Timberwolves

Is Ben Simmons Jimmy Butler 2.0?

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Timberwolves are living on the margins this offseason. Trading away Ricky Rubio and adding Patrick Beverley are the biggest moves the team has pulled off after missing the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 seasons last year. But Gersson Rosas is always lurking, like a submarine just below the surface of the offseason rumor mill, ready to strike a blockbuster deal when the right opportunity arises.

In 2020, he finally made what seemed like an inevitable deal bringing D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota to play with his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns, jettisoning Andrew Wiggins and both of his picks in the 2021 draft. This season the deal seems anything but inevitable, but Rosas has the Wolves in the conversation to land the biggest name on the market, Ben Simmons.

The first overall pick in the 2016 draft seems to have played his last game for the Philadelphia 76ers after melting down during Philly’s Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in last season’s playoffs. The Aussie passed up an easy dunk in the waning minutes of Game 7 and flat out refused to shoot in the fourth quarter of much of the series. Along the way, he burned seemingly every bridge in Philadelphia with both fans and teammates. His market value may be at an all-time low, making now the perfect time to strike for the Timberwolves.

However, the current Simmons saga reminds us of another star that the Wolves traded for a few years ago who needed a career reset and skyrocketed the Wolves into the national conscience, Jimmy Butler.

By draft night 2017, Butler had pissed off almost everyone in the Windy City before the Chicago Bulls shipped him to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Lauri Markkanen. Butler reunited with his former coach Tom Thibodeau and formed an intriguing big three with KAT and Wiggins. We all know how the Butler experiment ended in Minnesota, which should give the organization pause before pushing all of their chips in for another embattled, mercurial star who has already turned an entire fanbase against them.

After Jimmy made an enemy of the whole state of Minnesota when he blew up at the infamous practice early in the 2018 season, it’s hard to remember how sweet the early days of the Butler era were. Minnesota started the season 10-5 and went 36-25 before the All-Star Break. That’s when the wheels began to fall off. Butler missed 17 games with a knee injury, and the Wolves limped to the eighth seed before the Houston Rockets demolished them in their first playoff series in 14 years.

The summer began, rumors of discontent swirled, Butler demanded a trade, and just like that, it was over 17 months after it began. The build-up during the summer of Simmons is eerily similar to the Butler trade, and the Timberwolves should tread lightly if they don’t want history to repeat itself.

It’s always tricky trading for a disgruntled superstar, especially if you’re arguably the least glamorous franchise in the league. By all accounts, 76ers GM Daryl Morey is asking for a king’s ransom in return for Simmons. He’s reportedly offered Simmons to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and the fourth pick in the draft, which was quickly rejected. Morey apparently hasn’t been impressed by anything Rosas has spoken to him about, so the asking price must be quite high. Based on the Raptors package, one would guess that Russell, Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, and a future first would be the starting point in negotiations.

Most analysts thought the Timberwolves fleeced the Bulls by only giving up LaVine, Dunn, and the seventh pick, which became Markkanen in return for one of the best players in the league and the 16th pick (Justin Patton). Butler was coming off the best season of his career when the Timberwolves traded for him. Simmons is at the bottom of the Ferris Wheel and doesn’t seem too concerned with helping his current team get their money’s worth on a trade for the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.

If the Wolves offer up everything they’ve got short of KAT and Anthony Edwards to secure Simmons, they’ll have mortgaged a significant chunk of their future for a 25-year-old who has shown more regression than improvement in his first four seasons. Butler was the grizzled vet who could unlock the full potential of former first overall picks KAT and Wiggins and place Minnesota squarely in the mix in the Western Conference. At best, Simmons will vastly improve the defense. But a core of Simmons, KAT, Ant, Beverley, and Josh Okogie doesn’t exactly scream championship.

The main thing that we can learn from recent history is that if a superstar wants out, it doesn’t matter how many years remain on his contract; he’s getting out. Anthony Davis stopped playing in the middle of a season, Butler threw a tantrum, and now even Simmons is forcing his way out of Philadelphia with four years left on his deal. If he can’t be happy playing alongside a top-five player in Joel Embiid, one of the best coaches in Doc Rivers, and a passionate albeit semi-toxic fanbase in Philly, who is to say that Simmons will want anything to do with Minnesota? Butler had a strong relationship with Thibodeau and the Timberbulls to ease his entry to the Twin Cities, and it still didn’t work out.

Simmons kind of plays Call of Duty with Towns once in a while? Is that enough to make someone on the Kardashian body count list happy in “yee-haw” Minnesota for the remaining four years of his contract? Like Butler, Simmons sees himself and a primetime player, and primetime players don’t stay in Minnesota when they can force a trade to a sexier option down the road.

In that case, is it worth selling a large chunk of the future to add a possible Butler 2.0? We’ll never know how good the Wolves could have been if they kept LaVine, but odds are we would have felt better about the team 18 months later. Instead, Butler burned the whole thing down, and the Wolves are still recovering from the aftermath. Is Simmons worth 1-2 years of mid-level success in exchange for another five years of sorrow? Perhaps things turn out differently this time around, but if there’s any franchise (and fanbase) that should think twice about acquiring the league’s most toxic asset, it’s the Timberwolves. They’ve been there before, and Minnesota will be doomed to repeat history if they’re not careful.

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