or-break by nature for NBA teams, and for a few borderline contenders hoping to hold it together, this summer exposed their cracks. After more than two weeks of free agency, here are three teams on turmoil watch heading into the 2018-19 season.
Jimmy Butler reportedly turned down a four-year, $100 million extension last week. (Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor confirmed Butler’s decision to ESPN 1500 without specifying an amount.) Had Butler agreed now, rather than wait to take his player option next summer, he would have missed out on upward of $80 million; he’ll be eligible for a five-year contract worth a projected $188 million with the Wolves or $140 million elsewhere. Minnesota isn’t home. He isn’t Tim Duncan. There’s no reason to agree to a contract that will pay him just $5 million more per year than Jabari Parker will make in Chicago and about $2 million less than Devin Booker will make in 2019-20, especially after Andrew Wiggins, whom Butler was expected to mentor, inked a five-year, $146.5 million max extension in October.
Butler’s decision probably wasn’t all that shocking to the front office, but Taylor still said Butler is “taking some gamble here, too” by turning it down. (I wonder whether Taylor looked him in his eyes before offering it.) The market might have messed with Marcus Smart’s or Clint Capela’s money this summer, but Butler has been on the max-contract bubble for some years now. Why fill up on airplane food if there’s a steak waiting for you when you land?
The extension isn’t the worst of it for the Wolves. Over the past few months, there have been reports indicating that Butler is fed up with Karl-Anthony Towns, Butler is not vibing well with wingmate Wiggins, Wiggins dislikes his minimized role, and Towns is not “in a good place internally” with the front office. (KAT is up for a rookie extension this summer.) Add to that the on-court issues from last season, Wiggins’s contract depreciating in value by the possession, and all trust in Tom Thibodeau as a coach and lead executive evaporating, and suddenly Minnesota’s first playoff berth since 2004 loses its luster. The Wolves are still the Wolves.
Taylor, for the record, told the Pioneer Press last week that these are non-issues. There isn’t any truth to Butler’s unhappiness with Towns and Wiggins, there’s no reason to be stressed about Butler turning down the offer, and there aren’t any regrets about Wiggins’s contract.
Every night for the past two years, as Scott Brooks has laid his head down to sleep, a dream has come to him: It’s a 265-pound, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, assured double-double, and actual presence under the basket. Every morning, he’s woken up to Marcin Gortat.
Signing Dwight Howard will fill a hole in Washington’s defense and add another dimension to its offense. But getting Dwight’s talent also means getting Dwight. Inserting his reputation into the Wizards’ already contentious locker room (think middle school, but with grown men and millions of dollars) is risky. But DeAndre Jordan won’t be walking through that door, and neither will DeMarcus Cousins. This is the most frontcourt talent that Brooks, the former head coach of the Thunder, has had since pre-mustache Steven Adams. Nothing brings people together like winning—and if they don’t win, Howard will do team president Ernie Grunfeld the favor of blowing it up from the inside.
San Antonio Spurs
If the Kawhi Leonard situation is even half as messy or half as imminent as it seems, San Antonio should be relieved when it works out a trade. Except, when that sigh of relief ends after 4.5 seconds, the franchise will be forced to look around at who’s left: Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Danny Green (for 2018-19; then he’ll become a free agent), Patty Mills, and Pau Gasol. Rudy Gay re-signed. Tony Parker, who should’ve been a career Spur, left. Manu Ginobili is hanging around like a guy who peaked in high school and can’t seem to leave town. (To be fair, Manu was one of the most important Spurs last season. I’m not sure whether that says more about him or the state of the team.) Kyle Anderson signed with Memphis, because where else would someone called Slo-Mo go?
Aldridge’s signing was the last time the Spurs had any luck recruiting. Their inability to draw free agents is rumored to be part of the reason Kawhi wants to leave. It’s also why the return on any deal for Leonard will be so crucial. What’s a couple of more weeks of tension compared with five years of finishing sub-.500? But if the wait dips into the season, the turmoil will grow, and so will the pressure. The longer San Antonio hangs on, the closer Kawhi will be to making his own decision next summer.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that LaMarcus Aldridge will become a free agent after 2018-19; he’s signed through 2020-21.