The Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler, in case you missed it. Lucas recapped the wild draft night, last week. This post is about what’s next. Here are four questions worth asking and answering now that Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are Bulls and Butler is a Wolf.
Question #1: What does the roster and depth chart now look like?
We’ll start with a softball question. This one is very straightforward and #factsonly. The current Timberwolves depth chart for players under contract is as follows:
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Andrew Wiggins
SF: Jimmy Butler
PF: Gorgui Dieng
C: Karl-Anthony Towns
Options Yet to Be Determined:
Shabazz Muhammad (restricted free agent unless Wolves renounce his rights to open up $4 Million in cap space for free agent spending)
Jordan Hill (team has option to keep him for one more season for $4.2 Million)
I’d bet against Shabazz coming back, because at least one team out there will offer him a bigger contract than the Wolves will want to match. Hill is a closer call, in my view, because while he offered almost nothing on the floor last season, his salary is cheap and he seems like a positive locker room presence – at least from my vantage point near the end of the bench where Hill comes off as a mellow source of positive reinforcement that counterbalances Thibs’s ferocious in-game demeanor. But who knows. If they need a few extra million in cap space, all of the positive vibes in the world aren’t going to save Hill’s job and he will be let go.
That’s a good — possible very good — starting five, and a weak bench. The Wolves have 9 players, 5 of which are clearly NBA-caliber rotation players or better (the starters; this goes up to 6 if they retain Bazz), 3 of which might be decent rotation players in the right roles (Jones, Aldrich, and Bjelica) and 1 who will most likely spend next year in Des Moines.
In other words, they need to add some players before October.
Question #2: Compared to last season’s Timberwolves performance, what are the likely changes resulting from a Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine & Kris Dunn swap?
The simple and easy answer to this question is: the Wolves will be much, much better at winning games. But we can do better than that in answering this one.
First, Dunn can largely be dismissed as a non-factor in this equation. While he played good defense, it was mostly with the second unit last year and the number of games where he seemed like a pivotal contributor can be counted on one hand. More relevant than his good defense was his atrocious offense, captured as well as anything by his single-digit PER of 8.1. For a point guard in today’s NBA, that just isn’t good enough. And for Dunn to be an effective off-the-ball offensive player he needs to dramatically improve his shooting. Dunn has no clear place in an NBA offense, at this point. Add in his advanced rookie age (turned 23 in March) and the likelihood that he ever becomes more than a disruptive bench defender and significant offensive liability seems remote. Sending Dunn away in a trade of this magnitude amounts to a “throw in.” I don’t mean to trash Dunn here — he seems like a good guy, hard worker, and his approach to defense is borderline inspiring. But compared to LaVine and especially Butler, his game is not in the same conversation.
Dismissing Dunn effectively leaves us with a LaVine/Butler swap. (Not in terms of the transaction itself, which also flipped the eventual rights to Lauri Markkanen for Justin Patton, but in terms of what happened to the Wolves rotation from last season to next.) This is a major change for a few different reasons.
First, and worst for the Wolves, losing LaVine and adding Jimmy Butler means a downgrade in three-point shooting ability. While LaVine’s all-around game remained a work-in-progress up through the night he tore his ACL last February, he clearly established himself as an elite perimeter shooter. In high (and increasing) volume for the past two seasons he shot 39 percent from downtown. Many of these shots were semi-contested, far from the “wide open in the corner” variety that boost the percentages of good-team role players around the league. Watching LaVine go through his pregame shootaround became a source of my own entertainment last season. He has a beautiful, effortless stroke with range that extends a few feet behind the three-point line.
On the other side of this trade, Butler is not as good of a perimeter shooter. He hit 36.7 percent of threes last year, which was above his career average of 33.7, but only tried 3.3 of them per game; exactly one half the number that LaVine shot per game for the Wolves. For a team that made the fewest threes in the entire league last year, swapping its only prolific perimeter shooter for Jimmy Butler will only make them worse in that area.
There. We got the one and only way that the Butler-LaVine swap hurts the Wolves. In every other way, it’s a massive upgrade.
First, defense. Butler was on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team in 2014, ’15, and ’16, and could very well be on it again whenever that gets announced for 2017. Simply put, he’s really good at D. Butler is strong, athletic, tough, aggressive, serious, and it seems reasonable to expect some degree of contagiousness to his effort that will infect Wiggins and Towns with more defensive focus. That’s the hope, anyway. If the youngins don’t show up with their priorities more skewed toward getting stops, there will be a loud veteran voice in their ear.
