What could the Timberwolves get in a Jimmy Butler trade?

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Saturday, September 22, 2018

The initial trade market for Jimmy Butler is confused and cool, league sources say, as teams contemplate their appetite for risk and wonder whether the Timberwolves can coalesce around trade talks -- or whether Tom Thibodeau's reported desire to keep Butler at all costs wins the day.

The three teams on Butler's preferred list -- Brooklyn, New York, and the Los Angeles Clippers, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski -- might engage Butler in something of a game of chicken. Butler wants the full five-year, $190 million max contract only his incumbent team can offer him this summer. Offer that, and you are in pole position for a borderline top-10 player -- unless you are the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Earning pole position costs you whatever you send out for Butler, and something of an unstated obligation to offer that full five-year, $190 million deal. Those three teams are likely concerned about both costs -- not just the outgoing trade assets.

Butler is 29, with Tom Thibodeau miles and recent knee issues. A lot of teams would be queasy agreeing to pay him $40-plus million as he approaches age 35. That has dampened the early market, though teams are surely posturing to at least some degree -- just as the Wolves might be in rebuffing initial calls, per Wojnarowski on Friday. Teams will also have to be confident Butler -- contemplating his third team after conflict at the first two -- dramatically increases their chances at landing another star.

If the return is much less than what Minnesota sent out for Butler -- and it will be -- there will be a rush to mock the Wolves and condemn Thibodeau's hilariously predictable run as coach and general manager. The Wolves are already humiliated. They watched Wednesday night's dumb, Wiggins-centric Instagram drama like everyone else. There is a strong desire within parts of the organization -- particularly the business side, which has had a cool relationship with Thibodeau for a year now -- to deal Butler before Monday's media day, so that it does not become a circus (or worse).

Thibodeau's stewardship is, of course, the wild card. He loves Butler and wants to win. He may have been coaching for his job this season regardless. Wojnarowski reports Thibodeau has no desire to trade Butler even at risk of losing Butler for nothing in July. In that case, Thibodeau doesn't care as much about July as he does April, which is part of the problem in hiring him as GM and coach.

Potential suitors are curious: When does Glen Taylor, the Wolves' owner, take control of the situation? What would that mean for Thibodeau's immediate future?

Getting movable assets in return for a player, even blah ones like first-round picks in the 20s or mildly interesting young guys on decent contracts, is always better than losing a player for nothing. (Movable is the key word. Losing someone for nothing can be a good thing, as it perhaps would have been for Chicago in the case of Zach LaVine and the monster offer sheet. Time will tell.)

The overall Butler exchange will almost certainly end up a net loss for the Wolves. The pick they received from Chicago became Justin Patton, who is about to miss several months with another foot injury. But don't exaggerate the cost. LaVine earning nearly $19 million per season will be a negative unless he learns defense. Kris Dunn made a leap last season, but it was a leap from "one of the very worst players in the league" to "somewhere still way south of league-average starting point guard." I'm optimistic he can improve. Chicago's coaching staff lifted him up in ways Minnesota's did not. He is a killer on defense. But he's almost 25. He is not a prospect.

In the end, the only meaningful cost of the Butler trade might end up being Lauri Markkanen, and there is no guarantee the Wolves would have selected him. (My best intel then and now is that they would have.) Still: That hurts. But there is also a world in which avoiding Years 4 and 5 of Butler's next mega-deal -- the deal Thibodeau is dying to pay -- ends up a blessing for the Wolves. Recoup something, even a pick in the low 20s, and restock the roster with players who fit the timelines of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Butler was worth a shot. Minnesota knew the risks. That those risks have come to pass does not make the Butler trade itself some clueless debacle.

Two other complications haven't been discussed enough in the early reaction to Butler's trade demand:

  • Minnesota is only about $1.5 million below the luxury tax. They will not want to go so far over it by taking on salary in a trade that getting back under becomes too challenging. Remember: Only one team -- the Kings -- is carrying cap space into the season for use as a potential dumping ground.
  • The Wolves would like to dump Gorgui Dieng in any Butler deal, league sources say. Dieng is a backup set to earn $48 million over the next three seasons. Good luck, and thanks to the summer of 2016! Swallowing Dieng will be a non-starter for almost everyone, even if a few suitors could do so while still maintaining one max-level cap slot for this summer.(Minnesota could in theory find a third team to take Dieng, but things get tricky as more teams enter a deal.)

