The Jimmy Butler trade saga has ended, but the NBA business landscape that helped produce it remains.
On Wednesday, the Timberwolves will face another team clinging to a star player — a New Orleans Pelicans franchise that wonders how long the good times can last.
If Anthony Davis wants to be traded, he has offered only speculative clues. He changed agents this fall, and New Orleans shuddered. He signed with Rich Paul, who just happens to represent LeBron James, which only fueled speculation that Davis and James could join forces next season with the Lakers.
Butler isn’t the first NBA player to make a trade demand that tears apart a franchise blueprint. He won’t be the last, at least not while the league wrestles with unintended consequences from its rapid growth and popularity.
Analysts say components of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement designed to keep stars with teams actually have had the reverse effect, while the league’s latest national television contract essentially created two economies.
One features players who cashed in after the salary cap skyrocketed by $24 million in 2016, and the other has players such as Butler, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who signed long-term deals before that cash infusion hit the league.
“So you get marginal players like Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov all of a sudden getting paid at what was previously all-star level,” said Larry Coon, who dissects the league’s CBA on his website NBA Salary Cap FAQ. “Then you get guys who really are top level players, and they’re not getting the kind of money that they would be entitled to under the new economy.”
George and Leonard requested trades, which their teams eventually granted. The Timberwolves endured a disastrous start this season before finally shipping Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers this week in a multiplayer deal.
The next test case
Davis, who signed his current contract in 2015, won’t be eligible for free agency until after next season and has a player option to return for 2020-21. But this drama will heighten in the coming months and could reach a peak this summer once he’s eligible for a “supermax” contract extension worth an estimated $235 million over five years.
It’s a no-brainer for New Orleans to offer that deal to a two-time All-NBA first-team selection who dominates inside on both ends of the floor but is still versatile at 6-10. Maybe Davis signs. Maybe he decides to align with stars on another team, creating a trade sweepstakes.
There’s a growing trend of players steering themselves to other teams ahead of free agency, à la Butler, George and Leonard, a movement some have called “Pre-Agency.”
“It just doesn’t feel right,” said George Karl, who coached Denver eight years ago when Carmelo Anthony forced his way off that team to the New York Knicks. “I’m not sure Jimmy Butler’s happy with what he’s feeling right now. I’m not sure Kawhi Leonard feels good about what happened. I’m not sure Melo enjoyed what he did.”
This isn’t a new NBA phenomenon. Wilt Chamberlain requested the trade that sent him from the 76ers to the Lakers in 1968. Six years later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar steered the move that sent him from Milwaukee to the Lakers.
“The greatest of the greats could make this demand 25 years ago,” Karl said. “But now it seems like an all-star player can make that demand. So there’s whatever, 30 or 40 players, who can do this.”
At his Tuesday introductory news conference in Philadelphia, Butler said that money is not the most important thing to him. But the rules almost seem to invite trade demands.
Butler knew he could sign a five-year, $190 million max contract extension with the Timberwolves — or any team that trades for him. But if he waited until the contract expires and signed elsewhere as a free agent, he’d be limited to a four-year, $141 million deal.
“The league has tried to put up some barriers where player retention was a priority, but it’s backfired here,” said Bobby Marks, former Nets assistant GM and current ESPN analyst.
George requested out of Indiana last year, landing in Oklahoma City, where he eventually signed a four-year contract extension. Leonard demanded out of San Antonio, hoping to join the Lakers, but the Spurs sent him to Toronto for All-Star DeMar DeRozan.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said one change in the past decade has been players trying to line up together on other teams.
“They have relationships from high school on up, throughout college,” Thibodeau said. “They communicate with each other; in some cases, they share agents. They share [Team] USA experience together, so there’s a lot of interaction amongst them that probably wasn’t there years ago.”
This modern era of super teams started in 2010 when James left Cleveland as a free agent, joining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Now, James is waiting to assemble a championship cast with the Lakers.
When the Lakers visited Minneapolis last month, at the height of the Butler drama, James was asked about the power players have now compared to when he first came into the NBA.
“Free agency didn’t start 15 years ago,” James said, surrounded by reporters. “Trades didn’t start 15 years ago. The power in athletes’ voices didn’t start 15 years ago.
“I think me, personally, I’ve just been able to be in the right position. I think it’s all about timing to be able to control my destiny of what I wanted to do.”
Ratings haven’t suffered
If Timberwolves fans are disenchanted from the Butler saga, the NBA as a whole hasn’t seemed to suffer. Leaguewide TV ratings continue to soar.
“Whatever’s going on, obviously, is working,” Timberwolves veteran Anthony Tolliver said. “Until people stop watching, until people tell us otherwise, I would say so.”
Butler fanned the flames when he directed an expletive-laced message to Wolves General Manager Scott Layden about how the team couldn’t win without him. Butler proceeded to miss occasional games for rest or “general soreness,” leaving the team to wonder whether he would play.
Earlier this month, Commissioner Adam Silver gave his view.
“As a commissioner, you like to see players and teams fully honor their contracts,” Silver told the Athletic. “It’s not something that we would like to see, and to the extent those discussions are going to take place, we’d always hope they take place behind closed doors.”
For the star-crossed Wolves, it was but another chapter of a restless player wanting out.
After they traded Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007, he helped the Celtics win an NBA title and said he’d only wished he’d left Minnesota sooner, that his loyalty to the Wolves had hurt him.
Davis heard that story last February, during an interview with ESPN, with the hint that the same could apply to his tenure with the Pelicans.
“I’m not going to lie — it makes you think,” Davis said. “You wonder if you’re following in that same path.”
His future will crystallize next July with the Pelicans’ expected supermax offer — or perhaps sooner if New Orleans decides a trade is the only workable option.
The Big Easy already is sweating the big decision.