This summer, Chicago traded three-time all-star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with the No. 16 pick for Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick. The picks turned into Justin Patton (currently on assignment in the G-league after breaking his foot in the summer) and Lauri Markkanen. Everyone thought Chicago got absolutely robbed at the time, trading Jimmy Butler, the heart and soul of the Bulls squad and a star player in his prime, for a high-flying shooting guard coming off an ACL tear and a point guard widely regarded as a bust candidate was a terrible idea. To make things worse, the team even managed to give away a draft pick in the trade.
Given the Bulls front office’s track record of trades, it didn’t seem too surprising. This was the team that traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow and Cameron Payne (and Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams) last season. One year later, only Cameron Payne remains on the team, still recovering from foot surgery in August. Bulls fans need no reminder of GarPax’s legend. So how bad was the Jimmy Butler trade really? Now that we’re almost halfway through the NBA season, let’s revisit the move to see how it worked out for both parties.
Jimmy Butler and Minnesota’s Path to Contention
Let’s start on Minnesota’s side. Tom Thibodeau is reunited with two of his favorite players, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson (acquired from free agency). Together, they’ve provided the veteran leadership that the young Minnesota squad and Thibs needed. Jimmy and Taj both bring the brand defensive presence and toughness that Thibs has worked desperately to instill in Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins and the rest of the young Wolves team. With just half a season played, it’s easy to see that the new acquisitions are already paying off for the team.
One of the biggest problems the Wolves struggled with last season was surrendering leads and poor late game performance. Last year, the Timberwolves ranked 28th in clutch game win percentage at 33%, winning 15 games and losing 30. In the last five minutes of games, the Timberwolves shot 39.4%, an 8.2% drop from their season average of 47.6%, and posted a net rating of -14.3. The team also ranked 28th in clutch time offensive rating at 97.3, third only to the Bucks and the Pelicans, and ranked 22nd in defensive rating at 111.6. In short, the Timberwolves were terrible in late game clutch situations.
This year, Jimmy Butler has emerged as the solution to the Timberwolves’ late game issues. Few teams have a better clutch time player than Jimmy on their team. Butler is third in the league with 92 points in clutch time this year and is also shooting 9-18 in the final minute of games. He has a superstar’s ability to score from anywhere on the floor and can hit on tough contested jumpers when the game is on the line. With him at the helm, the team is 59.1% so far in clutch time win percentage at 13-9 and up to a healthy 43.5% in late game field goal percentage. The team is still struggling defensively but they are buoyed by more consistent late game scoring.
Since December, the team has looked much better defensively. The eye test helps explain some of the reasons for their improvement. The biggest of which is the improved defensive play of Karl Anthony-Towns. KAT looks sharper on the defensive end, is making better decisions on rotating and helping and doesn’t leave the paint to go for blocks that aren’t there.
KAT’s defensive struggles were never effort based and more an issue with learning to make the right reads. In the play above, he correctly drops down to help shut off a Lillard drive in the final seconds of a game to stop the layup at the rim. Towns seems to have turned the corner defensively, but he’s not the only reason for their surprising defensive performance. Jimmy Butler has brought a higher level of defensive intensity to the team this year. With his consistent effort, Butler has been the veteran leader that Thibs needed to get the younger players to buy into the system. Moreover, Wiggins no longer has to consistently guard the best offensive player on the other team. Having Butler on the court gives the Wolves a much better defensive option to put on opposing wings. Bottom line, acquiring Jimmy Butler for the team has played off beautifully. Butler provides the toughness and consistent effort on both sides of the ball to help Minnesota elevate their play on the floor. We’re watching the Timberwolves mature in front of our eyes and take the next step towards playoff contention.
Evaluating the Bulls’ Return
Switching over to the Bulls, let’s start by looking at the Timberwolves import, Kris Dunn. After last season, most fans saw Kris Dunn as a bust candidate. As a 22 year old rookie drafted with the fifth pick, Dunn was seen as the best point guard in the 2016 draft with explosive athleticism, an NBA-ready body and the physical tools to be a great defensive player. In his first year, he averaged 3.8 pts, 2.4 asts and 2.1 rpg in 17.1 minutes a game. Dunn shot 37.7% from the floor, 28.8% from three and struggled from pretty much everywhere on the floor. Offensively, Kris Dunn never looked comfortable, sometimes playing too passive, other times trying to do too much. Defensively, Dunn flashed his potential, his long arms and athletic frame helping him stay in front of opponents and come up with steals. This year, Kris Dunn looks like a completely different player. As the starting point guard for the Bulls, he’s averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.0 apg and making a big impact on both sides of the floor.
Dunn sees nearly half of his possessions from pick & rolls (47%) where he averages a pedestrian 0.76 points per possession, roughly on par with his performance in pick & roll plays last year and good for 40th percentile in the NBA. However, his chemistry with Lauri Markkanen, his most common passing target, and Robin Lopez is developing very well and Dunn has shown smarter play and improved decision making. In the play below, Dunn keeps John Wall on his hip off the screen, forcing Gortat to show on him and leave Lopez open at the free throw line for a mid-range jumper. Dunn shows the patience in the moment to wait for Gortat to commit before dropping the pass off to Lopez.
Like many explosive guards, Kris Dunn’s athleticism adds a wrinkle to his pick and roll game. Watch Dunn split a weak double from Beal and Gortat for the slam coming off a Robin Lopez screen. His quickness off the dribble pulls bigs into help position and often leaves his roll man open for free runs to the rim. Also, notice how Lopez turns and screens for Markkanen to get him open on the perimeter, the Bulls run a lot of off-ball action to get him open for threes.
