The Naivety of the Jimmy Butler Holding Pattern

Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

When you survey the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room in an attempt to gain perspective as to what degree the Jimmy Butler saga is distracting those in the locker room, to a man the response will be some iteration of Nah, man. No, it isn’t. Those who share that locker room with Butler, and occasionally the floor, consistently reiterate that the trade request, and Butler’s ensuing antics, have not been a distraction.

Here is a smattering of those responses:

“No. I don’t think so. It’s just like Jimmy don’t got nothing to do with how hard we play out there. If he’s not there, or if he’s going to make up his mind soon, or if they’re going to make up their mind soon, it’s our job to go out there and make sure that pressure and intensity is there through that whole game.”Derrick Rose

“I think it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing that can affect us rebounding or making the shots.”Andrew Wiggins (via StarTribune.com)

“Don’t matter how we feel, we gotta get it done. It’s here, so we can’t worry about all that stuff. We had great practices. We’ve been playing well in practice. Like I said before, the hope is the pride you have transfers over to the game. If we can do that, we’ll be just fine.”Karl-Anthony Towns

“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. I wasn’t here last year or the years before, so I’m not quite sure how guys here function normally. So I don’t really have a comparison to what’s normal and what’s not. All I know is obviously we haven’t played that great of basketball so far. But as a veteran in this league, I understand that things can turn really quickly, for good or for bad.” — Anthony Tolliver

“You’re always going to have distractions, you’re going to have injuries. You just have to pull together.”Taj Gibson (via StarTribune.com)

“My focus is just trying to make sure I focus on my matchup and try to defensive rebound.” — Josh Okogie

“No. It’s not hard, man. I’ve been around the league, it’s my tenth year so I been a part of teams where a lot of things have been going on. It’s part of the game. I don’t think it’s distracting me.” — Jeff Teague

Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Perspective Of Management

Now, these responses from the players aren’t unusual. Yes, we frequently hear whispers of disgruntlement leaked to the media — the current (and prior) Washington Wizards come to mind. But more often than not, players either keep their true feelings close to the vest. Sometimes the picture the media paints is not genuine. Sometimes the players are actually just cool with it. We often forget that this playing basketball is a job to these men. It is their livelihood and often treated that way; with a willingness to keep one’s head down so as to not be labeled the squeaky wheel.

This is a player’s prerogative. It is their right to handle their business as they so choose. Personally, I’m not sure if the lack of squeak in the Wolves locker room is a product of compliance or simple apathy. Either way, I don’t expect it to change. But I do not see it as naivety.

Timberwolves management is another story, particularly team owner Glen Taylor.

On 1500ESPN‘s recent The Scoop Podcast, hosted by Darren Wolfson, Taylor was a recent guest. On the show, Taylor was asked when it becomes ownership’s role to step in and involve oneself in decision-making — not explicitly related to a Butler trade, but speaking more generally.

Taylor, the majority owner of the Timberwolves since 1994, said that ownership should become involved during decisions that have “financial” impacts, those that influence “culture” and for those that require a “change in direction.”

If we go off that, Taylor, by not having facilitated a deal, must believe that the financial impact of Butler’s presence with the team is not harsh. He also must feel that the culture has not been shaken to the degree that many on the outside perceive it to be. And together, Taylor must believe the sum of those parts do not justify a change in direction.

Those are subjective lines to be drawn by Taylor and therefore are not naive. What is naive is the alternative to trading Butler that Taylor offered during his interview with Wolfson.

Here is the full quote:

“That’s the alternative,” said Taylor when asked if he could see the team keeping Butler beyond the trade deadline and into free agency next summer. “You say, ‘well if [an acceptable offer] never happens, I guess we’ll never get a deal and Jimmy will play out his contract with us and become a free agent at the end of the year.’

“And then, ‘what’s our alternatives?’ We’ll have a bunch of money in salary to go out and get a free agent ourselves. So, I mean, it isn’t like we don’t have alternatives. We do.”

That statement is one of three things: 1.) naive 2.) misinformed 3.) propaganda.

The Wolves will not have a bunch of money to pursue free agents themselves if Butler simply walks in free agency. That’s not how it works. In fact, as the roster currently stands, the team will have almost no salary cap space to go out and pursue any free agents this summer.

Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Timberwolves Salary Cap Space For Summer 2019

There are five players under contract for next season — Wiggins ($27.5M), Towns ($27.3M*), Gorgui Dieng ($16.2M), Okogie ($2.5M) and Keita Bates-Diop ($1.4M).