LaVine, as every Timberwolves viewer knows, is not a good defensive player. While he has supreme athleticism and seems to try hard, his lack of physical strength and poor awareness combine for sub-par D. The Wolves always defend better when he’s off the floor than when he’s on it, and his mistakes can be easily observed by anyone paying attention.
Second, Butler adds another playmaker to the Wolves starting five. Last year, Rubio was the only Wolf capable of setting up teammates. Thibs experimented with “Point Wiggins” to little success, and never even bothered with LaVine, whose skillset to this point does not include slashing into the lane against a ball defender, a basic prerequisite for effective wing passing. Butler averaged 5.5 assists per game last year and 4.8 the year before that. LaVine averaged 3.0. Butler, more than any recent Timberwolf including Rubio can handle primary playmaking duties against late-game, physical defense. He can get his own shot or create one for an open teammate.
To help illustrate how Butler attacks the paint, he shot a whopping 8.9 free throws per game last year. LaVine, a high-flyer but featherweight who doesn’t absorb contact well, shot just 3.0. The Wolves overall offensive rating of 108.1 (10th ranked in the NBA) dropped to 106.5 with LaVine on the floor, despite his sharp shooting. Last year’s Bulls were an offensively-challenged sort with their bizarro experiment to surround non-shooters with non-shooters; often times rocking a starting perimeter trio of Butler, Rajon Rondo, and Dwyane Wade. Butler, however, managed to carry them to decent offense, with an O-rating of 106.4. When he sat, the Bulls were a miserable 100.0, a number that would’ve qualified as the worst offense in the NBA.
It seems inevitable that Butler is going to bump the Timberwolves defense from the bottom tier of the league into at least the middle and possibly higher than that, if Wiggins and Towns take careful notes and follow his lead. But it also seems possible, if not probable, that Butler could improve the Wolves’ OFFENSE as well. He isn’t the shooter LaVine is — not even close — but he’s so much better at driving to the basket, drawing fouls, and creating for teammates, that it might add up to a net-positive on both ends of the floor.
The Wolves got much, much better, immediately in this trade and that is without taking LaVine’s recovering knee into consideration. Jimmy Butler is one of the best wings in the world and he is now a Timberwolf.
Question #3: In planning to contend for championships, what does the Butler acquisition do to the timeline?
Well, it obviously speeds up the #process. By acquiring Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau has more or less announced that he plans to win now. There has been a natural and logical tendency to preach patience with the Timberwolves ever since the Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins trade that went down in 2014. Since that roster shake-up they have been devoting huge minutes to 19, 20, and 21 year old players with crazy talent but also myriad flaws in their games that have been revealed and partially improved through rigorous on-the-job training.
That on-the-job training stops now.
By sending away LaVine and Dunn, probably letting Shabazz Muhammad go in free agency, and adding 27-year old Jimmy Butler coming off the best season of his impressive career, the Wolves have rid themselves of excuses and added a player who can carry a team. This massive shake-up, combined with the possibility and hope that Towns ascends to All-NBA status next year, means that the Wolves will probably have the 1-2 core of a contending team.
You don’t waste that — even for one season — in the name of patience or the long view. In looking at potential “title windows,” people clamoring for instant competitiveness will focus on Butler. He is older than the other Wolves and in his prime. His contract is also up in two years, which means the Wolves have less certainty that he will be here for a long time.
Towns, however, is arguably the one that people should be thinking about. After the All-Star Break last season, he averaged over 28 points and 13 rebounds per game on 60 percent shooting. He hit over 43 percent of threes and 84 percent of free throws. In some huge ways, Towns is already playing like a top-tier superstar player; better than Jimmy Butler, even.
KAT has a unique set of skills, but he is most often compared to Tim Duncan as a young center. It’s easy to forget that the Spurs won the championship in Duncan’s SECOND season as a pro. They obviously had veterans around him — David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott, among others — but Timmy was their best player and they didn’t spend a single season looking into the future with their on and off-court decisions. They won from Day 1 and had a championship trophy by Year 2. The Wolves have a pretty luxurious roster situation right now with KAT being only 21 years old and a mere 2 years into his Wolves tenure that figures to include 7 more before he ever hits unrestricted free agency. Combine that with Andrew Wiggins — 22 years old and fresh off a 23.6 points per game third year — and Butler, a bona fide star, and you have the makings of a team that can win now AND in the future.
