When Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota on draft night last year, it signaled that the Wolves were ready for a change—from perennial losers to playoff team, from rebuilding project to win-now mode. Butler is primed to change the Wolves once again, except this time it’ll likely be for the worse. Last season, Butler led the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins didn’t elevate their play enough for it to make a difference in the postseason, and the team’s chemistry issues that surfaced in December weren’t solved. Now Butler reportedly wants out of Minnesota’s messy situation.
The calm before the storm of the NBA season ended on Wednesday when word leaked that Butler requested a trade after meeting in Los Angeles with Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski. The Knicks, Nets, and Clippers are listed as his preferred destinations, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, with Butler holding the biggest “come and get me” sign up for the Clippers. League sources have consistently told me that Butler desires to play for a big-market franchise, so the three mentioned teams aren’t a shocker.
Butler can hit unrestricted free agency next summer and wants both the limelight and the money. But finding a sensible trade won’t be easy for Thibodeau, which raises big questions about what’s next for Butler, the Wolves, and the rest of the league.
Butler is undoubtedly one of the NBA’s top-20 players. He performed at an MVP level during portions of last season and provided whatever the Wolves needed: scoring, playmaking, defending, or rebounding. Few players check as many boxes as Jimmy Buckets does, and it shows in the numbers. The Wolves outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Butler shared the court with Towns and Wiggins last season, making them one of the best trios in the league. But when Butler was on the bench, they were outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions—about equal to the Lakers, per NBA.com. The Wolves were 10-13 in the 23 games that Butler missed; as Thibodeau said, Butler truly did change everything, which is why he’s reportedly reluctant to trade him.
The problem for any teams interested in acquiring Butler is that he just turned 29, has managed to play more than 68 regular-season games only twice in his seven-year career because of a laundry list of injuries, and he wants to be re-signed to a five-year, $190 million contract. The team that acquires Butler will hold his Bird rights next summer; teams in free agency can sign him to only a four-year, $141 million deal. The Knicks, Nets, and Clippers will have leverage if they choose to entertain a Butler deal. But should they? Butler may have eyes for New York, but both Big Apple franchises would be wise to keep recent history in mind before they give up young talent and/or picks for an aging star.
At a Knicks town hall held earlier this week, president Steve Mills said that the team won’t trade assets for players they can get later through free agency. “What we’re not going to do is take shortcuts,” Mills said. “We’re not going to trade our draft picks. We believe New York will buy into a plan.” They want to avoid repeating the Carmelo Anthony blunder of 2011. Trading for Butler now would be going backward for a franchise that seems to be on a sustainable path.
It’s no secret that Butler and Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving have interest in playing together after developing a friendship through USA Basketball. Butler has even called Irving his “favorite player who’s not myself” when asked in 2017 on First Take if he could pick any teammate in the NBA. And he’s liked Instagram comments about him teaming up with Irving on the Knicks. Irving grew up in the region, and long before he was traded to Boston, there were rumblings he was destined for New York.
I’d bet on Irving re-signing with the Celtics, but there’s a real chance he’ll consider the Knicks. And if the Knicks are patient they’ll find themselves with a good young core and the cap room to go after Butler, Irving, or bigger fish like Kevin Durant in 2019 or 2020, or even Anthony Davis in 2021. It seems silly now, but the Lakers just signed LeBron James. New York should also dream big.
Acquiring Butler now could serve to make the Knicks a more appealing option for Irving ahead of his free agency, or another star in 2019 or 2020. It would also be financially easier for the Knicks to create the necessary cap space to sign Irving (about $32.4 million) if they already have Butler to finish the 2018-19 season, since the cap hold for Butler is less ($30.7 million) than his max contract number, which is also $32.4 million if signed through free agency. The $1.7 million isn’t a big difference, but it could be the difference in keeping a valuable player. Nonetheless, the Knicks shouldn’t race to make a deal unless they’re able to dump salary in the process without sacrificing too much of the future.
Mills’s no-shortcuts edict echoes what Nets general manager Sean Marks told me last year. The Nets’ plan is to build a sustainable winner, which requires a patient, forward-thinking approach. There will come a time to pounce in free agency or the trade market, but I’m not convinced that Butler is a fit given that Brooklyn’s core is still so young and underdeveloped. If Butler clashed with Towns and Wiggins last season, then how would he deal with D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, and Caris LeVert?
