Are The Wolves Ready?
Jimmy Butler Trade Huge Win for Wolves, Could Have Profound Impact on NBA
Matt Marton/Associated Press
It’s too soon to apply the superteam label to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but adding Jimmy Butler on draft night, as first reported by K.C. Johnsonof the Chicago Tribune, at least gives them the beginnings of one.
And though the immediate result is another monster forming in the West, the fallout of the Butler deal will blanket both conferences and stretch across several years.
First, the particulars: Butler goes to the Wolves with Chicago’s No. 16 pick in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 selection, which became Lauri Markkanen.
On its face, this would have been an atrocious deal for the Bulls, even if they hadn’t surrendered their pick.
Dunn was old for a rookie last year and showed little to suggest he’s a franchise cornerstone, and Minnesota got better after LaVine’s defense left the rotation following his ACL tear. Both may yet become fine players, but right now, one’s totally unproven, and the other has been an empty-calorie scorer whose one-way play may be further hampered by a serious injury.
It was met with incredulity, outright criticism and solemn farewells, in that order:
I don’t really know what the Bulls are doing, fam
As reported, this is an absolute fleecing. Bulls FO actually thinks Dunn is good. https://t.co/vBH4K9G2LG
Butler is 27, under contract at a discounted rate for two more years (plus a player option) and just came off a season in which he ranked seventh in the NBA in ESPN’s catch-all Real Plus-Minus stat. When you factor in his huge minutes load over 79 games, he was worth more wins last year than all but Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
He is a two-way star who played elite basketball in 2016-17, despite hindrances that included a spacing-starved system, a semi-chaotic locker room and an oddly constructed roster.
He’s already a top-10 player by one metric, and even if you’re not sold on him at quite that level, you have to concede he’s heading to a situation with far fewer on-court impediments. In other words, if he’s not already a top-10 player, he has a clearer path to getting there now.
And an old pal to walk it with.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
It’s not just that Butler is likely to improve in a better environment. This is a two-way street.
Minnesota stands to benefit—obviously from injecting star-level talent, but also by adding a tone-setter of Butler’s pedigree.
This is a guy who defended like mad before he developed the offensive game that makes him what he is today. Butler scrapped for minutes early in his career, doing it with effort and grimy competitiveness.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (especially Wiggins) need to see that. Top overall selections have it easier, and you have to wonder if Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau’s barking and scheming wasn’t enough on its own to coax even middling defensive effort out of his two young stars. Minnesota ranked 26th in defensive efficiency last season, while Butler led Chicago to a No. 6 ranking.
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Towns was a step slow to rotate, was often out of position and even seemed to suffer a decline in overall effort plays as a sophomore—highly unexpected in his first season under the demanding Thibs. Wiggins was even worse: rarely in a defensive stance, never leveraging his athleticism into steals or blocks and dying on screens.
Both can be better. With Butler around as an example, as a guy who’ll leave them no excuses for not putting forth full effort and attention in Thibodeau’s schemes, both will be better.
Worry about the shaky shooting between Butler and Wiggins later. Fret about both being best with the ball another time. This is a massive talent upgrade for the Wolves—one that comes with precisely the kind of veteran toughness the young roster needs.
In short, the 50-win season some saw for the Wolves in 2016-17 is arriving a year behind schedule.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
And that may be just the beginning.
But about those larger ripples…
Consider what the Timberwolves’ vaulting into the middle of the playoff picture does to teams like the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and even Houston Rockets. Does it push the Clips closer to a rebuild if it’s clear there’s now another serious threat to reach the conference finals? Does it prompt Houston to get even more aggressive in its pursuit of another star?
Everyone’s still focused on finding ways to either compete with or hide from the Golden State Warriors, of course. But adding another ultra-talented core to the mix out West means waiting out the Dubs’ decline for a few years is a potentially foolish move.
What if Minnesota is ready to dominate just as Golden State begins to decline?
Maybe this pushes some of the other also-rans in the West to speed up or stretch out their contention timelines, and the impact only intensifies if Minnesota, suddenly more attractive than ever, uses its considerable cap space to add another major free agent:
Cap space for Minnesota will range from $18-22m. T’wolves have until June 30 to guarantee Jordan Hill $4m contract.
That’s not where the Butler fallout ends.
In the East, which just lost one of its best players, contenders now have one less option to put themselves over the top.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics must look elsewhere for their golden ticket. Maybe Paul George still winds up as a rental for the Celtics. Maybe it’ll be Gordon Hayward. But Butler was one of a small handful of available options who you could see giving either Cleveland an edge against the Warriors, or the Celtics a shot to beat the Cavs.
He’s off the market, which only increases the scarcity (and price) of other difference-makers on the wing.
Nothing is certain, and Wolves believers who expected immediate excellence last season know that better than most. But adding a talent like Butler to one of the most promising young teams in the league changes things—for both the Timberwolves themselves, and the league at large.