If you haven’t heard by now, Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star guard Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the organization in favor of a fresh start as he is set to enter unrestricted free agency next summer.
This news alone is massive. Butler is arguably one of the 10 best players in the NBA at 29 years old and was already going to be a top priority for a ton of teams by the time he becomes a free agent in 2019. What makes this news even more irresistible is how we got to this point in the first place and the ripples Butler’s decision is going to have on the Timberwolves franchise for years to come.
The most notable argument that has been made to rationalize Butler’s decision is the apparent butting of heads between himself and fellow teammates – Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Let me attempt to preface things by saying that Jimmy Butler is a classic story of someone who was consistently doubted on only to rise and exceed every expectation hoisted upon him. From being forced out of his home at a young age, to having to play his first season of college ball at a junior college, to receiving limited scholarship offers before choosing Marquette as a two-star recruit, to being selected 30th overall in the 2011 NBA draft, Butler has experienced the hardships of life and knows exactly what it means for hard work to pay truly off.
Compare that to Towns and Wiggins who are on the other end of the spectrum. Both five-star recruits out of high school and number one overall draft picks after one season at high-profile universities, it can be easy to see how those different personalities might clash with each other. The Timberwolves head coach, Tom Thibodeau, is a notorious hard-ass, no-nonsense type coach with a drill sergeant mentality. He and Butler were a match made in heaven when they were in Chicago together for five seasons.
In Minnesota, where Thibodeau tried to recreate the magic of a team from five years prior that never really accomplished anything to begin with, the situation was hardly heaven-sent. There are plenty of appropriate questions Butler should be asking before he commits to a major contract. What can Thibodeau – both the GM and head coach – realistically add to the team over the next few seasons? Will he adapt to the changing landscape of the NBA playstyle? Will he even be the coach? What is Wiggins’ ceiling and has he already hit it? Can Towns become a premier defender and finally show some leadership traits?
Despite the team making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and the first time since the post-Kevin Garnett era, there was hardly any balance within the locker room and that apparently stemmed from Towns and Wiggins attitude. This isn’t to say that Towns and Wiggins are overall problems within the locker room because there has been little if any evidence available to the public that can back that up, but it’s more likely they never wanted to buy into this over-the-top workload that Butler wanted them to.
Butler grew up in a world where he had to overcome every obstacle placed before him, knowing that one slip up could have cost him everything he worked for. Towns and Wiggins – who are 22 and 23 years old, respectively – have obviously worked their asses off to earn what they have, but they don’t have that consistent worry that everything could be lost like Butler has grown up with his whole life.
Butler is the definition of a franchise-altering player. He led the Wolves to their first playoff berth in over a decade and was playing some of the best basketball of his career. Wherever he ends up, that team will be an immediate threat to make a playoff run.
Luckily for Minnesota, they already have a franchise-altering player in Towns, and he’s a hell of a lot younger.
The first time All-Star last season has been eligible to sign his rookie max extension for a while now and there had been no proper explanation as to why he hasn’t, until now. Signing the extension should be an easy decision for Towns, but he reportedly hadn’t done so because he wants to see what happens with Butler, according to Shams Charania.
— Stadium (@WatchStadium) September 17, 2018
This, in essence, has given Towns more power than most 22-year olds have ever had in an NBA front office. Butler refused to commit to the team when they offered him an extension of four-years, $100 million earlier in the summer, which was understandable considering he could make much more if he waited for free agency. Now Towns, the franchise centerpiece and a much more valuable long-term asset than Butler, can hold out until something happens with Butler, which it appears will ultimately take place. It’s just a matter of who takes Butler and what that team can give Minnesota in return.
Towns has basically told the organization it’s either me or Butler and if the Wolves trade the latter, then they made the right decision.
Reports have claimed that Butler’s decision to move on from Minnesota had little to do with his relationship with Towns/Wiggins, although there is enough information available to make the claim that it at least had something to do with it. Rather, Butler has been unhappy because the Wolves refused to offer him an extension that could have added another year to the contract length and an extra $75 million on top of the aforementioned four-year, $100 million offer (the most Butler can make as a free agent next summer is $190 million across five years).
So now we dive into the teams that Butler has reported interest in; the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, and New York Knicks (and to a lesser extent the Miami Heat). There has long been a discussion of Boston Celtics All-Star guard Kyrie Irving and Butler teaming up in New York, while ESPN has reported that the Clippers are his preferred destination. If none of those teams sound appealing to a four-time All-Star it’s because they aren’t. Or they aren’t just yet.
Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler has three preferred destinations for a trade, league sources tell ESPN: The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks. Those three teams have max cap space to sign Butler as a free agent in July.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 19, 2018
The Clippers and Nets will both have the ability to clear enough money to make room for two max free agents. We won’t go too much in detail regarding where he might go (although I will say that the Denver Nuggets and especially the Washington Wizards should be calling the Wolves 24 hours a day, seven days a week) because he could just sign with a different team next summer and there are so many different possibilities. But what we will quickly discuss is what a potential return package for Minnesota might look like and how they’ll use that to continue to build around Towns for the future.
The Wolves already gave up Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the pick that eventually became Lauri Markannen in order to get Butler from the Bulls in the first place. They won’t see anything similar to that now that Butler’s intentions have been made public. But his preferred destinations of the Knicks and Clippers have interesting subplots.
A deal that might be made between the Wolves and the Clippers/Knicks would likely include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Clippers) or Kevin Knox (Knicks). Minnesota is going to want assets in this trade. Ideally, they’ll try to pry away at least one or two players who can make an immediate impact and maintain some sort of semblance of winning as they try to make the playoffs for two straight seasons. No matter what the Wolves receive, odds are they won’t bring in enough talent to keep them in the playoff hunt (barring a transcendent leap from Wiggins). The inclusion of young players/draft picks would be necessary for the organization and it would be hard to imagine a scenario where either SGA or Knox are kept out of the trade and don’t end up teaming up with Towns (that is, if a deal is made between the Clippers or Knicks). If I’m Minnesota and either of those two teams calls, SGA or Knox are priorities.
When Butler is eventually traded, the keys to the organization will once again be placed back in the hands of Towns (and to a lesser extent, Wiggins, as well). The team tried the Butler experiment and it ultimately failed, but they still have a player expected to knock off every item on the future Hall-of-Fame checklist. However, the first taste of real success Minnesota has had since 2004 is going to be shortlived.
Looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, the pressure for Towns to become great has grown exponentially. He improved last season, but he was at his best when Butler was playing at a high level. Without that safety net, the responsibility to win will be put on Towns (although Wiggins will likely be the scapegoat if/when things go sour quickly). He’s already an elite offensive player with upside on the defensive end that he hasn’t been able to tap into yet. What he brings on the defensive side of the ball – especially if Butler, an elite defender on the wing, is gone – is what he’s going to be judged on. His head coach, who preaches defense, has yet to get the best out of him on that end, and it’s difficult to gauge if Thibodeau will even be the coach of the Timberwolves this time next summer.
With or without Butler, the upcoming season was always going to be massively important for Towns. If Butler is with the team (and somehow doesn’t get traded), they would be expected to make the playoffs again despite having an ever-diminishing amount of off-court chemistry. With Butler gone, Towns is going to be expected to lead this team and take a leap on defense that he desperately needs in order to become great. Only time will tell how this ordeal benefits (or hinders) Towns’ progression. Either way, the workload for his fourth NBA season just got a hell of a lot heavier.
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