If a team acquires Butler, they can only pinky swear on a long-term agreement until next summer when he’s eligible to re-sign for the full five-year max deal. The Nets, or any other team, would be at risk to lose Butler if he decided his one year with the team wasn’t what he was hoping for. The Timberwolves are paying that price right now after dealing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Lauri Markkanen for what looks to be a one-season rental of Butler. Brooklyn’s last regime made a crippling mistake in trading the universe for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They’ve somehow positioned themselves to have loads of cap flexibility in 2019 and 2020. The Nets shouldn’t compromise what they’ve built for a potential short-term gain that may not lead to sustainability.
The Clippers have the most to realistically offer Minnesota (I’m sure they’d love to trade Butler for Kristaps, but come on). Los Angeles has a mixture of players who can help now—Tobias Harris, Patrick Beverley, or Danilo Gallinari, if he’s healthy—and young players in Jerome Robinson and Tyrone Wallace. (It would be a stunning turn if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was offered.) I could see a scenario in which some combination of veterans and Robinson gets a deal done, but there’s been no indication of any specific possibilities.
Los Angeles has always been Butler’s top choice if he was to leave or be traded by Minnesota, according to league sources. But the Clippers should ask the same question as the New York teams: What’s the rush? They could also just wait for next summer without compromising their future. It would seem like a philosophical about-face, after trading another oft-injured star in Blake Griffin, to trade young pieces for Butler. Only a bargain makes sense.
It’s possible all three of the teams on Butler’s wish list could decide they’re better off waiting to sign him next summer or they’re not willing to meet Minnesota’s asking price. That places the Timberwolves in a dilemma. Do you risk an unhappy Butler disturbing the locker room at the start of the season? What if Butler gets hurt (again) and further diminishes his trade value? On the flip side, what if the market for him heats up as the deadline approaches? The last thing Thibodeau can do is risk letting Butler hit free agency next summer. There was no guarantee he was staying when he was acquired, and now he’s telling them he wants out. It’s time to seek a trade.
Butler’s list of preferred destinations mean zilch to Thibodeau and Layden, by the way. Teams trade stars for what they perceive is the best possible deal, regardless of the player’s wishes. Just look at Kawhi Leonard being sent to Toronto and Paul George to Oklahoma City as recent examples.
The most likely Butler destination is the one we’re not talking about. Let’s break down a few possible suitors:
It’s financially difficult to find a realistic Butler deal for the Celtics, since Marcus Smart can’t be traded until midseason. Same goes for the Rockets, and besides, they lack the assets the Wolves would likely be looking for in return. The Sixers and Lakers have the right kinds of assets, but will probably look to maintain their cap flexibility going into next summer’s free-agency market.
Toronto remains intriguing. They just took the plunge for Leonard and Masai Ujiri might consider doubling down with a championship-or-bust move for Butler. It’s tough to imagine any smaller-market teams, like the Pacers or Bucks, feeling comfortable chasing Butler. The Spurs and Blazers probably don’t have enough assets. The Nuggets could use a wing with Butler’s skill set, but would they part with any of the young players they’ve locked up long term? Maybe; they were willing to deal Gary Harris in a three-way trade for Kevin Love on draft night in 2017. But Love had more years remaining on his contract than Butler does now. The Heat could similarly put together an enticing package, and Wojnarowski reported Miami has interest in Butler. It would be an outrageous risk for the Suns to trade for Butler, but then again, they were in on Irving when he was available last summer. You can never say never.
Thibodeau would prefer not to trade his superstar. The priority needs to be finding a deal that balances the present with the future: A veteran on the right side of 30, along with a prospect, like what the Spurs got for Leonard.
But we all know that’s probably not going to happen here. Thibodeau thought it was a good idea to go into win-now mode when the Warriors, arguably the best team ever, were peaking, and traded three lottery picks for what could be as little as one season of Butler. Then he populated the roster with a collection of former Bulls and overpaid role players. Even with Butler, the Wolves are, at best, competing for the five-seed. But Butler wants out, Towns seems miserable, and Wiggins’s growth has been stunted.
The move for Thibs is to position Towns, 22, as the true franchise cornerstone, and build around him. What choice does he have, after all? Jimmy Butler obviously didn’t want the job.