Breaking down the Jimmy Butler – Timberwolves Saga

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves
 (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

By: Alex Cohen

The Minnesota Timberwolves just broke their thirteen-season-long playoff drought, the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. Unfortunately for Timberwolves fans, another drought may be looming after all-star Jimmy Butler requested a trade Wednesday.

It is always tough to make the playoffs in the West, and last year was no exception. With the expected departure of Butler, the Timberwolves have almost no shot at making the playoffs. Butler is one of the most impactful and perhaps most underrated players in the game.

In the 2016-17 season, he dragged a washed-up Rondo and Wade-Bulls team to the playoffs. In that season, the Timberwolves had a record of 31-51. In the 2017-18 season, after acquiring Butler, they won 47 games, a 16 win improvement from the year before. In that season season, before going down with a knee injury, the Timberwolves were 36-26 and the third seed in the West.

The Timberwolves went 8-9 after Butler was sidelined, on the verge of missing the playoffs until he came back with three games to go. Butler led them to three straight wins, including a win or go home game against the Nuggets in the final game of the season. In that game, Butler put up 31 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists.

Advanced stats are kind to Jimmy Butler. He ranked 4th in the entire NBA in ESPN’s Real-Plus-Minus stat. When Butler was playing, the Timberwolves outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. When Butler was on the bench, they were outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. When Butler was on the court, the Timberwolves had an offensive rating of 116.7, which would be the best in the NBA (yes, even better than the Warriors). When he was on the bench, that dropped to 110.3, 10th best in the league.

With Butler on the court the Timberwolves had a defensive rating of 108.7, which would be 14th best in the league. When Butler sat, their defensive rating plummeted to 116.4, which would be dead last. Even before Butler made his trade request, it was going to be tough for the Timberwolves to squeeze into the playoffs. Losing a player of his impact will make it nearly impossible.

Despite Butler’s undeniable impact, Butler is still unlikely to yield too great a return in a trade. The Timberwolves have little to zero leverage in a trade now that Butler’s trade request is public.

Butler’s short list of who he would like to be traded to (The Knicks, Nets, or Clippers) hurts the Timberwolves as well. Butler likely chose these teams because he wants to be in the spotlight, which he would get in New York or Los Angeles, just not with LeBron on the Lakers.

This is one of many concerns for teams, because it makes you ponder what Butler’s priorities are. A team would not want to give up assets to acquire a barely-interest Butler set on leaving in the offseason. Last offseason, there was a similar scenario involving Paul George. George had requested a trade to the Lakers, yet the Thunder still opted to trade for him in hopes they could change his mind about re-signing.

That might have had to do a bit more of the $137 million OKC was willing to offer him than the Oklahoma City nightlife and culture. A team could try to similarly trade for Butler and then try to convince him to stay, though it would probably take a massive contract like George’s to convince him.

Butler allegedly is requesting the trade from Minnesota in the first place because he wanted a 4 year, $155 extension. Butler is eligible for a $190 million over five years contract if he re-signs or about $141 million over four years contract if he leaves. A team is unlikely to throw that much at Butler, who just had knee surgery and would be 30 years old by next offseason.

Butler has played numerous seasons under Tom Thibodeau, who appears to have a knack for shaving years off the careers of players through years of overplaying them. No team wants to give out the next Luol Deng or Joakim Noah-type contract, and the amount Butler would likely be asking for is almost as much as both of those mammoth contracts combined. Butler has also allegedly been in the center of locker room drama for the past two straight seasons.

Head coach and and president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, Tom Thibodeau, reportedly does not want to trade Butler for future pieces, or at all if possible. The Wolves are unlikely to get any players back in a trade as impactful as Butler considering a team trading for him would be trying to “win-now.”

Among the three teams Butler requested, the Clippers and Nets are most likely to trade for Butler. The Knicks have remained adamant they do not want to skip steps in roster development by trading assets for players they think they can acquire in free agency. The Nets and Clippers do not have any players nearly as good as Butler. They have a decent amount of young talent and a large amount of upcoming cap space. It is no surprise Thibodeau does not want to trade Butler for future talent as he came to Minnesota with the expectation of competing.

