What was behind the Butler trade, and what each team does now

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Friday, June 23, 2017

Pivotal offseasons sneak up on exciting young teams -- especially with the salary cap expected to flatten after an unprecedented two-year bubble that warped the league.

The young pup Wolves were about to become expensive. Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins become eligible for extensions on July 1, and Wiggins will demand -- and almost surely receive -- a max deal. Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the great young players in recent NBA history, comes calling for his payday in a year.

This was Minnesota's last summer to really play around with its core, on its terms. The Wolves aimed big, flipping LaVine, Kris Dunnand the No. 7 pick to the aimless Bulls for Jimmy Butler -- a top-10 player in the league last season, smack in the middle of his absolute prime -- and a draft pick.

There isn't much risk here for Minnesota, beyond Butler's free agency in 2019 and the obvious fit issues Tom Thibodeau will have to sort out. On his next contract, LaVine will make about as much as Butler, and will never be as good. And that's coming from a relative LaVine optimist. The dude is a once-in-a-decade athlete who canned 39 percent of triples on a difficult shot profile. He can rise up at the end of the shot clock and generate a makeable jumper from nothing.

A year miscast as a clueless, helpless point guard at least gave LaVine enough ballhandling reps to work a decent secondary pick-and-roll. He is absolutely worth Chicago's time.

He's also a horrific, spaced-out defender coming off an ACL tear. The Wolves were right to consider Dunn a sunk cost from their perspective, and trade him while the sheen of potential still gleams. Dunn is going to be a menace on defense. He struggled badly at almost everything else as a rookie, and he's already 23. A team aiming to leap now is better off with Ricky Rubio, or whichever point guard Thibodeau chooses to replace him this summer. (Scott Layden, the team's GM, said Friday morning the Wolves are committed to keeping Rubio. The rest of the league remains skeptical.)

Losing the No. 7 pick hurts a little, but the Wolves eased the pain by somehow mind-tricking Chicago into coughing up the 16th pick.

This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can't (or shouldn't) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is -- how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league's 15 best players. That doesn't happen, ever.

Oklahoma City shed James Harden out of (perhaps unfounded) tax concerns. Minnesota is getting ahead of the same problem. The Lakers, if they deal Julius Randle in addition to D'Angelo Russell, could end up without at least two of their high draft picks to squeeze out two max salary slots next summer; they dangled an unprotected first-round pick in front of every team with cap room to dump one of the toxic Timofey Mozgov/Luol Deng deals, sources say, and finding no takers, finally flipped Russell and Mozgov to Brooklyn. (Good job, Nets!)

Those inexplicable L.A. contracts remind: Mistakes always come back to bite you. Transactions flow along a continuum. They are not independent from one another. Without Brandon Knight on the books through 2020, Phoenix might have swallowed Joakim Noah's deal as the price for relieving the Kazoos of their self-inflicted Kristaps Porzingis problem.

This is a blah deal for Chicago, made worse by the mistakes that preceded it. Derrick Rose's fateful injury during garbage time of Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs painted the Bulls into a corner from which it was very hard to escape: a capped-out roster designed to win now, anchored by what became an (almost) untradable max deal.

Shifting into rebuild mode was almost impossible. Creative solutions, including a pursuit of prime Carmelo Anthony that ranks as one of the league's great recent what-ifs, did not pan out. They used cap room earmarked for Melo on Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol. Fine. Swapping the picks that became Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic for Doug McDermott turned into a disaster, but you could at least see what the Bulls were aiming at. Everyone needs shooting.

Splurging on Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade after lauding Fred Hoiberg's pace-and-space offense as the Next Big Thing showed almost an absurd lack of vision. What, exactly, was this team trying to be, other than mediocre? Then they just kept tossing extra stuff at Oklahoma City for Cameron Payne: WHAT? YOU WANT A SECOND-ROUND PICK, TOO? FINE, TAKE IT! WE MUST ADD CAMERON PAYNE TO OUR COLLECTION OF BAD AND ILL-FITTING POINT GUARDS POSTHASTE!

There were good moves mixed in. Any member of the "Fire Gar/Pax!" crew who claims they hated the Mirotic signing or the Bobby Portis pick is probably lying. Regardless, Chicago did not enter this latest round of Butler talks in possession of the one killer asset required to ignite a rebuild. They probably did not get it in this trade.

