DA's Morning Tip
Now that Jimmy Butler reportedly wants out, what are the Minnesota Timberwolves' options?
The line of excoriation started to the right.
No luau pig was roasted as thoroughly as the Bulls were on Draft night 2017, after they traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick overall to the Timberwolves for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the 7th pick overall in the first round. The conventional wisdom was that Minnesota was not only getting the best player in the deal, but the Bulls weren’t getting anyone of significance in return. Meanwhile, the Wolves were putting together a contender in the rugged West, with Butler joining Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to form a potential triple-headed hydra that could be as good as anyone’s outside of Oakland.
And, despite a knee injury that limited Butler to 59 games, precipitating a near collapse down the stretch, the Wolves made the postseason on the final day of the regular season, beating the Nuggets in an overtime, winner-take all meeting at Target Center. The win broke the longest postseason drought — 13 years — in the NBA. The Wolves weren’t perfect — they were quickly dispatched by Houston in the first round — but at least they were finally going in the right direction.
Less than five months later, the dreams of sustained playoff appearances and building a true contender again in the Land of 10,000 Lakes have dried up. Climate change was not the culprit — unless you count the dark cloud that Butler has cast over the franchise.
His decision to demand a trade — a demand that is apparently going to be honored by Wolves owner Glen Taylor — has again brought uncertainty to a franchise desperate for stability, one that tried gamely to change the subject by announcing Towns’ long-expected max contract extension on Sunday, all but skywriting over Paisley Park: Karl-Anthony is our future. Don’t worry. All is well.
And Towns may be that good. At the least, he’s the best Minnesota can put out there every night.
But the Wolves were expecting so much more out of Butler’s time in Minnesota than a hurried restart 14 months later.
Butler was supposed to represent a permanent turning of the corner, a final and lasting shift from the losing culture that Tom Thibodeau had been given free reign to smash when he was named coach and team president in 2016. Thibs’ insistence on bringing back “TimberBulls” from his Chicago days — Taj Gibson, Butler, Derrick Rose — were viewed more benignly as instilling tough-minded vets who knew what it took to grind out wins and make the playoffs as long as Butler was Thibs’ voice on the floor and in the locker room.
And Butler had no problem getting his point across.
“On paper. I don’t think we play hard enough right now,” Butler told me in February. “I don’t think we guard the way we’re supposed to in order to win. There are a lot of things that we have to be better at, night in and night out, no matter if the opponent is home, away, neutral. No matter what the start time is. You’ve got to play hard. We do not do that.”
Even then — the Wolves would beat the Lakers the next night to enter the All-Star break at 36-25, with Butler joining Towns in Los Angeles as Western Conference All-Star representatives — there was the scent of discontent in the air. As mentioned above, Butler was already grinding on his young teammates to give more effort defensively, the way he seemed to grind on people in Chicago — including, ironically, Rose, who would soon be his teammate again. But by that time, Rose’s injuries had muted his voice throughout the Chicago organization. (You can’t make demands when you’re no longer The Man, so to speak.) Friction between Butler, Wiggins and Towns, long rumored, was made clear in a report last week by The Athletic Minnesota’s Jon Krawczynski.
Yet Butler would have likely stayed had Minnesota acquiesced to his push for a max deal — but not just any max.
What Butler wanted Minnesota to do going into the summer was a “renegotiation/extension” of his current deal. He was eligible this summer — the fourth anniversary of his signing his current deal in 2014 — for an R/E. (The Rockets gave James Harden an R/E last year, for an additional $170 million through 2023 on top of the $68 million remaining on his existing deal.) It would have required Minnesota to trade out significant salary without taking anything back in return. (The only realistic trade options at the time, as the Wolves had just committed $146 million to Wiggins, were Gorgui Dieng — whom Minnesota has made available in the past, and who the Wolves are reportedly attaching Butler now — or Gibson.)
As a player with between 7/9 years’ experience, Butler was eligible for a maximum of approximately $32 million in 2018-19,105 percent of this year’s 7-9 year max deal ($30.560M). Butler makes $20.4 million this coming year, so the Wolves would have had to create $11.1 million in additional cap room to give to Butler, then work off his “new” number of $32 million to extend him out four more years after that, through 2023. That would have given Butler, in essence, a new five-year deal worth $185.9M.
But the Wolves, obviously, declined to make those moves. They did offer Butler a max deal based on his actual number — about $110 million — in early June. Butler turned them down.
Right now, there’s no reason for any of the places Butler reportedly wants to go to give up picks or young players as part of a package for him. (Sources indicated over the weekend that the Knicks, supposedly one of those teams, haven’t made any inquiries about the 29 year old.) The Nets and Clippers, the two other teams reportedly on his short list, will have room for at least one — and, most likely, two — max free agents in the Summer of 2019. Each can just wait for Butler to opt out of his final year and become an unrestricted free agent, at which they can offer him a four-year max deal.