Kris Dunn’s shot is improving but not quite there yet, he’s about middle of the pack among guards this year shooting 43.2% and still needs to put in work on his jumper. He takes most of his shots off the pull-up, hitting on 37.7% of those shots. He’s also an infrequent catch-and-shoot player but he’s much more consistent averaging 44.2% off catch-and-shoot attempts. As he continues to develop his jumper, he’ll find his driving lanes open up more, especially with the shooting threats he’ll have on the floor around him.
Some of Dunn’s increased productivity could be explained by a coaching change. Kris talked openly about his frustration last season coming into a bench role for the first time in his career and seeing minutes in multiple positions. As a bench player, Dunn felt like he never really knew what his role was when he was on the floor. Thibs is also notorious for making rookies earn their minutes. Nevertheless, Kris Dunn has become a much more productive player this season for Chicago and looks more aggressive and comfortable on the floor.
The Finnish Dirk
Chicago’s selected Lauri Markkanen, the Finnish prospect with Minnesota’s seventh pick. Lauri Markkanen strikes an impressive figure as a rookie. He’s averaging 14.9 pts, 7.6 rpg, 1.3 asts on shooting splits of 41.8%/34.2%/82.9%. As a player touted as a shooter coming in to the league, Markkanen has done just that. Over the first 35 games of his season, Markkanen is shooting 49.8% of his shots from behind the arc. He works primarily as an off-ball threat with over half his field goals coming off catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Lauri Markkanen is a tremendous fit for Chicago’s Fred Hoiberg-led pace and space offense. The team run lots of off-ball screens to get him open for shots. Some of the action the Bulls run, include big on big screens to get him open and using him as an off-ball screener with the man reversing and re-screening for him.
Outside of his shooting, Markkanen has also flashed signs of a more diverse scoring skill-set. He runs well on the floor and attacks the rim off the pick & roll and off the dribble. Lauri has shown that he is a crafty finisher who can use his length to get shots off over defenders. His post-up game is still coming along but he shows a nice hook shot and can attack off the right hand or the left. Markkanen’s interior game should be much improved after a national ball-free off-season where he’ll get the opportunity to bulk up and work on his game.
Overall, Lauri Markkanen has been a phenomenal pick for the team at seventh and projects to be an excellent modern day big in his career. Along with Kris Dunn, the two are great young assets to receive in return for Jimmy Butler. Lest we forget, the best player the Bulls received in the trade has yet to suit up and play a game yet. Zach Lavine’s three-point shooting and athletic playmaking should be a strong fit for this team once he’s ready.
Winners and Winners
So now that we’re close to halfway through the season, how was the Jimmy Butler trade for both sides? The world thought Minnesota got away with murder on this one, acquiring the best player in the deal and a rim protecting big from Chicago’s pick in exchange for Zach Lavine, the seventh pick and a bag of peanuts. With his unique brand of toughness and leadership, Jimmy Butler has shown that he’s more than just a superstar player. Under Jimmy Butler’s aggressive play and veteran leadership, the Timberwolves have soared to top four in the West and look primed for their first playoff berth in years. They’re struggling a little bit with depth after giving up Zach Lavine and Kris Dunn and with Justin Patton still working his way back into shape but their starting five is elite and has them near the top of the West.
The big surprise has undoubtedly come from Chicago’s side of the trade. Kris Dunn emerged as an athletic playmaker with great defensive potential and has actively surpassed everyone’s expectations for him this year. He’s the kind of athlete that can be electrifying to watch when he gets away from defenders, wowing crowds with his crazy bounce. Watch his matchup against John Wall, it was an absolutely incredible duel between two athletic point guards. In the space of a year, Dunn has brought himself from a bust candidate to a decent starting point guard.
Dunn still has games where he struggles (he puts up 1-12 shooting nights every now and then and can get over-aggressive) and he’s not totally out of the woods but Hoiberg’s pace-and-space motion offense helps ease the burden of playmaking by spreading it across the rest of the team and Dunn looks much more comfortable and assertive on the floor. If he continues to develop his jump shot, he’ll have a good shot of being a starting level point guard and a potential all-star in his career. Lauri Markkanen also looks like a great pick for Chicago and a great fit for the team’s play style. He’s a good shooter and his play is reminiscent of a young Dirk with shades of the unicorn. He should have no problem carving out a big role and is looking at potential stardom in his future.
Once Zach Lavine comes back, this team will have another great piece to add to the fold. It will be interesting to watch him integrate with the Hoiberg offense where he should make for a comfortable fit as an attacking wing. Keep in mind that outside of the three players from the Wolves trade, Chicago also has some other interesting young prospects like Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and David Nwaba to work with.
For a Front Office that has done so little right over the past few years, this trade has turned into a pleasant surprise for Chicago. Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Zach Lavine all look like good young players. Moreover, they are good system fits for Hoiberg’s style of play. It’s exciting to watch this team play and take steps in the right direction. The FO has several key pieces for its rebuild but must now make the important decision between competing for a title or competing for a top pick. For all the great play from the young players, a lot of the team’s recent success falls on the team’s veterans, Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.
Having gone through half a season, this trade has turned out to be a success for both teams. The Wolves are hurtling towards a playoff appearance this year and the Bulls are well positioned for the future with what looks like a strong core of young players to build around.