The Case for Trading for Jimmy Butler
Just over a month ago, the Wolves’ weeklong vacancy at the top of their basketball operations department was filled by Tom Thibodeau and his handpicked GM, Scott Layden. That answered a couple of questions: who would be the team’s next coach? (Thibs.) How much power would he have? (Pretty much all of it.) This past Friday, the next set of questions were answered: who among the current regime would stick around” (Uh, almost no one.) Does Thibs really have all the power? (The answer “yeah, pretty much” was brutally reinforced.) It’s Tom Thibodeau’s organization now.
The next set of questions won’t be answered in such tidy fashion, because they’re a bit more open-ended. It’s Tom Thibodeau’s organization now, yes – but what does he want to do with it? Win, of course. But win now? Trade for veterans to surround the A-plus young core that undoubtedly attracted him here in the first place (Towns and Wiggins), or keep the team’s B- or C-level assets together (Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, the 5th pick in the upcoming draft) for another season before wheeling and dealing? What, exactly, does the next part of the plan entail?
It’s easy to make the case that Thibs will opt for the former: making deals to find vets in trades or via free agency, especially targeting “his kind” of veterans (tough, smart, defensive-minded guys) while working to develop the team’s two marquee talents. Over Thibs’ past 12 seasons, 7 as an assistant and 5 as a head coach, his teams have won 64% of their games and missed the playoffs just once. He was an assistant for veteran squads in both Houston and Boston, and had more of the same when he held the top job in Chicago.
While he has full power and a long, lucrative contract, he does turn 59 in January. There’s a chance this is his final opportunity as an NBA head coach. The signs seem to point to an aggressive attempt to get back into the playoffs. More than a few of the Wolves’ top beat writers have speculated that the team will trade the pick, which could be the first step in such a process, which brings us to the idea of trading for Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls selected Butler with the 30th and final pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft. The team was coming off a 62-win campaign (and a trip to the Conference Finals) in Tom Thibodeau’s first season at the helm. He logged 42 appearances and 24 DNP’s during his lockout-shortened rookie campaign, as he was stuck behind Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, and Rip Hamilton at the wing spots in Chicago’s rotation.
With Brewer and Korver gone, and Rip Hamilton limited by injuries, Butler became a legitimate contributor during his second NBA season, averaging 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game on 57% True Shooting (TS) while logging the fourth-most minutes (and third-highest Net Rating) on the team. He was especially good in the Chicago’s second-round series against Miami, averaging 15.6 points and 6.4 rebounds on 58% TS, but the Derrick Rose-less Bulls fell in five games.
Butler appeared to be primed for a breakout in 2013-14, but instead took a step backwards. Despite being severely limited by toe, ankle, quad, and rib injuries, he still played 38 minutes per game in his 67 appearances, but shot 39.7% from the field (and 28.3% from three) as the Bulls scuffled along to a first-round gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards.
The breakout finally came the following year, in 2014-15, as Butler seemed to put it all together: 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in his new role as the team’s most dynamic playmaker. Butler’s shooting stroke returned (37.2% from deep on 3.0 attempts per game). He elevated his performance in the postseason yet again, averaging 22.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.4 steals per game, but the Bulls dropped their Eastern Conference Semifinal series versus the Cavaliers in six games. A month later, Thibodeau, who’d helped guide Butler from a shaky rookie to an All-Star wing, was fired.
The relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office was on the rocks for years before he was finally shown the door. Gar Forman and John Paxson were always cool to him; according to Adrian Wojnarowski, during the Bulls’ 2010 coaching search, Forman wanted Mike Brown and Paxson wanted Doug Collins, but both were overruled by team owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Following two successful seasons, it was announced that Thibodeau and the team had agreed to a four year contract extension. Despite this, the deal wasn’t formally signed for more than six months as the two sides quietly haggled over a variety of issues. The following spring, the front office duo fired prized assistant Ron Adams, further antagonizing their head coach.
Butler flourished despite the dysfunction, but in his exit interviews in the spring of 2015, he was reportedly one of the three Bulls’ starters who advocated for a coaching change. It was probably coming anyway; during that season, things went from uncomfortable to untenable, highlighted by a pair of Jeff Van Gundy (a Thibodeau confidant) rants during nationally televised games, accusing the Bulls’ management of undermining their coach (which royally pissed them off). When Thibodeau was finally let go, the Bulls released a team statement that remains the gold standard of corporate-speak, passive-aggressive shade.