Let's run through some deals:


The Clips have among the easiest ready-made offers that would satisfy Thibodeau's presumed desire to chase a playoff spot: Tobias Harris, one of Lou Williams/Patrick Beverley/Avery Bradley (not tradable until Jan. 15)/Milos Teodosic, and a future first-round pick (conveyed two years after the pick they already owe Boston via the disastrous Jeff Green deal). Some of those combinations would vault Minnesota over the tax, complicating talks. The Clips could substitute Jerome Robinson for the pick, or add Robinson (though I doubt they would do that).

It would be shocking if they included Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, league sources say.

They would surely prefer swapping Danilo Gallinari instead of Harris, since Gallo's deal carries through the 2019-20 season -- cramping their cap space. But as long as they don't take Dieng, the Clippers have plenty of paths to a second max cap slot. (The Clippers can also build deals in which they send out Gallinari, take Dieng alongside Butler, and still maintain a max slot. One example: Gallinari, Williams, Boban Marjanovic, and a heavily protected future first-round pick -- if even necessary -- for Butler and Dieng. Later they would need to renounce outgoing free agents, including Harris, and perhaps dump or stretch some other guys. It's doable.)

Pairing Leonard and Butler seems to be one of their dream endgames. That said, there is no indication the Clippers have acted aggressively -- or much at all -- so far, sources say.


If the Butler market gets frothy enough, Brooklyn can grease the wheels with this offer in which they absorb Dieng:

Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, Kenneth Faried, and Denver's top-12 protected first-round pick for Butler and Dieng.

That saves Minnesota about $2 million in 2018-19 salary. Renounce everyone in July -- includingD'Angelo Russelland Spencer Dinwiddie, who play a sort of important position -- and Brooklyn could eke out another max slot.

The Wolves would surely prefer DeMarre Carroll, on an expiring deal, over Crabbe, but the Nets have no realistic way to clear that second max slot and take Dieng without jettisoning Crabbe man. Removing both Crabbe and Dieng unlocks some simpler deals.

At first blush, this looks like a lot for Brooklyn to give up. LeVert is good. But he also projects as someone who could top out as the fourth-best player on a good team. Denver's pick could end up No. 20 or worse. Ditching Crabbe's deal is a plus. If the Nets think Butler is worth $190 million and can attract a good star, they would think about this.


The Knicks have three premium assets: Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and their 2019 first-round pick. They would surely cap the bidding at one, if they even get that far -- which they likely won't, given recent vows against trading anything for players they might be able to sign in free agency. Minnesota would probably demand two of those three. No deal.

TradingTim Hardaway Jr.and Knox for Butler would leave New York just short of another max slot, even if they waive Joakim Noah with the stretch provision and wait until the summer to re-sign Kristaps Porzingis. (They obviously aren't trading Porzingis for Butler.)

Expanding the deal to include both Courtney Lee (going out) and Dieng (coming in) makes the cap math even more gruesome.


The Sixers' omission from Butler's list was curious. If he wants to win, this is the spot: in the East, with two blossoming superstars. Philly is running out of time to add a third star, though given their trove of trade assets -- including Chicago's 2019 second-rounder and Miami's unprotected 2021 first-round pick -- they could always work the trade market even afterBen Simmons' inevitable max kicks in in 2020.

I'd bet heavily against Philly putting any two of Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and the Heat pick in any package for Butler. (Saric is really good, with two cheap seasons left on his rookie deal.) Right now, they might not even include one.

Fultz and Robert Covington works, but the Sixers likely aren't ready to bail on Fultz. Other versions: Covington, Saric, and Mike Muscala for Butler; Covington, Wilson Chandler, and some first-round pick for Butler.

You could get really ambitious and do: Butler and Taj Gibson for Fultz, Covington, Chandler, and a first-rounder. As long as we're alienating Thibs, let's trade all the TimberBulls! But again: That is likely too rich for Philly.

Simmons is 22. Joel Embiid is 24. The Sixers are already monitoring the on- and off-court vibe between them. Would they pay Minnesota's price to introduce Butler after witnessing fallout from Butler's icy relationship with young guys in both Chicago and Minny? Also: Butler is a career 34 percent shooter from deep. Is he really the best fit next to Simmons and Embiid?


Wojnarowski has already reported the Heat could try to butt their way into the Butler sweepstakes. They are free to trade their first-round picks in 2019 and 2023, though they should probably stop doing that. Butler would love Miami's "wear extra padding for practice" culture. Pat Riley is always hunting stars, confident in the appeal of South Beach.

Problem: Miami can't tradeWayne Ellington's handy $6 million salary until Dec. 15. (He also has the right to veto any trade.) Most of their hefty, long contacts have zero trade appeal. Minnesota would want Miami's best stuff. They'd probably ask at first for Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo, and Justise Winslow, and I doubt Miami would deal away its entire young core for Butler. Replace one of Adebayo and Winslow with Ellington -- or offer only Richardson and Winslow, keeping Adebayo off-limits -- and things get more realistic.