If anything, they are positioned to tank for that player now, only they have Wade and Rondo hanging around. Chicago can buy out Rondo for just $3 million before his full $13.9 million deal for next season becomes fully guaranteed on June 30, and they should try to trade him in the meantime to a team that needs cap flexibility now. Wade is a lock to get bought out next season. The Bulls have cap space, but they also have a chance to step into the league's tanking vacuum -- especially if the Kings, after a great draft night, follow through on plans to chase big-money veteran free agents.

The Bulls had reasons beyond rebuilding to deal Butler. They likely felt hesitant about offering Butler the super-max designated player extension as early as next summer, should he make one of the 2017-18 All-NBA teams. Minnesota faces no such burden; a player can receive that deal only from a team that drafted him or traded for him during his first four seasons in the league.

The league and union introduced the super-max to give incumbent teams more of an edge in retaining superstars. If the Bulls indeed felt queasy about the possibility of spending it on Butler, he becomes the second player -- alongside DeMarcus Cousins -- dealt at least in part because the incumbent team didn't really want that advantage. Paul George may mark case No. 3, though Kevin Pritchard, Indiana's GM, sounded heartbroken Thursday about the inevitability of George playing elsewhere. The super-max may be having almost the opposite of its intended effect.

The Bulls were rather publicly uncomfortable with the idea of Butler as foundational player. Butler and Hoiberg never jelled, and at times, including around midseason, Butler's bristling at Hoiberg's instructions and calm personality made people on the team uncomfortable, a source said. That stuff will not happen with Thibodeau. Butler craves a hard-ass coach. Hoiberg was never going to play to that type.

It's not as if Chicago didn't canvas the league, either. The Bulls talked to Phoenix about a package centered around Eric Bledsoe and the No. 4 pick, but nothing came close, according to league sources. (Those talks may have been linked at one point to Cleveland's pursuit of Butler, which apparently fizzled Thursday as Dan Gilbert, the Cavs' owner, tried to hire a new president of basketball operations on the freaking day of the draft.)

They poked around with Denver, but the Nuggets drew a line at Jamal Murray, sources say. Those teams had to weigh the possibility of Butler bolting in 2019, which cooled the market a bit, sources say.

Boston has danced around Butler for almost a year now, and would not include the No. 3 pick in any package for him as the draft approached, sources say. Other reports suggest they refused to offer next year's Nets pick, or the Lakers-Kings pick they snagged from Philly in the Markelle Fultz deal.

Boston apparently just didn't want Butler at cost. There is no other conclusion to make at this point. Nabbing Butler now would have complicated its efforts to carve out Gordon Hayward-sized space under the deflated $99 million cap, though they would (depending on the package) have still been only one Avery Bradley/Jae Crowder salary dump away. Potential free agents might have been turned off playing alongside two ball-dominant guys in Butler and Isaiah Thomas. They still have time to work a deal for Paul George. Dealing for a star after filling their cap space is much easier mechanically; ESPN.com has already reported that George likes the idea of playing alongside Hayward.

This is the one instance leaguewide in which the Warriors intimidation factor may be chilling a potential win-now deal. There was no bidding war for Butler the way the Nets and Knicks raised and re-raised against each other for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. With so much talent and so many future assets, Boston has the rare luxury of straddling two paths at once: be good now, be (maybe) great later, and don't commit whole hog in either direction. Minnesota has no such luxury. The Timberwolves haven't made the playoffs in 13 years. Do you know how hard it is to be that bad, that long? They just need to win, today.

Even so: It feels like the Bulls could have gotten more, or waited for better deals to emerge as teams lost out in free agency. Butler is not on an expiring contract. He has two full seasons left on an old-cap max deal that looks almost charming now. Chicago is acting on the timetable Utah used to acquire Derrick Favors, the No. 3 pick, another future first, and a useful player (Devin Harris) for Deron Williams in 2011.

They might have been able to get more at last February's trade deadline had they gone all-in on rebuilding then. Boston was willing to offer a healthy package centered around expiring contracts and future picks -- including the 2017 Nets pick, perhaps with top-1 protection -- if they could retain most of their present-day core, sources told ESPN.com (and others) at the time. Instead, the two sides haggled over Crowder, sources have told ESPN.com. Chicago wanted him, along with picks. Boston wanted to keep him, pair him with Butler, and make an honest run at LeBron James. The deal died, and now Chicago wants to go young.

At the very least, the Bulls should have insisted on keeping the 16th pick. This is the kind of deal in which they should get the little extras that sometimes matter in three or four years -- the pick swaps, the cherry-on-top second-rounders. They sure as hell shouldn't be selling second-rounders to the juggernaut Warriors, even for the maximum-allowed $3.5 million in sweet, sweet cash.