Forman brought in highly-coveted Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg to take over Thibodeau’s old post. The former Pacer, Bull, and Timberwolf player was supposed to bring a modern, uptempo offense to the team, as well as a more amiable coaching style and personality. It didn’t exactly work out that way; He botched the way Joakim Noah’s benching was portrayed to the media, was publicly chided by Jimmy Butler (and others) for being too easygoing, and shepherded the Bulls to a league-average pace and the sixth-worst offensive rating in the league while maintaining a top-10 defense through the All-Star Break. In short, despite the supposed shift in style, the Bulls still seemed to play like a Thibodeau team.
Chicago began the season 22-12, and on January 8th, they held the 2nd-best record in the East and the 6th-best winning percentage in the NBA. From then on, they went 20-28 and fell all the way out of the playoffs. Despite his team’s woeful finish, Jimmy Butler had the best statistical season of his career, averaging 20.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 56.3% TS. But the whispers out of Chicago grew louder and louder, and now it’s plainly talked about; Butler has rubbed many people the wrong way, especially since signing a 5 year, $92 million deal in July. The chemistry issues were such common knowledge that several teams came calling at the deadline, the kind of thing that doesn’t often happen with newly-minted max players. ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell stated on a recent podcast with Tim Bontemps that the Bulls’ locker room is divided over whether or not Butler is the leader he claims (or pretends) to be. At his end-of-year press conference, John Paxson acknowledged that no one on the roster was “off-limits.” That was the match that lit the kindling; Jimmy Butler trade rumors and ideas are burning bright.
Trying to come up with feasible, fair NBA trades is a fool’s errand. There are a thousand little hidden agendas, motivating factors, and moving parts that all have to click into place in order for a deal to be made. If accuracy is what you’re after, camping out on the internet and spitballing prospective deals is not your game. Yet trade “idea” or “rumor” posts draw tons of clicks because people love debating and reading about this stuff, plausibility be damned. And the trade idea I’m about to propose is entirely implausible because there’s no chance in hell GarPax will talk to Tom Thibodeau, much less trade him their best player. But a boy can dream. Plus, it’s the offseason, so why the hell not.
Anyway, here’s the trade idea I’ve come up with:
Minnesota gets: Jimmy Butler
Chicago gets: Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and the 5th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
I’ve been floating this idea on Twitter, and the reactions have been mixed. From what I can gather, most Wolves fans think giving up LaVine, Dieng AND the pick is way, way too much for Butler. They make faces like this one:
And some of them tell me to just go ahead and get out.
I should clarify a few points that don’t lend themselves to the 140 character limit on Twitter… If these negotiations (which will never, ever actually happen) began, I wouldn’t start by offering all three of LaVine, Dieng, and the pick. I’d try to do two of the three, or one of the three, or (gasp!) NONE of the three. First I’d see if the Bulls would take Adreian Payne, straight up, for Jimmy Butler.
I assume the Bulls would hang up on me at that point. But if they picked up the phone when I called back, I think we’d land somewhere close to what I described. For what it’s worth, a smart Bulls writer and I talked it over and more or less agreed. We’d both kind of hate the deal, but do it anyway – which is one sign of a fair swap. Proposing trade ideas is a waste of time, but proposing trade ideas where one side (“your” team) is the clear winner is somehow an even bigger waste of time. So don’t bother proposing Shabazz Muhammad and the 5th pick for Butler, because it’s a non-starter.
One other thing – I know the money really doesn’t work in the deal as I proposed it. I assume the front offices and agents could work something out if the two teams really wanted to make it happen (which they won’t).
All that aside – here are three reasons why trading for Jimmy Butler would make sense (if such a thing were ever an option, which it probably won’t ever be):
1. Jimmy Butler is really, really good.
There are plenty of valid arguments against making such a trade, chief among them being, “Zach LaVine has become a bona fide shooting guard prospect at the tender age of 21.” Another is to worry about what would happen to the Wolves’ already thin depth (especially in the frontcourt, as Gorgui Dieng seems to be an excellent third big) if such a deal were to go through (more on that later). A weaker argument concerns the prospect the Wolves could get at 5 (it’s a pretty blah class), but a stronger derivative of that argument holds that the 5th pick on a rookie-scale deal would be a hell of an asset (especially with the rising cap) if the Wolves do find a gem in that spot. Butler’s also been nicked up the past three seasons (missing 15, 17, and 15 games, respectively), but none of the injuries have been too severe. Finally, there’s something to be said for keeping a young group together for awhile to let them grow as a team – the constant shuffling of players hinders camaraderie and comfort. Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng, and Ricky seemed to gel, especially toward the end of last season, and breaking up that group would be difficult. All of those are legitimate concerns.
