Pardon me if I’m still digesting this Timberwolves trade for Jimmy Butler a full four days after it happened. It’s just that 1) this isn’t the kind of trade the Wolves (or any Minnesota team) tends to make and 2) I found out about this deal while watching the NBA Draft in a sports bar inside a minor league ballpark in suburban Atlanta during a rain delay. We just returned from our annual baseball road trip around midnight last night, and being back in Minnesota is helpful somehow in fully unpacking this whole thing.
As with any blockbuster trade, this one had immediate reactions — most of them leaning heavily toward favoring the Wolves for getting Butler and the No. 16 pick while questioning the Bulls’ haul of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick in return. But far more fascinating things have yet to play out.
Namely: what will Butler’s presence look like on the court, how will he mesh with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and what will happen next with the Timberwolves as they approach free agency and try to fill out their roster with more upgrades?
On the court, there should be little doubt that Butler makes the Wolves’ starting five considerably better than it was. Basketball has two advanced stats that are pretty useful in determining a player’s individual impact. One is win shares, and the other is player efficiency rating. I like win shares better because it also takes into account defensive performance.
Here is the list of the top 10 NBA players in win shares last season:
1. James Harden — HOU 15.0
2. Rudy Gobert — UTA 14.3
3. Jimmy Butler — CHI 13.8
4. Kawhi Leonard — SAS 13.6
5. Russell Westbrook — OKC 13.1
6. LeBron James — CLE 12.9
7. Karl-Anthony Towns — MIN 12.7
8. Stephen Curry — GSW 12.6
9. Isaiah Thomas — BOS 12.6
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo — MIL 12.4
You’ll see Butler is No. 3 and Towns is No. 7. That’s an awfully good place to start next season. If PER is more your thing, Towns was No. 11 and Butler was No. 13. Wiggins was considerably further down on both of these lists, owing to the fact that for as athletically gifted he is and as much as he emerged as a scorer, his game is sometimes one-dimensional and not terribly efficient.
This leads me to believe that on the court, Towns and Butler should be the alphas for the Wolves, with Wiggins playing a strong supporting No. 3 role. Butler doesn’t have to be the clear-cut No. 1, which this Chicago Tribune piece argues doesn’t suit him, but he certainly should be 1A. I think that pecking order is right for everyone’s skill set and personality, but balancing the needs and egos of three very talented players is easier said than done. So it will be fascinating to see how that relationship develops.
Where Butler gains particular credibility in the establishment of that pecking order is his pre-existing relationship with Wolves coach and boss Tom Thibodeau. As MinnPost’s Britt Robson writes in a great piece, Butler appears to be a great fit in many ways:
That leader would have a deep experience and appreciation for the unyielding mania that is the Thibodeau coaching method, and be able to project, by word and deed, on the court and in the locker room, what elements of that mania to bank, what elements to discount, and how to beneficially ride out the experience over the course of a long season.
On the other side of the trade, though, we have this reality: The Wolves, as currently constructed, are seriously lacking in depth. If we can assume LaVine returns to health while Dunn and whomever the Wolves would have chosen for themselves at No. 7 are worthy players, they gave up three guys who would have played next year for one (plus Justin Patton, the seven-footer and No. 16 pick who should get some minutes but remains a work in progress).
There is also the constant churn of Ricky Rubio trade rumors, which figure to remain prominent as reports surface that the Wolves are pursuing point guards like Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday and others in free agency.
As it stands now, one imagines the starting five next season would be Rubio, Wiggins, Butler, Towns and Gorgui Dieng. That’s a starting five that can win games. The bench? Cole Aldrich, Tyus Jones, Patton and Nemanja Bjelica. Shabazz Muhammad is a restricted free agent and might be allowed to walk in order to free up cap space for other moves. Free agency negotiations begin in less than a week, with players able to sign starting July 6.
Clearly, then, the Butler trade is only the first move of what figures to be an interesting offseason. Minnesota needs shooters off the bench. A bulky, physical forward/center off the bench would be a great get, too. Depending on what happens with Rubio, point guard remains up in the air. If he’s traded, he will clearly fetch at least one useful player in return. What those pieces are, though, and how all of this fits together? That very much remains to be seen.
All we know for now is the Wolves have the best 1-2-3 combo since Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell went to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. That was the last year the Wolves made the playoffs. Breaking that drought should be the realistic goal next season, but so much work still needs to be done.