For a Minnesota Timberwolves front office heavily in the now, the news of Jimmy Butler demanding a trade less than six days before training camp makes today a sad day. For those in the greater Wolves fanbase, those invested in the long-term prosperity of the franchise, today’s news should bring mixed emotions. Trading Butler could be a positive turning point for a team that appears to have butted heads with a wall.
Let’s dig into some pros and cons of granting Butler’s wish to be traded.
The Potential ‘Pros’ Of Trading Jimmy Butler
Karl-Anthony Towns potentially signs a five-year contract to stay in Minnesota through 2023-24
Prior to Tom Thibodeau’s meeting with Butler, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the 22-year-old Towns would not sign the maximum contract extension he has been offered until the Butler situation “resolves itself.” What resolution explicitly looks like is unclear, but the demand is a step down the fork in the road that leads towards Towns.
If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, the maximum contract extension would be worth $190 million, beginning in the 2019-20 season and carrying through the 2023-24 season. If Towns does not make an All-NBA team he can be signed for five years and $158 million — still through 2023-24.
Though the price is steep, locking in Towns to the long, long-term future of the franchise is the single most important variable the Wolves should be looking to control. Even if the rubble of this Butler news proves to be growingly ominous, having a stake in one of the best young talents in the NBA will quell much of the aftershock.
Since the passing of Flip Saunders, Towns has never been embraced by the franchise in the way many other young superstars around the league have. The departure of Butler and the signing of a Towns extension make him the unquestioned face of the franchise.
Had Butler been willing to stay in Minnesota beyond this season, he would have been risky to retain given his price tag
While Butler is currently a better basketball player than Towns and eligible to sign the same five-year, $190 million contract Towns is, that deal should be viewed with nowhere near the same optimism as a Towns extension. This is because Towns’ deal would carry him into his prime while Butler’s would carry him out of his prime.
Butler will be 30 years old when next season begins, meaning a five-year max deal would pay him over $40 million a year during his 33- and 34-year-old seasons. According to a report by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, there is “some reluctance” of teams around the league to pay Butler that much into his mid-30s. Already somewhat kneecapped by Andrew Wiggins’ max contract, the Wolves should have that same reluctance.
|Butler Age||Butler Maximum Contract||Towns Age||Towns Maximum Extension (w/ All-NBA)||Towns Maximum Extension (w/out All-NBA)|
It is not unilaterally a bad idea to pay a star in their mid-30s; Al Horford’s oft-questioned deal for the Celtics has reaped major benefits, and no one is questioning the Lakers for handing a maximum contract to LeBron James. However, deals like the five-year, $171 million pact Blake Griffin signed faltered, and John Wall’s massive extension (four years, $170 million) with the Wizards has left Washington on a treadmill of mediocrity. Much like Griffin and Wall, Butler was and is a star, but he too has an extensive injury history.
A potential opportunity to peak when the Warriors inevitably fall off
The move to trade Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen for Butler and Justin Patton was crafted to create an immediate window for a Wolves team that was painfully young during Thibodeau’s first season of his tenure. In theory, the move created two windows.
By trading for Butler and adding temporary pieces (Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver, Luol Deng), moves were made to be relevant during the two years Butler had remaining on his contract when he was acquired. That was Window One. Window Two, though somewhat ambiguous at the time, theoretically bridged continuity with the young pieces — Towns and Wiggins — and potentially carried Butler through both windows.
This wasn’t a bad move but as time moved on a greater impetus was put on Window One — Rose, Tolliver and Deng were signed — as Window Two fogged through a lack of attention.
Butler being traded away from Minnesota gives a young movement — not full-blown youth movement — another chance. It’s not necessarily an indictment on the original Butler trade but could give another shot to what may have been the better plan all along.
This year has the potential to be tumultuous, but a year from now, positive externalities could percolate without Butler. A younger piece that better fits the career arc of Towns and Wiggins is likely to be a centerpiece of a return for Butler.
(Remember: The Spurs didn’t only receive DeMar DeRozan from the Raptors, they also received a promising young big man still on his rookie contract in Jakob Poeltl.)
Beyond the trade itself, positive externalities could come from a decreasing likelihood that the old guard of Gibson, Rose, Tolliver and Deng return after their deals expire at season’s end. Perhaps most valuable is the notion that Teague, who has a $19 million player option for the 2019-20 season, could opt out of his contract to avoid partaking in a rebuild.
He wasn’t into it a summer ago in Indiana; maybe he will again look elsewhere. This would not only create an additional $19 million in cap space but open up an opportunity for Tyus Jones to not only play more but also be handed a second contract before reaching his own free agency.
The potential for peace in the locker room
I have long maintained that the tumult behind closed doors in the Wolves locker room has largely been overblown. While this trade demand does suggest that there was more than met the eye, personally, I saw a growing relationship between Butler and Towns as the season went along.
In a late-December game in Milwaukee, where the Wolves squandered a 20-point, third-quarter lead, Butler snapped at Towns in the locker room for not taking the loss as seriously as Butler did. However, a month-and-a-half later, after a crushing overtime defeat in Cleveland, I witnessed Butler console a distraught Towns sitting by his locker alone.