(I'm officially tired of these three draft things: 1. Every team, a year from now, claiming they were *this close* to drafting whichever guy turns into a second-round steal. 2. Every team reacting to every Spurs pick by exclaiming, "Of course San Antonio took him. We knew they would all along. He's really good. Classic Spurs." The Spurs pick like 28th or lower every season. If you think the guy is good, just take him yourself. 3. Teams complaining about a lack of parity, and then selling the taxed-out defending champions a chance to draft precisely the player they want on a minimum contract.)

Meanwhile, Minnesota nabs its biggest star since Kevin Garnett, and the Wolves could still have about $20 million to spend in free agency if they renounce their rights to Shabazz Muhammad. They need shooting, badly. A lineup featuring Butler, Wiggins, Rubio, Towns, and basically any other big man -- even Nemanja Bjelica, recovering from a foot injury -- will have a hard time prying open space for any of those studs to do work. They are, kind of hilariously, a high-class version of last season's Bulls.

They can get around some of that with sheer talent, brutality, and smarts, of course. Rubio is a genius. Towns is a brilliant post player already, and will only get more dangerous there as he improves his passing -- already solid -- out of double-teams. By the time Minnesota is ready to contend, Towns will be the alpha dog -- slotting Butler into something like a second option/killer defense role for which he is best suited on a championship-level team.

Butler and Wiggins can take turns battering the smallest opposing wing defender. Cramped spacing doesn't strangle you quite as tightly if three different players can draw double-teams in the post or bulldoze all the way to the bucket.

But it still matters. The Golden State star system works because each is a threat away from the ball. Wiggins and Butler have broadly similar skill sets. They both love holding the ball from a triple-threat position, sizing up the defense, and knifing into the lane. Defenses happily ignore both of them when they stand behind the 3-point arc and watch someone else run things. Butler made huge strides as a playmaker on the pick-and-roll last season, but he's going to have a hard time getting anywhere with four or five defenders planted in the lane.

Wiggins and Butler are both capable cutters. Towns is a good enough shooter -- 37 percent from deep last season -- that Minnesota could invert the floor in some lineups, with its big men spreading out for Wiggins and Butler to post up.

Still: Something is going to give here. If the Wolves eventually move Rubio, they will have two huge needs to fill: starting point guard, and a big man with shooting range who can play alongside Towns and Gorgui Dieng. Depending on preceding moves, they may have money to spend big on only one of those needs.

Paul Millsap is out of their price range. Serge Ibaka intrigued them at one point, but that intrigue has faded a bit, and most teams expect Ibaka to re-sign in Toronto. (We'll see on that.) Patrick Patterson and Nikola Mirotic could be cheaper alternatives, though their 3-point shots are maddeningly inconsistent. Thibodeau does not need anyone who brings out more anguished bellowing and arm-flapping.

Danilo Gallinari would make a nice fit. He declined his player option with Denver, and I'd bet (slightly) on him playing elsewhere next season. Kelly Olynyk could be interesting.

The Wolves may go the other way, and prioritize finding a point guard who can shoot. Rubio has improved his jumper, and went through a stretch of wondrous smiley confidence in it during the second half of last season. But it's hard to see it becoming a strength, and the Wolves need plus shooters around the Wiggins/Butler/Towns Big Three.

Patrick Beverley would be perfect if Houston ends up dumping salary to snag a star. (Their path to max cap space still looks pretty murky from here; no one should take Ryan Anderson's deal.)

Keep an eye on Utah here, too. The Jazz have about $16 million in cap room that expires July 1 after sending Trey Lyles to Denver for the No. 13 pick. They could use it to absorb Rubio, Eric Bledsoe, or some other high-priced guard over the next week.

This is a monumental offseason for Utah. If the Jazz lose both Hayward and George Hill, years of patience will have yielded one playoff series win before another period of semi-rebuilding. Things did not end well with Hill. His toe never healed, and he missed the last three games of Utah's series against Golden State. Hayward and Hill are close. Hayward likely wants to know the team's long-term answer at point guard before possibly re-signing. Without one, the Jazz are at grave risk of losing him.

If Rubio goes, Minnesota could pursue any number of free-agent point guards -- Hill, Jeff Teague, Patty Mills, Jrue Holiday, and others. The higher-end guys may have lost two suitors when Philly and Brooklyn picked up point guards this week. They would be thrilled to gain a new one in Minnesota.

Regardless: The Wolves weren't ready for the playoffs last season. They should be now.

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