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Seven weeks after his trade request became public, Jimmy Butler finally got his wish. On Saturday, the Minnesota Timberwolves put an end to the league’s longest-running circus by agreeing to deal the four-time All-Star, along with injured second-year big man Justin Patton, to the Philadelphia 76ers for a package that includes big man Dario Saric, wing Robert Covington and a 2022 second-round pick.
The deal was first announced by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.
With this trade, the Timberwolves can put the Butler saga behind them, while the Sixers are going all-in on contending in the Eastern Conference this year and beyond. But the implications of the trade are wide-ranging, not just for the Wolves and Sixers but for the entire league.
Winner: The Timberwolves’ locker room
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The toll this Butler drama was taking on the Timberwolves was obvious to anyone who spent time around the team in the early part of the season. He was dictating when he would or would not play—usually coinciding with the Wolves’ national television appearances—and staying around the team in the locker room but not joining them on the bench during games. He set the tone during training camp with a now-infamous Oct. 11 hostile takeover of practice followed by an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in which he was unapologetic for the awkward position he was putting his teammates and the organization in as he attempted to force his way out of Minnesota.
Not that coach and president Tom Thibodeau was blameless. He and general manager Scott Layden dragged their feet in trade talks, holding out hope they could convince Butler to stay and preserve their own job security with some wins in the short term. He also let Butler control the terms of the situation without any pushback, creating the (very fair) perception that he was holding his star to a different standard than the rest of the team. It created a toxic environment that didn’t make anyone look good.
With Butler finally out of the picture, the rest of the Timberwolves can move on quietly and try to salvage the season with hopefully a lot less drama.
Winner: Karl-Anthony Towns
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None of those Wolves players found themselves in the crosshairs of the Butler saga more than Towns. The relationship between the two stars was widely known to be irreparable.
Towns has opened the season shooting 45.9 percent from the field, by far the lowest mark of his career, while continuing to struggle defensively. His body language during games has made it obvious that he isn’t enjoying any part of this, and it’s telling that his best games of the year have come when Butler has sat out.
Between his new contract and Butler’s departure, Towns is now the unquestioned face of the Timberwolves. He has the opportunity to rewrite a narrative that had increasingly been turning against him in the years since he took the NBA by storm in his rookie season. It’s up to him to make the most of that chance and lead the Wolves to a new era of success.
Loser: Eastern Conference Contenders
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What was already shaping up to be a tight race at the top of the Eastern Conference just got even more crowded. In the early going, the 11-1 Toronto Raptors and 9-2 Milwaukee Bucks have set themselves apart, and there’s little doubt that the Boston Celtics’ depth and star power see them eventually catch up and maybe even overtake those two teams as the favorite.
The Sixers, one of the preseason favorites to contend in the east, have started the season a step behind that competition, thanks to a 1-5 start on the road. The combined non-shooting threat of Simmons and Markelle Fultz has proven a massive liability, leading to an offense that hasn’t run as smoothly as it should.
Adding Butler is a game-changer at both ends of the floor. He’s capable of running the offense when Simmons is off the floor as well as playing off the ball and providing another perimeter threat for Simmons to set up. Defensively, he’s been up to the task of matching up with the other team’s best perimeter player. There is no longer a question of who will guard Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo in a playoff matchup with the Raptors or Bucks.
There is some long-term risk for the Sixers to add Butler, with considerable reason to doubt how his game will age on his next contract. In the present, however, he’ll instantly make them better, and that’s bad news for the other east hopefuls.
Loser: The Heat
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The trade market for Butler was softer than it should have been for a player of his caliber, in large part because most of the teams he was thought to be interested in joining—namely the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers—were reluctant to give up young players and picks for a rental when they would have had enough cap room to sign Butler outright in July.
The one exception was the Miami Heat, who engaged in serious talks with Minnesota over the past two months. The Heat desperately needed to add a star like Butler to vault themselves back into relevance in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But unlike the Knicks or Clippers, Miami won’t have cap space anytime soon, with big long-term contracts on their books for above-average but below-star-level players like Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Josh Richardson.
The Heat’s only avenue to add an All-Star is by trading for one, and Butler was their best chance. Who knows when Pat Riley’s next opportunity will come along?
Winner: The Bulls, Somehow
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Credit where it’s due: The Bulls’ June 2017 trade of Butler to the Timberwolves was widely panned at the time, but it’s looked better with each passing day.
When the trade was made, the criticisms of the Bulls’ return were more than understandable. No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen was an unknown, Kris Dunn was coming off an awful rookie season and Zach LaVine was still recovering from a torn ACL. But Markkanen had a much better rookie year for the Bulls than anyone had anticipated, while Dunn made significant strides at both ends of the floor in his first season in Chicago. Both of those players are injured to start the 2018-19 season, but LaVine is living up to a freshly signed four-year, $78 million contract, averaging 27.4 points per game and looking like a legitimate building block for the Bulls.