The relationship was progressing not devolving, from my perspective.
Additionally, Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic who first reported the Butler trade demand also pointed out that Butler’s departure had “very little” to do with Towns (or Wiggins) but instead was motivated by contractual matters.
Interestingly enough, the frustration may have, in fact, been inverted and directed towards Butler. Shortly after the news of Butler’s trade demand, Andrew Wiggins’ brother Nick — who can often be spotted courtside at games and even played for the Wolves during the 2015 preseason — tweeted out (and then deleted) a “Hallelujah” to the news of Butler’s trade demand.
It is quite possible that Butler’s self-admitted confrontational style grated on some of the younger players — like Wiggins — who move to a different beat than one of the league’s most infamous grinders. Whether or not that style is right or wrong does not discharge the notion that the locker room is likely to be far more harmonious without Butler in it.
The Potential ‘Cons’ Of Trading Jimmy Butler
The public perception of trading a player you just traded for
It’s just a bad look to move a player traded recently acquired. The public perception is an admittance of a misstep. Part of professional basketball is selling the perception of your team to draw intrigue, sell tickets, etc. Explaining a Butler trade to a fanbase that has long felt maimed by the franchise — albeit by different management — is a whale of a task.
There’s also the whole Thibodeau-Butler connection.
For a year, the Wolves organization has been selling faith in Thibodeau and a belief in the kinship between two like-minded individuals who brought the best out of each other in Chicago. Now, trading Butler again is a not only a departure from that narrative but a twisting of the knife for those fans who had become fond of LaVine and to those who recognize Markannen as a future All-Star.
There are no trade backs. If Butler is in fact traded, the return will be definitively different than LaVine (a high flier who can shoot and, now, healthy), Markannen (one of the best prospects from the 2017 draft class) and Dunn (who put together some intriguing — though kind of empty — numbers when he was given the reins in Chicago).
Patton, who was also acquired in that trade, having his third surgery on his feet in 14 months also doesn’t help the optics here.
A trade market in late-September could be pinched
If a trade is going to materialize, the greatest disadvantage the Wolves front office faces is timing. Training camp begins next Monday for not only the Wolves but the majority of teams around the NBA. With training camp comes media day, often the most illuminating time for insight and transparency into a franchise.
Media day is an event with players, coaches and executives shuffling around from interview to photo shoot to interview. It’s an extremely difficult time to control the narrative — something Thibodeau and the Wolves would be wise to do. I remember, last season, Shabazz Muhammad sitting alone at the podium, answering questions as PR staff, coaches and media shuffled in and out of the room during the lunch break.
It’s just not the time you want to have big questions looming that the players likely know much more about than the media.
Again, this extends beyond Minnesota.
Many teams around the league don’t want to invite chaos to their training camp proceedings. Logic would suggest that most teams are pretty locked and loaded, even excited about the roster they have in place. Engaging in talks for Butler would shake things up. Some teams may abstain from negotiations just to avoid rocking the boat.
Also, to create the best possible trade market — from a Wolves perspective — you would want as many teams as possible to be in the mix so as to drive up the value of the return. Even if teams want to engage in the process, many teams used up the majority of their flexibility this offseason in shaping their rosters. Had Butler became available in July — a more traditional time for a trade, when teams have salary cap space — the market would have been more robust.
Now, teams are not only devoid of space but seven potential suitors are “hard-capped” — greatly limiting the flexibility they have to make any move. Two of those seven teams are the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks — teams who happen to be two of the three teams Butler has reportedly listed as preferred destinations.
The timing is brutal. A team executive told Charania that “the price on [Butler] is difficult to pay now, when you can wait and sign him in July.”
What type of player do you even trade for?
Traditionally, when a star player wants out, the requested return is often for a conglomerate of smaller and younger assets. This has worked for teams like the Denver Nuggets, who traded a disgruntled Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks and also worked in the favor of the Los Angeles Clippers who offloaded Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in what appears to be the triggering of a successful rebuild.
Teams who trade stars whilst attempting to stay competitive have not faired as kindly. The Cleveland Cavaliers moved Kyrie Irving for a draft pick that became Colin Sexton but also flailed about and failed massively by also acquiring Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder — who proved to be terrible fits alongside LeBron and were traded six months after being acquired.
The San Antonio Spurs are trying their hand at a similar tactic — in an almost eerily similar scenario to Butler’s — by flipping Leonard for DeRozan and Poeltl as they attempt to remain competitive in the now.
Almost every single roster tweak Thibodeau has made since the 2016-17 season ended has been about the now. For a roster littered with 30-somethings, it would be hard to about-face on that strategy and begin rebuilding — it would also, arguably, be counterproductive.
There’s a fair argument to be made that the Wolves should pursue a return that fits in with this older bunch; it would be a bit odd to add a young piece to be flanked by Deng and Gibson. Then again, it would be just as bizarre to add a player eight-to-10 years older than Towns for whenever Window Two comes around.
While this time is tumultuous for fans who had an affinity to Butler, the outlook for a front office invested in this season — with their jobs potentially on the line — is far more damning. That said, a Butler trade could be the straw that stirs this Wolves cocktail in a new direction — forward and captained by Towns.