When Jimmy Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night, the common assumption was that the Wolves won that trade by miles.
The Timberwolves gave up Zach LaVine, an athletic juggernaut with both a beautiful jumper and a defensive reputation that is anything but, who also tore his ACL the previous February.
They also gave up Kris Dunn, a hard-nosed lockdown defender with serious questions about which guard position makes the most sense for him.
The final piece was the seventh overall pick of the 2017 draft, which ended up being Arizona’s 3-point shooting seven-footer Lauri Markkanen.
This trio gave Bulls fans a reason to be excited, but at the cost of a two-way superstar like Butler – and, to a lesser extent, mid-first rounder Justin Patton – it didn’t seem like enough.
It’s tough for a rebuilding team that trades its star to end up as the trade’s “winner,” and early on, it can be easily argued that this trade falls under that umbrella. The Timberwolves are winning games at a better pace than they have in over 10 years, have two All-Stars and are currently on pace to finish with homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
This happened, in large part, because of Butler’s constant persistence to improve on both ends of the floor. This has yielded mixed results on the defensive end of the floor, but the wins say everything about his direct impact.
So does his coach.
“He’s completely changed us,” Tom Thibodeau said of Butler on Wednesday. “It’s hard to go from where we were and where we are now. He’s had great impact. To have a player like that, just going into his prime, we’re very fortunate.”
As good as LaVine looked in stretches last season, and as stout a defender as Dunn can be, and as well as Markkanen can shoot the ball, the trio doesn’t have the collective influence or the aptitude to do what Butler has done for Minnesota.
However, during their time in Chicago, the three have impressed — to varying degrees.
LaVine was the centerpiece for Chicago in this trade. At his best in Minnesota, he shot the 3 near 40 percent, played well without the ball, and was improving at finishing around the rim in contact. Despite his defensive shortcomings, LaVine had – and has – the chance to become one of the premier shooters in the league.
He’s been back for 11 games now and doesn’t look to have missed a step in terms of his freakish athleticism. The hops are still there.
Perhaps more important than that: shooting rust doesn’t seem to have set in at all for the 22-year-old shooting guard. While his shot selection remains questionable at times, his 3-point percentage continues to hover around 40 percent.
And considering his new role as a newly-rebuilding team’s general go-to scoring option, a mixed bag of forced shots is to be expected to a degree.
“I feel good,” he said Thursday, as reported by Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I’m still shooting the same shots I’ve been shooting. They’re just going in.”
While LaVine doesn’t have the same persistence for team perfection in the way Butler does, he makes up for it with patience and a total buy-in on what the Bulls seem to be doing.
For a guy who has only experienced rebuilding situations throughout his young career, and as the new featured scorer on a new team, this could be an invaluable trait for the Bulls as they go forward with their newer, younger roster.
“We all talked about it in the locker room, messing around, that one day one of us was going to be on a different team. It was me and you move forward from that,” LaVine said. “It’s a great opportunity I have here, I embrace it and I love it here. I’m very happy in the situation I’m in.”
LaVine has spent the last couple years at the bottom of a slew of flawed individual defensive metrics, but the eye test generally does little to benefit him on that end. If he can become average – or even slightly below-average – in that regard, and continue to improve his shot selection, that aspect of the trade can be good for the Bulls.
When rumors swirled around a Butler trade two summers ago, the idea of giving up the then-fifth overall pick wasn’t as attractive, especially when Dunn ended up falling to that spot. After a year in Minnesota, questions surrounding his offensive competency made it much easier for Thibodeau to part with him.
But with a new role as the team’s starting point guard, he’s gotten more repetition and burn on the floor – much more than he ever would have gotten in Minnesota. And with that has come some improvement.
He looks more comfortable weaving through NBA offenses and continues to play with the same level of fire defensively that Wolves fans saw a season ago. He’s shooting over 32 percent from 3-point land; a below-average rate overall, but a major jump from where he was the prior year.
Not shockingly, the repetitions and higher minute-load have resulted in career highs in almost every statistical metric out there. But with his obvious limitations offensively, especially surround it’s hard to envision a scenario where he starts on a playoff team as its point guard.
For now, on a Chicago Bulls team with no playoff aspirations in the immediate future, getting the most out of him now – as a starting guard, next to LaVine – is the correct move, even if he doesn’t end up there when they start winning again.
There’s a place for a player like Dunn on a good team. And even if that isn’t in the role he’s in right now, that’s okay.
The third and youngest piece of this deal, however, might have already found his place on the Bulls in the long-term.
Markkanen looked comfortable shooting against NBA defenses the second he stepped onto an NBA floor. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg allows him to shoot over six 3s per game, and it’s working. He’s shooting nearly 37 percent from deep and rarely has a bad shooting night for the Bulls.
Like LaVine, the defensive shortcomings are there, and Markkanen’s rebounding struggles are equally troublesome, but the production he brings to the offensive end give him a great chance to become a valuable player for the Bulls in the future.
In Butler’s first six years in the NBA, he managed to become the star the Bulls needed as the Derrick Rose era deteriorated. When he was traded to Minnesota, he quickly proved how valuable he is to an NBA roster, and how massive his stardom truly is at this point in his career.
His attitude towards winning is unquestioned at this point. Even when discussing Friday’s return to his original NBA home, he has mostly downplayed its significance.
“You know everybody wants to hear me say, “Oh, I’m so happy to be back,’ this and that, no I’m going to go in with a killer mindset like I do every day,” he said Wednesday. “I’m going to do what I do and try to lead this team to victory.”
Of course, anyone that has followed Butler through his career will still guess Butler had Friday’s game circled on a calendar somewhere.
“We always talk about Chicago,” Taj Gibson told ESPN’s Nick Friedell. “Even when we’re just regular going through plays, going through stuff, going through anything. Because I’m with the same coaching staff I had my whole career over there, we talk about that daily. Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. It was one hell of a time.”
The Timberwolves are the better team right now and are favored to beat Chicago at the United Center on Friday. On an immediate scale, July’s trade was a clear-cut win for the Timberwolves.
But with any trade for a superstar comes a collection of assets for the other team. Those pieces have yet to realize their full potential. If they do so, this trade could become a true win for both teams.
It’s no guarantee, but that’s the risk taken when trading a star. For the Bulls, it was a risk worth taking.
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