*If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, that number grows to $32.7 million.

On top of those five players, there is Teague and his 2019-20 player option worth $19 million. “Expect that option to be picked up,” a league source told Zone Coverage.

With Teague opting in, the Wolves would have $93.9 million committed to six players. The 2019-20 salary cap is projected to be $109 million. While it appears that Minnesota would have $15 million to work with, the reality is that they would not. And it is here where Taylor may being misguided.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement requires what is called a “roster charge” for 12 roster spots. These holds essentially lock down the lowest possible salary ($872,709 in 2019-20) for each spot — up to 12 — not filled by a guaranteed contract. (Remember, the Wolves have six players under contract with Teague.) This rule is put in place to prevent circumvention of the salary cap.

Additionally, the Wolves currently own their own first round pick for 2019-20. The figure for that salary is unknown until their pick in the 2019 Draft has been determined — at the end of this season. The roster charge for that pick will be anywhere from $1.7 million (if the Wolves finish the season with the best record in the NBA) to $8.5 million (if the Wolves win the 2019 Draft Lottery). The draft pick’s roster charge will replace one of the minimum roster charges of $872,709, cutting further into available cap space.

Let’s assume the Wolves finish the season with the 12th-best record in the NBA as they did last season — an overly conservative estimation, but possible if Butler sticks around and brings back the same vigor he did a year ago. In this case, that roster charge for the 19th pick would be approximately $2.4 million.

This leaves the Wolves, again in the most bare-bones situation possible (assuming Teague’s opt-in), with $8.3 million in cap space — and down to $2.9 million if Towns makes an All-NBA team. That is not a “bunch of money in salary” by any relative standards. And it certainly would never represent the potential to replace anything more than a fraction of Butler’s production.

The assumption, by any realistic measurement, because it is extremely unlikely that the Wolves fill out their roster with the cheapest possible players, should be that the Wolves will are capped-out this summer. Period. And this is regardless of Butler. With the contracts Wiggins and Towns are on, that is just the reality.

For Taylor to suggest the idea that Butler playing out his contract will create salary cap space is not only misguided but it is also borderline malpractice if acted upon. The only realistic long-term “benefit” of allowing Butler to leave in free agency, would be the path it presents for ducking the 2019-20 luxury tax line — projected to be $132 million.

Dodging the luxury tax would be beneficial to Taylor as he would be the one forced to pay a penance for every dollar his franchise exceeds that tax line. But for roster construction purposes (you know, the stuff that actually shapes the product), the benefits are fairly trivial — the team would receive a larger mid-level exception of $9.2 million to spend on a free agent rather than the taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.7 million. (As a point of reference, the Timberwolves had the full mid-level exception at their disposal this summer and used 66.5 percent of that exception on Tolliver’s one-year, $5.75 million contract, and another fraction on a boost in salary for Bates-Diop.)

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Conflicting Incentives Of Thibodeau and Taylor

The broader concern, beyond Taylor’s seemingly naive perspective, is the extrapolation that comes from the team’s President Of Basketball Operations being Tom Thibodeau. In theory, the front office and ownership should provide checks and balances on each other. At a minimum, they should be keeping each other informed as to what is fiscally reasonable to be spent (ownership’s duty), and what is legally able to be spent in accordance with the league’s collective bargaining agreement (front office’s duty). This either is not happening or Taylor’s statement on the podcast is some form of narrative-correcting propaganda.

I would bet on the former, as just an overall lack of communication between the two branches of the Timberwolves government makes too much sense. Thibodeau is hyper-focused on the now because that may just be his way, but he has also been incentivized to do so through the implication that he is on the proverbial hot seat.

If that POBO seat is feeling warm, Thibodeau knows that it is in his personal interest to pursue a roster construction supremely focused on winning now. Through clinching a playoff berth, Thibodeau would find his best odds of keeping his current job. Or similarly, the playoff berth would be polish on the resume for future job interviews.

Keeping Butler for as long as possible is in Thibodeau’s best interest. This is because it is unlikely that any return on the trade market drives winning more than Butler would.

Thus: there are conflicting incentives for those who are in a place to foster change within the Wolves organization. Allowing Butler to stay on the roster for the entirety of the season may clearly be the best personal path for Thibodeau. But it would also be the franchise lodging their own foot so deep into their mouth that the future success of the organization could be suffocated.

These conflicting motivations, if true, are gasoline to the naive holding pattern of fire that comes with this Butler saga.

And no one is saying anything about it.

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