Six Thoughts on Jimmy Butler’s Trade Request
Another superstar is potentially on the move. Here’s what makes the Jimmy Butler situation unique, and not so unique.
Another NBA offseason, another All-NBA player requests a trade. What was once a biennial occurrence is now a biannual one, though some guys (Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard) are more direct with their requests than others (Paul George).
Butler attempted the Georgian route, rejecting a contract extension earlier this summer and voicing his displeasure with the Minnesota TImberwolves’ culture and direction. When nothing appeared to be changing, Butler chose the blunter path, as reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski.
Here are some scattered thoughts on how Butler’s request fits into this growing trend, and what it means for everyone moving forward.
1. Culture matters. Two superstar Eastern Conference wings were traded to the West last summer. One seemed like a rental, as he had a single year remaining on his contract and a poorly-kept-secret goal of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. The other was viewed as a franchise-altering acquisition, elevating his new team into contention for years to come.
A year later, George has re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Butler wants out of Minnesota.
To completely credit OKC for keeping George and blame Minnesota for losing Butler is unfair. The two teams finished within one win of each other last season. Both lost in Round 1 of the playoffs. Both are led by flawed franchise players. If George sees Russell Westbrook as a virtuous teammate and Butler sees Karl-Anthony Towns as a headache, that says a lot about George and Butler.
It also says something about Westbrook and Towns. More than that, it says something about Andrew Wiggins and Steven Adams, about Tom Thibodeau and Billy Donovan, about Thom Tibodeau and Sam Presti and about Glen Taylor and Clay Bennett.
Perhaps the most relevant difference between the two situations is this: Oklahoma City valued George. They spent a year integrating him, embracing him, making him feel important and convincing him to stay. The Wolves seemed to take Butler for granted. They signed a way-worse version of Butler who thinks he’s a better version to a max extension. They brought in ball dominant, non-shooting role players to surround the ball-dominant Butler. They played him an ungodly number of minutes, ran his body into the ground, and were going to continue to do so as he approached both free agency and age 30 in 2019.
Everyone wants to win. But as the 48-win Thunder and 47-win Wolves showed us, culture matters just as much.
2. Speaking of culture mattering…add Butler to the growing list of guys who do not seem interested in playing with LeBron James.
His list of preferred destinations, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, seems to have a theme. All three teams play in one of the country’s two premier markets. All three have young talent. All three have the potential cap space to both re-sign Butler and add a second star next summer.
The one team in New York or L.A. that was absent from Butler’s list? The Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, if you do not want to jump to the LBJ angle, I get it. So let’s not go there. Rather, let’s try to figure out a better, simpler explanation. The problem is, I’ve tried. We won’t be able to.
If Butler chose the Nets, Knicks and Clippers for their market size, the Lakers would be his №1 choice. They are the league’s premier franchise — the only team in one of those two major cities known for winning rather than losing.
If he wanted to go to a big-market team with young talent, the Lakers also fit the description. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma are far superior to the Clippers and Nets’ young cores, and comparable to that of the Knicks.
And if playing with another star was his prerogative, he certainly would have ranked the Lakers, who already have a star — and what a star — locked in for the next three years.
Now, you could argue (as some did with me on Twitter earlier) that Butler in fact does not want to play with a star. Rather, he simply wants his own team. To be “the guy.”
The thing is, there isn’t really any precedent for an NBA player thinking this way. Wanting to play with less talent, with no other stars, to put up big numbers on sorry teams that either miss the playoffs entirely or are eliminated swiftly. Guys in those situations want to get out, not the other way around. To argue that a player wants to lose more in favor of being an undisputed №1option requires some mental gymnastics.
Funny enough, the last guy people made this type of claim about? Irving, who demanded a trade away from James’ Cleveland Cavaliers last summer. Of course, this sentiment was just as false then as it is with Butler now — Irving listed Butler’s Wolves and Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs as preferred destinations.
Superstars want to play with other superstars, because they want to win. They just seemingly do not want to do so alongside James. I’ll leave the “why” and “who is at fault” for another day (or another plug), but the facts are what they are. Irving requested a trade away from a title contender. George and Leonard seemingly wanted to be Lakers, until James arrived. Butler’s logic should theoretically point him towards the Purple and Gold, but it is not.
Find me an explanation better than “the Lakers cannot acquire Butler until December,” a time he realizes he may not be traded until anyway, given the proximity of his request to the start of the regular season, and I’ll withdraw this observation.
3. NBA fans should want Butler in New York. When James — who, despite his inability to attract superstars, is still the second-greatest player ever — left Cleveland for L.A., all six of the league’s best players played in the Western Conference. Leonard’s subsequent move to Toronto changed that, but the imbalance is still drastic. A hypothetical “All-Western Conference Second Team” (Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Butler, George, Draymond Green) is probably better than the East’s “First Team” (Irving, Victor Oladipo, Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid). And then there’s that West First Team of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, James and Anthony Davis.
