Tom Thibodeau is married to the game, and you don’t give up on a decades-long marriage without putting up a fight. The honeymoon phase is long over for Thibodeau and his current franchise, whose relationship hit another low last week as Jimmy Butler demanded a trade. Thibodeau might have led Minnesota to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2004, but the decisions he’s made since trading for Butler are now putting his season, job, and reputation in jeopardy.
At first, according to reports, Thibodeau wasn’t planning on honoring Butler’s request, and sources believed he’d rather leave the team than take a step back by trading Butler for lesser players. By media day on Monday he’d come around. Sort of. “We’re not going to make a bad deal,” Thibodeau told reporters. “If it’s a good deal, we’re interested. […] If not, we’re ready to move forward the other way.” (Owner Glen Taylor, who is ready to play ball and trade Butler, is probably responsible for the change of heart. Bosses usually are.) Later that day, still desperate to keep Butler, Thibodeau met with the wing in an effort to change his mind. Rejected.
Thibs doesn’t appear to be giving up. Butler might be one of his favorite students, but he also represents job security. Assuming Butler doesn’t budge, front office Thibodeau has to come up with a trade that keeps the Wolves in playoff contention. All negotiations thus far have been thwarted because Minnesota is asking for too much. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, though many suitors have come calling, the price is unreasonably high: “Sources are skeptical of Thibodeau’s desire to make [a] deal.” For context, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that they asked the Sixers for Ben Simmons.
No, not the Ben Simmons on the left. This Ben Simmons. Yeah. Imagine asking Philadelphia that with a straight face.
What would a team reasonably give up for Butler? We know who he is as a player. He’s a tank-like defender from hell, a fierce competitor in his prime, and a playmaker who has the traits and the willingness to be a team’s dominant scorer. Butler’s also 29, and with one year left on his deal, he’s likely only a one-year rental if he isn’t happy with his new team. Even if he is, he’ll require a five-year maximum contract next summer. Below are trade assets Thibodeau should be asking for from the handful of teams rumored to be interested.
Los Angeles Clippers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Tobias Harris
The Clips roster is like the Target of talent pools: Thibodeau could go in wanting one thing, and leave with everything but. They lack a superstar, but L.A. is stocked with players who fit Thibs’s sensibilities. Minnesota might prefer a package including one of the Clippers’ reliable veterans, like Patrick Beverley or Avery Bradley (whose tenacity and defense fit Thibodeau’s M.O.) or Lou Williams, who is basically what Thibodeau thinks a 38-year-old Jamal Crawford still is.
None of those players is the most intriguing the Clippers have to offer. The 26-year-old Harris fits Minnesota’s timeline and would add beyond-his-years stability alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But for the Clippers, upgrading from Harris to Butler—and then extending Butler for five years—probably doesn’t ensure more than a first- or second-round out. Harris could be a second or third fiddle on a contender one day.
ESPN reported that Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the stars of summer league, is off the table, which ought to be disappointing for the Wolves. Minnesota’s backcourt could use Gilgeous-Alexander’s length and athleticism, especially if Jeff Teague is moved to facilitate a potential deal. And now that the franchise has maxed out Towns, landing a lottery talent on a rookie deal would be an ideal haul.
Houston Rockets: Eric Gordon or Clint Capela
Is it still a hot take to say that Houston got worse this offseason? It shouldn’t be: The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Their biggest addition, Carmelo Anthony, can be a solid contributor off the bench, but doesn’t make up for the defense lost. (Houston also traded for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss, who could break the rotation.) The Rockets’ offseason might not be over just yet, however. The team is reportedly looking to get “creative” in landing a third superstar. Trading for Butler would reinforce the Rockets’ sense of urgency. They’re going all in on the right now.
Dealing Gordon would further chip away at the team that made it to last season’s Western Conference finals, but adding a top-15 player like Butler could push the Rockets past their current limitations. Gordon may be the most solid sixth man in the game, but the addition of Butler would create a superteam starting five on par with that of the Warriors.
Another option for Houston could be giving up Capela. Houston probably isn’t willing to part with the big guy, especially after doubling down and re-signing him to a five-year, $90 million extension. If the Wolves swap Butler for a center, they’ll be even thinner at the wing. But Capela could finally be the partner KAT needs: he does everything Towns doesn’t want to do, and Towns does everything Capela can’t.
Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, or Josh Richardson
Part of the fun of imagining Butler with the Heat is him playing alongside Richardson. Locked in at four years and $42 million, Richardson has one of the best contracts (from a front-office point of view) in the league. But dealing Richardson may be the only way to get Butler. Thibodeau would have to swallow his expectations of acquiring a star, but the 25-year-old is a solid middle ground. His defensive prowess makes up for what Butler leaves behind, and his 37.8 percent 3-point shooting from last season would have topped all Wolves except Towns and Nemanja Bjelica, who’s no longer with the team.
In the short term, trading away Adebayo wouldn’t be quite as large a step back this season; Hassan Whiteside is still very much a part of the rotation and very much a huge chunk of their cap sheet. But Adebayo, a big man who had a promising rookie season filling in for an injured Whiteside, has already shown more to be excited about than 2015 top-10 pick Justise Winslow has in three seasons. Winslow, though, is still only 22 and may finally be coming around—his playoff series against Philadelphia was encouraging. With more time, Winslow could eventually develop into a player with a skill set similar to Butler’s. But Miami is trying to win now, and the actual Butler is on the table.
Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell
Isn’t a star what GM Sean Marks keeps the Nets payroll so flexible for? Brooklyn reportedly cut off Minnesota after it asked for Russell, Caris LeVert, and picks. So far, the Nets have declined to extend Russell’s rookie contract, which would make the 22-year-old a restricted free agent next summer. There’s already a stigma attached to Russell, but there’s unignorable potential.
The 22-year-old seems like he’s trying to be a better student of the game, or at least make Kenny Atkinson happy. The Nets should be open to trading Russell, but maybe not for a 29-year-old with locker room issues who expects the max when the Nets are a team trying to build from the ground up.
Philadelphia 76ers: Markelle Fultz
It’d be a shame for Fultz to go through the Sixers initiation of sitting out a year only to be traded, especially considering he’s just remembered how to shoot a jumper. (Allegedly.) Putting Butler into a lineup with Simmons and Joel Embiid legitimizes Philadelphia’s superteam potential right away. Whoever trades for Butler may get him for only a year; that might be all the Sixers need. Yanking Fultz out of the Process and possibly ending up with nothing in return after this season is a hard sell. But one player is proven, and the other is a toss-up. Maybe Philadelphia didn’t anticipate Simmons and Embiid being superstars this soon into their careers, but there’s no reason to keep slowly developing a contender when its pieces are ready now.