The most natural counter to any notions of immediate title contention is the Golden State Warriors, who might be unbeatable for a couple more years if they remain healthy.
But the Wolves can’t make that their problem. They need to try to replicate as best they can what Gregg Popovich did with Young Tim Duncan and win as much as possible, right away. As soon as Towns prioritizes defense to even 30 or 40 percent of his total effort, he’s All-NBA. Butler is already in that class. Wiggins will take on a different role and with his immense talent it could easily lead to a bump in his effectiveness.
Starting this season, the Wolves should make decisions during games and in the front office that are geared toward winning as many games as they possibly can. It’s weird to have to spell that out, but the NBA has a strange incentive structure that actually rewards losing for a lot of its teams. Few team “go all in,” because they have no chance at the title and want to position themselves to have that chance in the future. After acquiring Jimmy Butler, the Wolves are in the select company of “teams with multiple star players.” With great players comes great responsibility and the Wolves now have to accept theirs.
Question #4: What should the Wolves try to do with the rest of their offseason — trades and free agency — to follow up the Butler trade?
They clearly need more three-point shooting and depth.
A backcourt trio of Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler is probably not good enough at spacing the floor to keep defenses from effectively packing the paint and inviting bricks from the outside, much like what happened in Chicago last year. Unless Wiggins takes another step in three-point improvement (his percentage rose from 30.0 to 35.6 in Year 2 to Year 3; more on this below) they will have no good shooters in their backcourt positions. In the frontcourt, Gorgui Dieng has teased a corner trey in recent games but it has never seemed like something that will become a big part of his game. Towns is a great shooter from all over the floor, but they need more than their stud post player for floor spacing.
Ideally, the Wolves will find a better shooting point guard and a stretch four to play with Butler, Wiggins, and Towns in the starting lineup. If they renounce Bazz and opt out of Hill’s contract, they’ll have about $85 Million in committed salary, according to HoopsHype. Add in Patton and it’s more like $87 Million. Assuming Nikola Pekovic’s contract is removed from their cap number via medical retirement (this announcement should be coming soon) the number drops to about $75.5 Million. The NBA recently announced next year’s salary cap at $99 Million, which would leave the Wolves about $23.5 Million in cap room, assuming all of the above contingencies occur.
That isn’t as much as it sounds under the current cap, and the Wolves will need to add quite a few players just to fill out a roster.
The general plan of action to improve the overall situation might be to acquire a good starter who can shoot threes at either the 1 or 4 position to both improve the shooting and floor spacing of the starting unit and to significantly improve the bench, by sending either Rubio or Gorgui to it. Beyond that, they’ll have to explore trades and/or hope for internal improvement from guys like Tyus (who improved a ton from Year 1 to 2, but still has a ways to go to be considered a reliable good-team rotation player) and Bjelica.
One tangent worth exploring about the shooting issue involves Wiggins. With Butler now in the rotation and presumably handling a lot of the playmaking responsibilities from the wing, it’s possible that Wiggins will be positioned in new, choice real estate that he has rarely visited in the past:
The corner three.
Last season, Wiggins attempted just 31 corner treys. The year before, he shot just 30 times from the corners. And the year before that, as a rookie, he took 32 corner treys. Through three seasons, Wiggins has not spent much time as a spot-up corner shooter; the place where many wings develop their perimeter shooting stroke. For a couple wing comparisons, last year Kawhi Leonard took 63 corner threes and Klay Thompson took 180 of them (!).
Wiggins has very good shooting form and it’s reasonable to expect improvement in his accuracy from downtown as his career progresses. One way that he might take an immediate leap in this department is camping out in the corners when Butler is driving and looking to dish. If he hones that skill and jacks up 50, or even 100 corner treys next year, maybe his three shooting will become a strength and the team’s will not seem like such a collective weakness.
Anyway, those are some thoughts about the trade and what might follow it. This offseason is certainly not over for the Wolves. Along with following Patton in the summer league, there will be a lot of roster activity in free agency and probably a trade or three.