The Heat could in theory add in a Tyler Johnson/Dieng exchange, since Johnson's deal expires one year earlier than Dieng's. But most permutations of that (and some of the above deals) have Miami adding extra salary, and they are already over the tax.


How about Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, and Markieff Morris for Gibson and Butler? Would the Wiz have to toss in a pick? I'm unconvinced. Minnesota gets three legit rotation players for a post-Butler playoff push, and two versatile young wings in Oubre and Porter. This deal pushes Minnesota a hair over the tax, but they'd be able to duck back under. (The simpler deal -- Porter and Oubre for Butler -- takes Minnesota too far over.)

Washington has no means to pay Oubre with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Porter earning (gulp) $92 million between them in 2019-20. If Butler walks, getting off Porter's salary and opening some breathing room -- even if Porter is a really good complementary player -- eases the pain. It might be worth the risk.


A few folks have floated the notion of Portland trading CJ McCollum for Butler and filler. I don't mind it, even if there's next-to-zero chance Butler would give any assurances about staying in Portland. It almost works like the Kawhi Leonard trade in Toronto: If Butler bolts, you trade Damian Lillard and rebuild.

Portland's track record suggests they would like to add Butler to the Lillard/McCollum duo for one all-in run, but no such deal appears to exist.


The Nuggets were prepared to move Gary Harris and a first-round pick for Kevin Love around the 2017 draft, so why not throw a similar package -- Harris, Trey Lyles, one heavily protected pick -- at Minnesota? What about without the pick?

I'd still wager against it. The Nuggets love their young core, and the chemistry they are building together; I doubt they upend it for a rental.


The Mavs might push to include Harrison Barnes; swapping Wes Matthews and a future first-round pick (that would transfer two years after the pick Dallas owes Atlanta via the Luka Doncic trade) would leave them short of max-level cap space after acquiring Butler. Then again, maybe they wouldn't care; they could re-sign DeAndre Jordan, stay over the cap, and build some sort of mutant hybrid team around Jordan, Barnes, Butler, Doncic, and Dennis Smith Jr.

Another option: Barnes, Dwight Powell, and a protected first-round pick for Butler and Dieng. Dallas in this scenario would have another max cap slot to chase a Butler running mate -- though they'd have to renounce their rights to Jordan to get it.

This feels like a blah deal for both teams -- a slightly disappointing return for the Wolves, and muddled, thin leftover core in Dallas. But if the market gets really cool and the Mavs have some appetite for risk, their first-round pick could become a valuable chip.


And the door opens: Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, and an unprotected (and almost certainly crappy) first-round pick for Butler, anyone? Gordon, Marquese Chriss, and an unprotected pick also works -- though not until Oct. 31, when the Rockets can trade Chriss in combination with other players. The Chriss version also adds about $3.7 million to Houston's books, and multiples of that to their tax bill.

Do those deals suck for the Wolves? Yes. Yes, they do. But it's better than letting Butler walk for nothing. You know Daryl Morey will risk everything for stars who could pull Houston closer to the Warriors. I'm telling you: We are going to hear from Houston before this is over.


I didn't really get the early Raptors/Butler buzz. Minnesota should not want Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas. A package of Danny Green, Fred VanVleet (ineligible to be traded until Jan. 15) and a protected first-round pick could work, but the Raptors know they have to be ready to rebuild if Leonard bolts. I'm not sure they want to dip any further into their stash of picks and young guys -- VanVleet, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam -- to recruit another star on an expiring deal.


I'm surprised how many rival executives suggested the Magic. This front office has a long runway. I don't think they'd veer off course for Butler, even if they could get him at a reduced price.


The Bucks placed a courtesy "keep us in the loop" call with Minnesota, sources say, and a package built around Khris Middleton (also set to be a free agent) and one future asset -- a pick, Thon Maker, something -- makes some sense. I just don't see it. Milwaukee has a better chance retaining Middleton than they'd have with Butler.


The Lakers can't trade any of their recently signed free agents until winter, meaning they'd have to trade most of their young guys -- including bothBrandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball-- to get him now. Not happening. The winter could bring more intrigue, if Butler is still in Minnesota and the Lakers disappoint.


Finally! A big-name trade arrives without Boston as an oft-mentioned suitor! There really isn't a deal that makes sense until the Celtics can trade Marcus Smart in mid-January, and even then, the Celtics aren't sending out any of their five best players for Butler.

A mystery suitor could emerge. The Wolves could drag this into the season, hoping Butler reconciles with the team or some rival suffers an injury that creates desperation. The Wolves will canvas the whole league -- regardless of who ends up doing the canvassing.

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