The one argument that I’ve seen that makes no sense comes from anyone saying Jimmy Butler isn’t good, because he is. He is really, really good. Like, one of the best two-way players in the league good.
Butler’s streaky outside shooting is harped on by critics of this fake trade I’ve put together, but whether or not he’s hitting from outside, Butler brings plenty to the table by getting into the paint to create for others or finish at the rim. He excels at both, averaging nearly 5 assists in 2015-16, hitting 67% of his shots at the rim, and getting to the line more than 7 times per game. This past season, he ranked in the 81st percentile of all pick-and-roll ballhandlers, per Synergy Sports. His outside shot seems to come and go, depending on the season. Four years ago he hit 38.1% of this threes, and two years ago he hit 37.8% of them. Three years ago he knocked down just 28.3%, and last season it was 31.1%. It’s questionable whether he’ll ever become a reliable year-to-year perimeter shooter.
What can’t be questioned is Butler’s value at the other end of the floor. When healthy, he’s one of the very best wing defenders in the league. He can guard multiple positions thanks to his quick feet (for staying in front of ballhandlers) and large frame (for holding his own near the basket). He’s a strong, tough-nosed competitor. The combination of he, Wiggins, and Rubio on the perimeter with KAT and Other Frontcourt Person X behind them, coached by defensive whiz Tom Thibodeau, would instantly become one of the best defensive units in the league. Period.
2. Butler’s contract will look better and better as the cap rises
Jimmy Butler signed a five year, $92 million contract extension with the Bulls in July of 2015, which includes an early termination option for the final season (2019-20). It’s almost certain that he will opt out during the summer of 2019; at that point, he’ll sill be on the right side of 30, and the cap will be comfortably higher than $100 million , or $40 million more than it was when the ink dried on his current deal. He’ll have one more shot at a big payday. In the meantime, he is basically on a three year, $52 million deal – terrific value for a player of his caliber.
Why bring that up? Because extension Gorgui Dieng’s extension (which could come as early as this offseason, or more likely, in restricted free agency next summer) will start in 2017-18, when the cap will jump all the way to around $107 million. The next contract for Zach LaVine (whose extension would be a priority next summer, no matter who employs him) will kick in during the 2018-19 season, when the cap will likely top $110 million.
Just in case that’s tl;dr – I’d rather pay Jimmy Butler $52 million for the next three seasons and try to contend than give Gorgui Dieng $15-$18 million per season and Zach LaVine some near-max deal ($17-$22 million annually) in hopes he learns how to play defense. The LaVine part would be a solid investment, and trading him away would be a difficult pill to swallow, because he’s got special offensive upside and is, by all accounts, a tireless worker.
But Jimmy Butler is just better. Period. LaVine’s ceiling, as far as being an effective player, is around or below Butler’s level. Thibodeau can coax passable defense out of lots of players, but thinking he’ll ever turn LaVine into a stopper is way too optimistic.
(An aside: the people who argue LaVine and Butler are “similar” in any way are nuts. Look at them. One is a wire-thin gunner who can’t play defense. The other is an extremely strong wing stopper who thrives on getting to the basket. They’re literally nothing alike. Stop.)
3. Contending cores attract good role players
My final point, in an attempt to assuage fears about what dealing away two (and perhaps three, if the pick works out) rotation players for an All-Star would do to the Wolves’ depth: playoff teams have a way of finding veteran role players on cheap deals to fill in the gaps. Rubio-Butler-Wiggins-Towns would qualify as a playoff team, and perhaps (in two years) as something resembling a Conference Finals team.
Free agent role players will see some pretty significant bumps in pay, but the Wolves would have $19.4 million in straight cap room, plus nearly $40 million to play with underneath the luxury tax (if they wanna get really crazy). In 2017 Pek and KG are off the books, go ahead and add $20 million to that figure. The Wolves would have the money, the core, the coach, and the practice facility to be players in free agency. Adreian Payne would not play 40 minutes per night. Stop the lunacy. Players would come to Minnesota. Add a stretch-four and some spot-up shooters to that core and let’s have some fun.
Congratulations! You’ve read over 2,500 words about a fake trade idea that will never happen due to the animosity that exists between a coach and his former employers, even though the deal sort of makes sense for both teams and would make the Wolves a contender, which would be lots of fun, and would jumpstart the dysfunctional Bulls re-build with some young talent, which would also be lots of fun. Today is (checks watch) day 41 of the 200ish day Wolves’ offseason. The good news is: pretty soon the Wolves’ offseasons will be much, much shorter, whether they trade for Butler or not. (They won’t.) But they should. (They can’t.) I’ll hold onto that sliver of hope it’s a possibility. (I am delusional and I like it that way.)