To be clear, the Bulls trade was also a no-brainer for the Timberwolves—Butler was coming off a career year and his first All-NBA selection, and pairing him with Towns was too good an opportunity for Thibodeau to pass up. Their first year together was largely a success, resulting in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004. Since then, however, the Timberwolves have become the league’s biggest soap opera thanks to Butler’s desire to be traded, and the package they got from the Sixers is clearly inferior to what they gave up to get him from the Bulls.
While Minnesota’s future is uncertain, the Bulls’ rebuild is in a good place. All three of the pieces they got in last year’s Butler trade look like keepers, as does this year’s No. 7 pick, center Wendell Carter, Jr. With a 3-9 start to the season, Chicago looks like a good bet to land a top-five pick in the upcoming draft lottery to add to what is becoming a promising young nucleus. They made the right decision to move on from Butler when they did.
Loser: Markelle Fultz
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Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has not had the ideal start to his NBA career, to put it kindly. He barely played his rookie season due to a bizarre shoulder injury that led to him essentially forgetting how to shoot. He’s played more in his second year and even started all 13 games thus far, but is still shooting just 39.5 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three-point range.
Adding a domineering personality like Butler to a locker room with Fultz could be disastrous. He’s already had high-profile struggles with confidence in his young NBA career. The addition of Butler may make his situation untenable if his play doesn’t improve. It won’t be long before talk starts of Fultz needing a fresh start somewhere else to revive his career.
Winner: Dario Saric
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Saric has struggled in his third season in Philadelphia with his offensive role lost in the shuffle next to Simmons and Embiid. In Minnesota, he will have the opportunity to be featured more in the offense and slot into the frontcourt next to Towns to provide a versatile offensive threat.
Saric will be eligible for an extension on his rookie contract this offseason, and a bigger role with the Timberwolves is more likely to get him paid than the secondary role he was struggling to adapt to in Philly. The Timberwolves have big contracts on the books for Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, but if Saric turns his season around in a new environment and shows himself to be a future building block, he’ll be in a good position when it comes time to negotiate a new contract.
Loser: 2019 free-agency suitors
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This July, Butler will be one of the headliners of a loaded class of superstar free agents that also includes Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins. Both New York teams and both Los Angeles teams will be among those with enough cap space to sign one or two of these names, and all of them are well known to be planning on going big-game hunting.
That free-agent pool already took a hit during training camp when Irving publicly committed to re-sign in Boston. Now, unless his pairing with Embiid and Simmons goes horribly awry this season, Butler is all but certain to re-up on a five-year deal in Philly worth nearly $200 million. The reason Butler was so adamant that he wanted to be traded to a desirable destination before he hit free agency was to be eligible to re-sign for a five-year max rather than sign somewhere else for just four years.
Philadelphia is a great spot for Butler to wind up, with a young superstar duo of Simmons and Embiid that’s poised to contend for years to come and a rabid fanbase that will embrace him right away. Between the money and the basketball situation, there’s no reason to think he’d go anywhere else this summer.
And so the Knicks, Nets, Lakers and Clippers will be competing for the services of a shrinking group of available stars. That’s before factoring in the possibility that Leonard stays in Toronto or that Durant and Thompson decide to keep the Warriors’ run going for a few more years. The big-market teams hoarding cap space to go superstar shopping may well come home empty-handed.
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For the past four years, LeBron James had made the Finals in Cleveland with supporting casts that ranged from “pretty good” to “extremely shaky.” That wouldn’t have been possible this year, when it can easily be argued that the top four teams in the east—Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston and this version of the Sixers with Butler—are the four next-best teams in the league behind Golden State.
Not that James’ Lakers haven’t had their share of struggles in his first season in Los Angeles, and they have plenty of issues that still need to get worked out. But as far as his legacy is concerned, nobody will hold it against him if he loses to the Warriors in the playoffs, because nobody in the Western Conference can be reasonably expected to beat one of the greatest teams in NBA history. James chose to sign with the Lakers knowing it would be an uphill battle to seriously contend, at least until they add another superstar in an upcoming free-agent class. The expectations for his first year in Hollywood are much lower than they would have been if he’d stayed in Cleveland, and his competition there would have been steeper than it ever was before.
James got out of the east at the exact right time, when it stopped being a foregone conclusion that his seasons in that half of the league would end in a trip to the Finals. That was true before Saturday, but it’s doubly true now that the Sixers have added Butler.