The TimberBulls fantasy that piqued our interest over the past couple of days might go down the drain before the new season even kicks off. Jimmy Butler scheduled an appointment with coach Tom Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden earlier this week, and not just for an ordinary chit-chat; the 4-time All-Star is apparently disgruntled and wants to discuss his future with the franchise.
In fact, on Wednesday The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Butler has in fact requested a trade from Minnesota, and he cited one to three teams where he would sign a max extension.
There were rumors over the course of the season that Butler was frustrated with the work ethic and the drive of the Wolves’ two young stars – Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Factor in a disappointing gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Rockets earlier this year, and it is clear why the 29-year old elite two-way wing wants to search for greener pastures while he’s still at the peak of his prime.
As things stand, Butler has all the leverage in his hands. He’s owned a relatively cost-effective $18.7 million this season, with a player option clause for 2019-20. Considering the structure of his contract, if Butler categorically declines inking an extension with the Timberwolves this year, he might force his current front office into making a move.
In case they ultimately decide to take their chances with Butler, they risk seeing their investment involving Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a pick that turned out to be Lauri Markkanen fall through in just a couple of seasons.
Players of Butler’s caliber are obviously in high demand across the entire league, so finding interested trade parties shouldn’t pose a problem for the Wolves management. Let’s take a look at his top four potential landing spots, ranked in order of feasibility.
4. New York Knicks
With Kristaps Porzingis likely sidelined until Christmas, there is a real threat that David Fizdale’s tenure in New York might not start at the highest of notes.
To remedy the situation and appease the fans who haven’t felt the thrill of the postseason for five straight years, the Knicks front office might look into making a huge splash and simultaneously prepare for free agency in 2019.
The Knicks are reportedly eyeing Kyrie Irving as their top target next year; sacrificing a part of the future to immediately make New York an alluring landing spot for the pending free agent would make sense in that regard. The fans are reasonably high on their ninth overall pick, but both Kevin Knox and Courtney Lee should be considered expandable assets if an opportunity to acquire Butler presents itself.
Of course, the Knicks could take their chances and wait until Butler’s contract expires, but if they want to play it safe, this is a deal they should definitely consider.
The Wolves should also be content with the return package given the circumstances. In Knox, they get a player with a high upside who lines up better with Wiggins’ and Towns’ window secured for the next four years, and in Lee, a reliable 3-and-D option who won’t insist on taking possessions off of two franchise centerpieces.
The 2020 Knicks pick is an absolute gamble for both teams. If things go sideways, i.e. if Butler declines his player option and the Knicks fail to land a superstar in the next free agency period, the Wolves will likely end up with a top five pick in 2020. On the other hand, if the events unfold according to the Knicks’ expectations and they enter the 2019-20 season with a potent trident of Porzingis, Butler and Irving, they won’t even remotely regret surrendering the pick in this exchange.
The 2020 pick adds a flavor of intrigue to the trade, and the incredible potential return value might nudge both teams towards finalizing the deal.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets look like they’re on a good path towards replicating their 1983-84 predecessors; a team that scored 124 point per game, but still just barely made the playoffs due to atrocious defense. The lack of defensive prowess on the current roster is deeply concerning, and Butler might be the perfect piece to make the Nuggets at least somewhat intimidating on that end of the floor.
The structure of the deal closely resembles the previously discussed trade between the Wolves and the Knicks. The Nuggets part ways with an unproven prospect with a high ceiling, an expandable filler piece required to make the trade work and a future pick, and get a superstar that can help right off the bat in return. A starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Butler, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic sounds like a lock for the playoffs, and a long awaited end of the five-year postseason drought.
For the Wolves, the return might not seem that appealing, especially given the injury concerns surrounding Michael Porter Jr.. However, if Butler refuses to commit and there is no better offer on the table, the Wolves will likely be forced to jump the gun on this offer.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Classifying an offseason in which a team acquires LeBron James as unsuccessful would straight up be a travesty. However, the whole Kawhi Leonard fiasco left the Lakers and James devoid of another elite complementary piece, and that could easily become a source of adversity in the King’s inaugural season in Los Angeles.
The current Lakers setup looks unconventionally promising, but the prevalent impression is that they won’t pose a true threat to the established Western Conference powerhouses, most notably the Golden State Warriors.
To avoid a situation in which they must fear for a playoff spot despite adding arguably the best player in the world to their roster, the Lakers’ management might be forced to delve into the trade market.
The stipulation of this trade is that both teams enter the season content with the status quo; the Wolves convinced they can make the partnership with Butler work, and the Lakers patiently waiting to see how the gritty veterans and the galvanized youth mesh together – at least until Kentavious Caldwell-Pope becomes eligible for trade on December 15.