A Thibodeau and Timberwolves divorce may be mutually beneficial. It would be foolish to try and keep a disgruntled Butler. If Thibodeau can’t deal with rebuilding he should probably just leave. The Timberwolves players would be better off without getting played to the point of injury as well.

In 2012, Rose tore his ACL when Thibodeau left him in late in a blowout. Thibodeau seems to have not learned his lesson. As previously stated, most players to have played for Thibodeau have fallen off much faster because of his propensity to give his players some of the most minutes in the league. Here’s a table to give an idea of just how many minutes Thibodeau has given his players each season he’s been in the league.

Player(s) League Rank(s) Minutes Per Game Year
Derrick Rose, Luol Deng 14, 4 37.4, 39.1 2010-11
Derrick Rose, Luol Deng 21, 1 35.3, 39.4 2011-12
Joakim Noah, Luol Deng 16, 1 36.8, 38.7 2012-13
Jimmy Butler 1 38.7 2013-14
Jimmy Butler 1 38.7 2014-15
Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine 5, 3, 3 37, 37.2, 37.2 2016-17
Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler 14, 9, 2 35.6, 36.3, 36.7 2017-18

In the 2016-17 season, the Timberwolves would always fall apart in the second halves of games, likely due to fatigue. They had the second-worst third quarter margin in the league. On the subject of coaching in general, Thibodeau’s specialty is supposed to be his defense, yet Wiggins and Towns are still two of the most dreadful defenders in the league.

As president of basketball operations, Thibodeau has not been much better than he has been a coach. He signs mediocre-to-bad veterans who he tends to not play unless they’re former member of the Bulls.

During his tenure, Gorgui Dieng was signed to a bad 4 year, $63 million deal and Andrew Wiggins was signed to a five year, $148 million extension, one of the worst contracts in the NBA. Wiggins has not lived up to his number one draft selection so far, or improved much since draft night. In the 2016-17 season, despite averaging 23.6 points per game, he did it inefficiently, was a turnstile on defense, and does not contribute much else.

This season Wiggins was a bad fit with Butler. Butler and Wiggins have similar offensive play-styles–only Butler is better. Wiggins is best suited as a number one option. He’s a bad off-ball player due to his lack of a jumper. The issue is he’s not good enough to be a number one option on a team that’s not in the lottery, yet he’s one of the highest paid players in the NBA.

Thibodeau seemingly is not too popular among players either. Butler obviously just requested a trade and they lost solid role player Nemanja Bjelica (who played 34 minutes per game in the 17 game stretch Butler was out) this summer to the Sacramento Kings. His trades have been lackluster as well, he swapped Ricky Rubio who (outplayed Russell Westbrook in the playoffs at times this year) for Jeff Teague, who was forgettable.

With hindsight, it’s certainly safe to say he lost the the Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn for Jimmy Butler trade. A Dunn-LaVine-Wiggins-Markkanen-Towns lineup likely would have never seen the light of day due to how much money they spent on Wiggins, but it would certainly be better to have many years of Markkanen over a one year rental of Butler (though a Markkanen-Towns frontcourt would be dreadful defensively).

Even if Butler stayed for the entirety of his contract and then some, the Wolves may have been better off just building through the draft. If the Timberwolves had not wasted their money on Wiggins, it would be easier to justify the Butler trade. But they didn’t, they gave Wiggins the money (Only after making him promise to improve first. Seriously).

The Minnesota Timberwolves wasted the talents of Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, and now Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves still do have Karl-Anthony Towns, who has the chance at being one of the best offensive centers of all time. There are three players ever to average at least 25 points, 12 rebounds, along with a true shooting percentage of 61% or higher: David Robinson, Charles Barkley, and 21 year-old Karl-Anthony Towns.

For the sake of Timberwolves fans, hopefully they can get him to sign an extension after dealing with the Butler situation. Though unless Wiggins has a random Victor Oladipo-esque level improvement after not improving for years or the Timberwolves trade Jimmy Butler for someone who does, it might be a while until we see them in the playoffs again.

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