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Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimmy Butler's Minnesota Saga Ends and He is Granted a New Beginning in Philadelphia

The Minnesota Timberwolves have traded disgruntled four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second round pick. The general rule of thumb when evaluating an NBA trade is that the team that received the best individual player "won" the deal. That is probably true of this transaction but, as is often the case, the matter is not as simple as just comparing the talents of the players.

The reality is that Butler's very public demand to be traded as soon as possible put the Timberwolves in a very awkward position and robbed them of the leverage/options usually enjoyed by a team that is trying to trade an All-Star. Much has been said and written about Butler's conduct but we do not know what happened behind the scenes. It is easy to suggest that Butler could have handled this situation better and/or more privately but perhaps he attempted those techniques without achieving any results.

It is obvious that Butler concluded that Minnesota's two young centerpiece players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are (1) overpaid and (2) lack championship mettle. Maybe Butler is right, maybe he is wrong, maybe it is too soon to tell--but Butler drew his conclusions and decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his career trying to win a championship with guys who he considers to be overrated and soft. The story/myth/legend that Butler, after being away from the team for a while, just showed up at practice, picked up four reserve players and led them to a scrimmage victory over Towns, Wiggins and the other non-Butler starters tells you all you need to know. While it should be mentioned that in a short practice game it is not necessarily unheard of for a group of lesser NBA players to beat a group of superior NBA players, the larger point is that everyone on the court must have understood that Butler's return was orchestrated to make a point. We learned from this that Butler does not respect Towns and Wiggins and--just as significantly--Towns and Wiggins do not particularly care. Someone in the Minnesota camp leaked the story about that scrimmage and no one in that camp has denied the basic story, which amounts to (1) Butler is a tough, alpha dog, (2) he dominates the other players on the team mentally and physically and (3) those players are unwilling/unable to be challenged to become better. Honestly, if I were Butler I would want out, too.

Now, for Minnesota that spotlight is squarely on Towns and Wiggins. They got all the money, they basically ran Butler out of town by being soft/disinterested and now it is put up or shut up time. Are you going to be a 50 win team moving forward and a threat in the Western Conference or are you going to rest on your (slim) laurels, count your money and validate Butler's lack of respect?

There is pressure on Butler as well. He has repeatedly said that he is all about winning. He has not gone any further in the playoffs during his career than youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did last season when they led Philadelphia to the second round. Butler's true vindication is not so much about what Minnesota does or does not accomplish--it is possible that he is right about Towns and Wiggins now but that they develop later on the qualities that they lack now--but rather about whether or not Butler lifts Philadelphia to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. If the 76ers do not win at least 50 games and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, then Butler does not impact winning to the extent that he thinks he does.

I am not sure that we are going to witness a clear-cut verdict. Now that the drama surrounding Butler is over, Minnesota's locker room will be healthier and the team will improve upon its current record, but the Timberwolves will be hard-pressed to win as many games this season as they did last season with Butler in the fold. 

The 76ers were not as good last season as their record suggested, and their weaknesses were exposed by Boston during the playoffs. Butler adds shooting and defense but it will be interesting to see how his personality/attitude/intensity mesh with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, neither of whom seems to have Butler's motor. I think that Boston and Toronto are the two best teams in the East, even though Boston has been inconsistent thus far. On paper, Butler makes the 76ers a lot better than they were before but in practice I expect Boston and Toronto to still have the advantage. This deal may help the 76ers surpass the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, though.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM



At Tuesday, November 13, 2018 6:25:00 PM, Anonymous Marie said...

Hi David,

I'm sure I've said this before but I love your site! Your writing is a breath of fresh air compared to most NBA commentary around the web. Thank you so much!

Born in Minnesota, I am a lifelong fan of the Timberwolves though they have been quite the sad sack franchise. The verdict is still out on Wiggins and Towns so it will be interesting to see what happens with them. With or without Jimmy Butler, those two needed to make the leap for the team to be in the mix for potential title contention. Even if one assumes it is not a matter of if, but when - it is still a question of "When?" with these two. I can understand Jimmy Butler not wanting to spend the remaining years of his prime hoping one or both of these guys figure it out at some point.

To me it seemed the plan was to try to build a veteran support system around the young cornerstones and bring in a leader to help raise the floor of play for the team. This worked somewhat last season, where the team was on a 50-win course when Jimmy played. The bad news was the team was an under-.500 team when Jimmy didn't play. This is far below what I would expect when a second All-Star (Towns) was on the team. After the season, Thibodeau identified areas of improvement being shooting and the bench. I feel he has addressed those areas this offseason and would have liked to see the team build on last year rather than drive headfirst into a ditch. While all of this is going on, over 60 games remain in this season so there is still time for the team to turn things around even if they've dug themselves into a hole.