If things start going awry on both fronts as the season progresses, which is within the realm of possibility, the first trade between the Lakers and the Timberwolves in NBA history might be on the cards.
While the Lakers fans might be appalled at the notion of Brandon Ingram leaving, they would have to accept the fact that with the acquisition of James, their championship windows starts now.
Even though Ingram oozes potential that makes him an untouchable asset in most scenarios, Butler is exactly the type of player James needs; a proven lockdown defender that allows him to conserve energy on defense, and a consistent secondary scoring option the Lakers arguably lack at the moment.
Of course, the Lakers do not pull the trigger on this trade if they don’t get any sort of verbal commitment from Butler. The price might be considered steep, but exchanging Ingram and an expiring contract for multiple years of Butler and a future first-rounder would be a sensible move in the Lakers’ timeline altered by James’ acquisition. Also, the Lakers would still retain Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, which would definitely soften the blow of losing Ingram.
Furthermore, considering that the move would leave the Lakers with ~$80 million committed in salary for 2019-20 when the cap is projected at $108 million, the dream of Leonard or another top level superstar joining James and Butler could easily materialize.
Given their current situation, the Timberwolves should not be opposed to the conclusion of this deal either. In Caldwell-Pope, they would get a poor man’s Butler on an expiring deal they could stick in his spot for the time being, and in Ingram, another potential future superstar.
With a young core of Towns, Wiggins and Ingram, the Timberwolves would certainly regain the title of NBA’s spookiest team. Under proper guidance, that trinity has all the prerequisites to take the NBA by storm once the current juggernauts start reaching their expiration dates.
1. Toronto Raptors
“The Toronto Raptors have fired their coach and traded away their best player after comfortably winning the Eastern Conference” just reeks of an Onion headline. However, that is the exact route Masai Ujiri decided to take, tired of repeatedly getting demolished in the playoffs by the ruthless hand of LeBron James.
With James out of the picture and Kawhi Leonard enthroned as the new King in the North, the Raptors look poised for a breakthrough season in which anything other than the NBA Finals will be considered a major disappointment. The roster looks set, with ample firepower at every position.
The competition, however, isn’t lagging behind. With the recovery of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Boston Celtics will be a worthy rival for the top seed in the East. Even if the Raptors manage to neutralize that threat, the potential opponent in the NBA Finals might still prove to be overwhelming.
In order to fortify their position as a true title contender, the Raptors, who are evidently in a win-now mode, will have to look into further improving their roster. The current situation with Butler in Minnesota might give them the opportunity to do just that.
From a non-competitive standpoint, the focus for the Raptors this season will be retaining Leonard and convincing him to commit to the city of Toronto on a long-term deal. While a myriad of factors will play into that decision, at the end of the day, only one element will be of crucial importance – winning.
By adding Butler to the already stacked roster, the Raptors would immediately position themselves for a historic franchise year in terms of winning percentage and postseason success, which would ultimately strip Leonard of any sound arguments for leaving next season.
In order to make another blockbuster acquisition before the start of the season, the Raptors would clearly have to part ways with Serge Ibaka. Since Ibaka’s hefty $21.7 million contract is now considered a slight negative due to the noticeable drop in his production, the Raptors would be required to attach a first-round and a second-round pick, along with one of their budding young prospects in OG Anunoby.
Pulling the trigger on that trade would allow the rookie coach Nick Nurse to field an absolutely monstrous defensive unit featuring Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Butler and Leonard. The switching potential of that lineup would be virtually unprecedented, with enough length and defensive prowess to smother any five-man combination across the league, conceivably even the Warriors’ rendition of a death lineup. Factor in the abundance of offensive talent and an impressive bench, and the Raptors would be primed to straight up abuse their opposition on both ends of the floor over the course of entire games.
Adding two years of an ageing Ibaka to the roster might not seem ideal for the Wolves, but absorbing his contract to get an exciting young prospect in Anunoby might be worth it. Last season, Anunoby has proven that he can already be considered a lite version of Jimmy Butler with the potential of eventually evolving into a legit two-way star, making him the perfect complementary piece to Wiggins and Towns. As a cherry on the top, the Wolves receive a first-round pick three years removed that could easily surge in value if the Canadian experiment doesn’t work out in the long run.
Whatever the Timberwolves and their disgruntled star decide to do now that they have reached their respective crossroads, there will be plenty of options to discuss if the two parties settle on parting ways. One things is for sure though, the Jimmy Butler conundrum is shaping out to become one of the most intriguing storylines of the lead-up to the upcoming NBA season.