One year ago, I sat in Jimmy Butler’s temporary Malibu home to chat about, among other things, his dramatic move from Chicago to Minnesota. Butler was a three-time All-Star in his prime, inarguably one of the league’s ten greatest two-way players. His trade wasn't a shock, but it was significant. At one point, Butler's new and former head coach Tom Thibodeau interrupted our interview with a phone call that was short, light, and held between two kindred spirits.
Twelve months later, with one season left on his contract, Butler reportedly wants out. The 29-year-old (his birthday was last Friday) has demanded a trade with three large-market teams as a preferred destination—the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and New York Knicks—though others could hop in the conversation.
First things first: the Timberwolves do not have to trade Butler, and pending what kind of offers Thibodeau receives, he may be stubborn enough to drag this into the season and beyond. Minnesota can gamble on Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins making a collective leap in 2019, retain Butler’s Bird Rights, then offer nearly $50 million more than any other team can guarantee. But that would obviously be a colossal risk; to lose their best player for nothing when swapping him for something (don’t expect much) is possible, would, um, not be great.
The position Minnesota now finds itself in is one of the NBA’s least desirable and most depressing. They want to win right now, but probably can't do so without their unhappy perennial All-Star who's on an expiring contract. Every team in the league knows Butler wants out and is well aware that, if they trade for him, he can leave almost immediately.
Offers received will not be better than what the Timberwolves gave up to get him in the first place. Thibodeau traded three lottery picks (Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen) for Butler and 16th pick Justin Patton (who’s yet to play a minute in the NBA and recently broke his foot for the second time in two years). Hindsight is 20/20 and, despite Butler’s free agency looming just over the horizon, this deal was viewed as an obvious win for Minnesota. But after a strange 47-win season in which the Timberwolves needed to come out on top in their 82nd game just to sneak into the playoffs, the organization’s momentum is non-existent. Despite their defense nearly cracking the top five whenever Butler and Taj Gibson shared the floor, its overall improvement on that end barely showed from the previous season, when only four teams were less stout.
Butler held up his end of the bargain as one of the most efficient scorers and able playmakers at his position. He defended the opponents primary weapon every night, too, all the while hardly showing any sign of exhaustion. The Wolves performed like a 61-win team with Butler on the floor and a 29-win team when he sat. (He missed 17 of Minnesota's final 20 games with a right-meniscus injury.)
Meanwhile, Towns showed signs of super-duper stardom (that 56-point bomb against Atlanta remains notable) in his first All-Star season, and has yet to miss a game in his career. But defensively his game didn’t mature, which, fair or not, lowered his long-term ceiling in the eyes of many. And after he signed a maximum contract extension, Wiggins barely qualified as the third-wheel on a good team, which is what the Timberwolves gambled on him to immediately be.
The question now becomes will any teams out there follow Sam Presti and Masai Ujiri? Will they bet on their own culture and believe they can lock Butler in long term next July? Or, being that Butler is noticeably older than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were when they were traded, will any team even think a serious offer is worthwhile?
Realistically, there are six teams not on Butler's current list that may have sensical interest in acquiring him. Each either has cachet and tradable assets, with enough confidence to retain him beyond this season, as costly as that might be, or they're already very good and feel Butler would instantly legitimize their status as a championship contender. Future be damned, adding him may result in a 2019 title. They are the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Toronto Raptors.
The Lakers feel set with what they already have around LeBron James, but picturing Butler as the second-best all-around player on an NBA team almost instantly turns said team into a typhoon (even though he reportedly doesn't want to be there). Butler loves Kyrie Irving’s game and would mesh nicely inside Boston’s hard-nosed, nothing-is-given environment, but needing to pay Butler, Irving, and Al Horford in the same summer would be pretty damn tricky, even if it’d all but guarantee a spot in the 2019 Finals. Boston wouldn’t part with Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, but moving Marcus Smart (who can’t be dealt until January 15), Marcus Morris, Guerschon Yabusele and a pick should be enough.
The Rockets don’t have too many assets, but assuming Thibodeau still gets to be Minnesota’s head coach beyond this season, a trade for P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon would provide enough win-now punch and locker-room leadership to keep the Timberwolves interested. The Sixers have Markelle Fultz and Robert Covington. The Raptors have O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, etc. The Spurs have Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Lonnie Walker IV, draft picks, and no concern with relevance beyond Gregg Popovich’s tenure.
Beyond those six, don’t count out the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, and Miami Heat—teams that aren’t in the most financially-attractive situation but may feel like they have nothing to lose. Would the Washington Wizards give up Otto Porter? The Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets feel settled.
The Clippers, Nets, and Knicks are not without risk if they sit negotiations out and wait for free agency—each is well-positioned to sit tight, organically grow, and not rush into a short-term “fix"—but all three are more likely to lure another star free agent next summer with Butler already in tow. How do they weigh that possibility against forking over assets now and either watching Butler walk or striking out on another key addition. That'd leave them with a 30-year-old who wants a $190 million contract. Yikes.
In the end, Thibodeau's attraction to Butler backfired in the worst way. (A Lauri Markkanen-Towns frontcourt would be…something.) That doesn’t mean that when you zoom out and look at Minnesota's situation that it’s a team on fire—there are 29 organizations that would gladly take Towns tomorrow—but this trade request all but erases what could’ve been the most opulent era in franchise history. It’s sad.
For the rest of the league, it’s business as usual. Another star is unhappy, and suitors with means and desire will make a run at him. This is today’s NBA, where the transactional buzz never really wears off.