On Wednesday morning, news broke out of Minnesota that superstar wing Jimmy Butler had met with Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau and formally requested a trade away from the club. Rumors have swirled around Butler and the Timberwolves for months, all of which came to a head on Wednesday with the news that he wants to move on after one year in Minnesota. From Jamal Crawford’s comments in the wake of the veteran guard leaving more than $2 million on the table to get away from the Timberwolves to the ongoing Karl-Anthony Towns extension saga, the writing was on the wall in Minnesota that things were not as rosy as the team’s performance on the court. The team made it back to the playoffs after a 12-year absence last season, but even that modicum of winning and the promise of Towns as one of the best young big men in the league aren’t enough to keep Butler from forcing his way out.
Follow-up reporting from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski listed three teams to which Butler asked to be traded: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, and New York Knicks. Unlike the Carmelo Anthony situation the last two years, Butler has no real say over his final destination, as he doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his contract, but those teams perhaps have extra incentive to try to get a deal done, as any team that trades for him is going to want assurances that he’ll strongly consider re-upping with the team next year. On the other hand, those teams will all have the requisite cap space to sign Butler outright in free agency next summer, so there may be less incentive to trade anything significant for his services. That balance will be difficult to strike for those teams, but those aren’t the only three who will be in constant contact with Minnesota over the next few weeks to hammer out a deal ahead of the 2018-19 season.
Any team outside of Butler’s preferred three will be emboldened by Paul George’s actions over the last 18 months. At one point, it was fait accompli that he would sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, but the Oklahoma City Thunder decided to take a chance on trading for him anyway, in the hopes that their culture, players, and success would convince George to commit to the team long-term. Their gamble paid off spectacularly, as George re-signed on the opening night of free agency to a new four-year contract and very well may spend the remainder of his career with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. However, Minnesota did the same thing last summer with Butler and even thought they’d have an extra year to convince him, but the situation has blown up in the worst possible way for the club.
Blazers Edge’s own Adrian Bernecich wrote just two days ago about how the Portland Trail Blazers could work a move for Butler, but now that the player has made it known that he wants to be traded, those conversations become much more realistic. Butler has one year left on his contract before he’ll opt out of the final year to become a free agent next summer, giving Portland less than 12 months to persuade one of the league’s most enigmatic personalities that the Trail Blazers are the best club for him for the foreseeable future. Butler’s decision to formally request a move severely impacts Minnesota’s leverage in trade negotiations, as well as the public availability of Butler’s preferred destinations, all of which plays to Portland’s favor. Superstars don’t come on the market often (though that line of thinking has been challenged recently, as George, Kawhi Leonard, and now Butler – twice – will have been traded in less than a year and a half), and getting your hands on one when they are available can come at a much cheaper price than their actual value.
Things have obviously not gone the Timberwolves’ way since they acquired Butler during the 2017 draft, but don’t let revisionist history change how much of a steal that was for Minnesota at the time. Zach LaVine was still injured with a torn ACL, Kris Dunn had just turned in one of the worst offensive rookie seasons for a guard in league history, nobody knew Lauri Markkanen was going to be able to step in and play at a high level immediately, and the Timberwolves even got the No. 16 pick in the same draft back. Unfortunately for Minnesota, just about everything that could have possibly gone wrong has – Butler wants out, Justin Patton (whom Thibodeau selected with that No. 16 pick) can’t seem to stop hurting his feet, LaVine played his way into a massive new contract and doesn’t look to have lost a step in the wake of his injury, Dunn developed into a more serviceable lead ball handler, and Markkanen is well on his way to becoming one of the better offensive big men in the league. The Timberwolves thought they had committed highway robbery this time last year; it turns out all they got was a box of rocks.
The George and Leonard trades are also instructive for the Trail Blazers’ hopes of landing Butler. When George was moved from Indiana to Oklahoma City last year, there wasn’t a single human on the face of the planet (except Kevin Pritchard), who thought the package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis was worth what the Pacers had given up. Like Butler, George had made it known that he had a preferred destination in mind and it wasn’t Oklahoma City, but the Thunder were able to convince him to stay long-term. Of course, Pritchard was absolutely right about his return for George as well – seemingly overnight, Oladipo became a better player than either George or Butler and went from slightly overpaid to perhaps the single best non-rookie scale contract in the entire league. When Leonard asked out of San Antonio earlier this summer, he also had his eyes on Los Angeles, but Toronto stepped in and got the deal done for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, banking on their culture and team success in 2018-19 to retain Leonard next summer. Just like with the George and Butler trades a year ago, the prevailing thought around the league is that Toronto didn’t have to give up nearly as much as people thought it would take to get a star of Leonard’s immense quality and it becomes the latest in a long line of superstar trades that always return less than expected.
Portland’s front office will have to do their homework on why things didn’t work out for Butler in Minnesota. On paper, the mix of skills between Butler and Towns should have been wonderful, but there’s an off-court divide that torpedoed the entire operation. From the outside, it looks as though Butler’s workmanlike personality didn’t mesh with Towns’ happy-go-lucky attitude – if that’s true, then the Trail Blazers should have no reservations about moving for Butler. Damian Lillard is one of the hardest-working superstars in the league and the pair would challenge each other at every turn to become the best players they could be.
What kind of package is enough for the Timberwolves remains to be seen. At this juncture, Thibodeau isn’t entertaining any trade offers for Butler, likely in the hopes that he can lean on their time together in Chicago and Minnesota to smooth things over. Now that the player has demanded a trade and leaked a list of destinations which doesn’t include Portland, any deal including CJ McCollum is likely overkill for what it would take to get the deal done. From that perspective, Wednesday’s events were certainly a win for the Trail Blazers, who should absolutely be willing to give what it takes to get Butler. Already in the tax for 2018-19 and with very few ways to improve the roster in the short-term future, general manager Neil Olshey can really only put his team back at the top of the Western Conference with a home-run swing. Lillard and McCollum are firmly in their primes, but the team’s financial situation makes it nearly impossible to add to the core of the team through free agency. Bringing in a defense-first superstar like Butler would take the Trail Blazers to the next level and give the club a real chance to compete at the top of the conference. Even if chances are slim that Butler would re-up with the team in 2019, Portland is looking at the dreaded treadmill of “good but not great” for what remains of Lillard and McCollum’s contracts. The downside risk would almost certainly cost Olshey his job, but making the move for Butler, provided both Lillard and McCollum stay put in Portland, elevates the team’s ceiling well beyond where it is now and could cement the Trail Blazers among the West’s elite for years to come.