But trading for Butler now does bring potential benefits to each, too. Having Butler on the roster and willing to make a long-term commitment would make many teams — and, certainly, rebuilding ones — more attractive to other potential free agents. No one likes to be the first pair of boots on the ground; if they know Butler’s going to be there, as potential free agents know James is staying in L.A. for the long haul, they’ll likely be more inclined to give them a real look.
And, there is more than a passing question among many teams exactly how sound Butler’s knee will be going forward. Meniscus surgery often — not always — starts players down the road toward bone on bone conditions in the knee, which has started many players down the road toward retirement.
League sources maintain the Wolves will hold out for at least one first-round pick as part of a package for Butler, and will also want some young vets who can grow with Towns, Wiggins and Jeff Teague, whom Thibodeau pushed hard for last summer to take over for Ricky Rubio at the point, going forward. And Miami, rumored on Sunday to be making a push for Butler, can trade its 2019 first-round pick after officially moving its 2018 first to Phoenix as part of the Goran Dragic trade. (The Heat would not violate the Stepien Rule prohibiting the trade of successive first-round picks in Drafts by trading its 2019 first.) Pat Riley is always in acquisition mode, and would certainly be willing to gamble if he could convince Butler to be the next great franchise player on South Beach within a year.
Making a move this close to camp, no matter who the talent, comes with some risk. But Jimmy Butler isn’t some flier on which a team would be unnecessarily taking a risk; he’s a four-time All-Star, one of the best defensive players in the league at his position, and a willing shot taker in crunch time. Oklahoma City, one would think, showed in its pursuit and retention of Paul George how any franchise, no matter how long the odds, can keep a star happy if its truly committed to winning and has the infrastructure in place to do so.
So, who should also get in line and make this happen?
Glad you asked.
• New Orleans. The Pelicans would likely have to pepper any offer with a future first-rounder to get Minnesota to bite. But New Orleans also has an expiring contract and floor-stretching big in Nikola Mirotic, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago in 2014-15 (of course, Thibs didn’t play him a ton in that one season they were together, but Niko’s a little older now), along with guard E’Twaun Moore, who also played for Thibs that year in Chicago along with one more under Fred Hoiberg before signing in New Orleans in 2016. Moore could, at least, help make up some of the lost production from Jamal Crawford. And the Pelicans are always on the clock when it comes to amassing enough talent to keep Anthony Davis — who officially hired Rich Paul as his new agent over the weekend — from getting antsy. A Jrue Holiday-Butler backcourt would be as earnest a show of good faith as the Pels could make.
• Phoenix. The Suns certainly have lots of pieces to put a representative package together, and if they’re indeed serious about Devin Booker being the de facto point guard a la Harden once Booker is back from hand surgery, and serious about short-tracking their rebuild, pursuing Butler would make sense. T.J. Warren would certainly be the likely centerpiece of any Suns deal going back to Minnesota; the Wolves would have to see a future for Warren at the four as well, one would surmise, because it’s not likely Wiggins is going to move from the three.
• Milwaukee. The Bucks have a prolific shooter in Khris Middleton who would make sense as part of a deal going back to Minnesota as a two-way wing, and a coach in Mike Budenholzer who could certainly find ways to get Butler open as he did Kyle Korver in Atlanta. But the Bucks’ 2019 first-rounder is set to go to the Suns (though it is protected 1-3 and 17-30 for the Bucks). Butler and Eric Bledsoe as a backcourt could be the best defensive duo in the league, and better defense will let the Greek Freak run wild more in transition.
• Washington. The Wizards, having fallen well off the pace now in the East behind Boston, Philly and Toronto, need to get back in the game with a bold move. Otto Porter is a very good, very solid two-way forward who has become an outstanding shooter (.404 career on threes) who will never cause any of his coaches a minute’s worry; he won’t demand more shots — though he should — from Scott Brooks. But Butler’s better, and a Wall-Beal-Butler threesome would give the Wizards a fighting chance to compete with the top teams in a now wide-open East. Not sure Porter alone would make Minnesota bite, though, so the Wiz would likely have to take Dieng as well and add other pieces.
• L.A. Clippers. If Butler truly does want to go there, Tobias Harris would surely be central to any package returning to Minnesota — and with Harris unrestricted after this season and almost certain to test the market, the Wolves would certainly be within their rights to ask for one of L.A.’s young crop of talented players from the 2018 Draft — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or Jerome Robinson — in return as well. If the Clips really are big game hunting for another big-time free agent next summer, adding one of them would simply be future investment in that plan; having Butler in tow will make getting the next star that much easier.