Butler moving East will not significantly shift the imbalance (Klay Thompson will replace him on the second team, ho hum), but it will make the NBA more entertaining in 2018–19 and moving forward. The Nets or Knicks would enter the playoff race, and instantly become a more enjoyable eighth-seed rooting interest than the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets or Cavs. Either New York team would become a far more interesting player in the summer of 2019, and perhaps even become a conference contender should they get lucky.
The Knicks are an especially intriguing destination. A healthy Porzingis would give Butler a more natural big-man partner than Towns, while Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Mario Hezonja and Kevin Knox make more sense as role guys than Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose.
Of course, New York would have to give up something in a Butler deal. Steve Mills made it clear earlier this week that draft picks and future assets will not be among those things, though he could change his mind now that Butler is actually available. While Knicks fans are still haunted by nightmares of their gutted roster following the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade, that move shifted the landscape on malcontent superstar value. The price point is lower, New York’s asset trove is deeper, and as long as it keeps Porzingis and Knox, the deal would be a no-brainer.
4. Landing Butler is about more than landing Butler. If the Melo trade swung the pendulum too far towards hesitancy, it may be starting to swing back towards equilibrium.
The Lakers practiced patience with George, and he spurned them this summer. They may have a similar experience with Leonard, as could the Philadelphia 76ers. While the idea of “waiting a year” is great in theory, life generally complicates things over the course of 12 months. There’s real value in certainty.
With Butler, that value goes beyond getting him in the door a year early. It means establishing pole position for 2019 free agency. The Clippers, Nets and Knicks all have paths towards two max slots, and filling one with Butler now greatly increases their chances of filling the other later. Remember, stars usually like playing with other stars.
It’s possible that Butler goes somewhere outside of his list, too. The Boston Celtics were not on Irving’s public list, but came through with what Cleveland dubbed the best offer. Of course, Irving likely didn’t list Boston due to seeming improbability rather than disinterest. While there are certainly great basketball fits that Butler did not name (the Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers immediately come to mind), none possess the market cachet of Boston, nor have the luxury of two years to convince Butler to stay. A move to acquire him, therefore, would be a bet on culture — which, as we discussed earlier, is closer to a 50% than 100% proposition.
5. Butler’s demand has a lot to do with money. In July, the Wolves offered Butler a max extension. If his refusal was a bet on himself, this trade request seems to be a hedge.
If Butler truly believed he would get a five-year max from anyone next summer, riding it out in Minnesota might not seem so bad. The Wolves could win over 50 games, and Butler could get an extra year of intel on his preferred teams, and his ultimate destination could acquire him without moving assets. The price, however, is financial uncertainty.
If playing 37 minutes a night all year before hitting the open market is a concern for Butler, so too might be the Thibodeaunian workload he endured last season. Butler was clearly aware of the toll his body was taking when he decided to sit out the All-Star Game (this is not normal), and he was proven right when he went down with a meniscus injury in his first game back. By forcing a trade now, Butler is avoiding further damage to his body and bottom line.
That’s just one of the many benefits of attempting to live out his 2019 free agency in 2018. It’s a terrific leverage play. No GM would survive the backlash of parting with assets to acquire a superstar, only to play hardball with him next summer.
Also, do not ignore the possibility that Butler extends this fall. Some will rule this out, citing his rejection of Minnesota’s offer, but signing that deal would have cost him the ability to control where he gets traded, since he could not threaten to leave in a year. By turning down the Wolves extension, demanding a trade with one year remaining and extending once he gets traded, Butler may have found an ideal workaround to a tricky situation.
6. With Butler out, Thibodeau should be next. More accurately, Thibodeau should be first. It doesn’t matter that he brought the Wolves to their first postseason in a million years, or that he brought Butler aboard in the first place. He traded two high-lottery picks in the process, and has gotten minimal growth out of the two top selections remaining on his roster. He’s committed major money to talented-but-awkward fits (Wiggins, Teague, Gibson, Gorgui Dieng), and given valuable rotation spots to less-talented-and-more-awkward fits (Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose). He hasn’t instilled anything resembling the stingy defenses he architected in Chicago and Boston, and his team’s offensive success has seemed to be more a result of overwhelming talent than ingenuous strategy.
(Quick caveat: Dismissal of his offensive success is not entirely fair. If we are to criticize the Gibson and Teague signings, we have to also acknowledge the contributions said players have made to Minnesota’s offense. Shot creation and offensive rebounding are good things. It’s just that those dollars could have been spent on better-fitting players, ones who would allow more touches for Towns and space for Butler/Wiggins, thus inherently improving the scheme).
It isn’t too late for the Wolves to recover from the damage Thibodeau has caused, but it might be if he sticks around to see this Butler trade through. This moment represents the franchise’s last chance to meaningfully build around Towns, with an emphasis on fit and future.
Thibodeau’s focus thus far has been about anything but. He’s the most awkward fit of all, and, for the sake of the team’s future, should be gone before Butler is.