In my opinion, getting to the playoffs was a good experience for the younger players. There is a kind of stigma for good players on bad teams that don't make the playoffs. Players like Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love never made the playoffs with this franchise after several years. As we've seen around the league, this can lead to a lot frustration for the players. It was my hope that the experience would bring confidence and help motivate Wiggins and Towns towards improvement. Unfortunately, their play since Butler called them out has been somewhat disappointing to see. I would have thought these two would be men on a mission to prove Jimmy wrong but not so much so far.

I may be in the minority of Wolves fans but I like coach Thibodeau and think he is a good coach. However, if the Timberwolves are still bottom of the league in defense, I believe he will be replaced after this season. Whether it is a scheme issue or players not executing the game plan properly it falls on the coach. After 3 years, some sort of improvement should be expected even with the roster turnover. I think this is an important year for him with this franchise.

As for the 76ers, Embiid/Simmons have proven themselves more capable than Wiggins/Towns have already, as their playoff records show. It is impossible to predict what will happen in the locker room and how the chemistry will work with Jimmy but I expect things to work out this year as he'll be on a team with a higher level of competitiveness than the one he left.

At Wednesday, November 14, 2018 12:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hi Marie,

I appreciate your support and kind words!

I agree that the apparent plan to surround young talent with veteran leadership made sense and, to an extent, it worked, particularly when Butler was healthy. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Butler drew the conclusion that (1) the young talent is not dedicated enough/focused enough and (2) he could not accept not being offered a better/longer contract after Minnesota opened the bank vault to pay Towns and Wiggins.

I agree that Thibodeau is a good coach. Unfortunately, the unraveling of the Butler situation will probably cost him his job, unless the team closes the season very strongly.

Embiid and Simmons are an interesting duo. Embiid is the team's best player but he is injury-prone and thus he operates under playing time restrictions designed to keep him healthy. Can such a player lead a team to a title? Bill Walton won one ring as his team's best player before his body gave out (and then he won another ring as a valuable sixth man). Simmons puts up great numbers but a lot of observers questioned his motor in college and after watching him in the NBA I can see why. The Magic and LeBron comparisons are very premature.

Philly could/should be very good with Butler but I will not be shocked if Butler ends up being frustrated by one or both of the young guys.

At Friday, November 16, 2018 4:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out why Butler is so special or why he thinks he is. He's only won one playoff series in his career once he became at least near-AS status and has earned just 2 3rd team all-nba selections.

Even if he's right about Wiggins/Towns, he hardly warrants having this much power. He needs to just shut up and play, especially given his subpar playoff performance last year. He's also making 20 million this year. Gimme a break if he's upset with his salary. He also signed his current contract over 3 years ago. He'd be getting much more now if he hadn't signed for 5 years.

At Friday, November 16, 2018 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Butler’s power in Minnesota derived from (1) the team’s record being much better with him than without him and (2) his pending free agency status, which meant that if his trade demand fell through then he could have left with Minnesota getting nothing in return.

Someone called him an A- star or words to that effect and that sounds about right. He is not LeBron or Westbrook or KD or Curry or Kawhi but he is a very good player who can make a significant impact at both ends of the court.

At Monday, November 19, 2018 4:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course MIN was much better with Butler than without him, just like they'd be much better with Towns than without him. It just happened Towns/Wiggins were already there first. Not saying they're better than Butler, but I don't find that argument that pertinent. The last big piece to the puzzle almost always looks the best, which isn't necessarily true or as important as most think.

Butler's track record as the #1 guy isn't that great, and he played poorly in the playoffs last year. I'm not seeing great appeal of him. He is an AS-caliber player, but never been better than a borderline top 10 player in the league.

At Monday, November 19, 2018 5:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Last season, the Wolves were a top three team in the West with Butler and a Lottery-level team when he was out of the lineup. That should not happen if Towns is an elite player (we know that Wiggins is not an elite player but the team should have done better with Towns as an anchor).

I agree that Butler is a fringe top-10 player at best but he has performed better than the Wolves' young stars and I can understand why he takes umbrage at how much they are paid compared to how much he is paid.

At Tuesday, November 20, 2018 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who considers Towns an elite player? From your past definition of elite, that roughly means top 5-7 player. I only consider him a low-level AS or fringe AS.

Yes, Butler was better than Towns, when he played. MIN would've probably been a 35-40 win team if they didn't have Butler at all. If they had Butler and not Towns, they would've probably been a 40-45 win team. Not a big difference.


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