The Timberwolves pulled off one of the biggest trades in franchise history on draft night dealing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick in exchange for Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick. This is the first major move made by new coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau and at first glance it seems like a good one.
Who won the trade?
Certainly not the Bulls. The assets the Wolves gave up to get Butler were all compromised in some way. Zach LaVine is coming off a torn ACL, Kris Dunn is already 23 and had an historically terrible rookie season, and the No. 7 pick seems like a drop off point for this year’s draft after Jonathan Isaac was taken the pick before.
It’s hard to believe the Bulls were willing to settle for such a middling combination of assets, even throwing their own first round pick into the deal. For the Wolves, this is a classic ‘three quarters for a dollar’ swap. LaVine seems like the best asset of the trio, but his agent will be posturing for a max contract before his ACL is even healed, making him a much less desirable piece. There’s no question the value equation tips in favor of the Wolves here.
In Jimmy Butler, the Wolves are getting a true top-15 player heading into his absolute prime on a good contract¹. Butler isn’t a primary ball handler on offense but he can create for himself and others via the pick and roll or off of the dribble drive. He’s also excellent in transition. Butler won’t really help Minnesota’s spacing issues, but he won’t hurt there either. Statistically speaking, Butler will probably make his biggest impact on the team’s free throw rate. Butler was 3rd in free throws attempted last year and he makes them at a very high rate. Adding one of the game’s premier foul drawers will add another dimension to what is already a solid offense.
Where Butler will really make a big difference for the Wolves next season is on defense, where he will replace the predictably incompetent Zach LaVine in the starting lineup. This is a huge upgrade on defense that should be reflected in the Wolves’ defensive rating right away. Hopefully Butler’s intensity and familiarity with Thibs’ scheme will also help the young players develop after consistently bad performance on defense last season.
There are two things I will be watching for next season regarding Butler’s fit in Minnesota. The first is how he fits next to Andrew Wiggins. They are both high usage wings with similar skill sets. Wiggins has to be willing to take a back seat to the far more efficient Butler. If he doesn’t, there will be tension.
The second thing is shooting. Thibodeau will be active this offseason trying to surround this core with shooters, but as it stands right now this team is not designed to shoot threes. This is very troubling, and would be easy to exploit in the playoffs.
Free Agency Preview
The Wolves will be looking to make big moves over the next couple weeks both in free agency and through trades for one main reason: After this summer the Wolves will have to start giving extensions to young players, meaning they won’t have any cap space moving forward. This summer will be the Wolves’ last chance to spend big in free agency for a long time, so expect them to use all of their cap room.
Before free agency, Thibodeau will probably try to create more space by renouncing the cap holds of free agents (Jordan Hill is already gone, Shabazz is probably next) and trading away a few contracts. After drafting Justin Patton the Wolves might look to move Cole Aldrich ($7.3 million) or Gorgui Dieng ($14.1 million), who doesn’t really fit with this core. Rubio isn’t safe either. The Wolves should be able to create $20 million in cap room, but could create as much as $30-$40 million with some luck.
The Wolves would probably have to attach assets to some these players to get rid of them but it’s possible they could find takers². My guess is that the Wolves will make at least one more move to create space before free agency in order to pursue big names.
The Wolves will be linked to several major and mid-tier free agents. Everyone knows the Wolves are going to be active in free agency so they will have discussions with agents of several major free agent targets including Paul Millsap, Andre Iguodala, JJ Redick, Serge Ibaka and maybe even Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry, George Hill and Jrue Holiday. These discussions will definitely find their way into the media to create leverage.
One notable possibility is the potential for the Wolves to attempt to sign a shooting point guard and then trade Rubio back to that player’s old team in a sign and trade deal. This would allow the Wolves to upgrade at point guard by essentially swapping guards with another team. Other teams might not like it, but one would have to think that a team like the Pelicans might be desperate enough to do this if Holiday decides to sign with the Wolves considering their complete lack of alternatives.
The Wolves will swing big at the beginning of free agency, but I don’t see any of the big ticket players landing with the Wolves except for maybe Millsap if the Wolves offer him a deal that is both exceedingly large and exceedingly short sighted. In reality, the Wolves would probably be best served targeting multiple veterans to fill out the roster and provide depth. My personal favorites include Kyle Korver, CJ Miles, Joe Ingles, JaMychal Green, James Johnson, Patrick Patterson and Ersan Ilyasova. Depending on the price, getting a couple of these players would fill out what is currently a skeleton of a roster.
Looking to the future
Looking a few years down the road, the Wolves have a few very serious problems to address.
First, they are very asset poor do to years of bad or short sighted management. The Wolves have their blue chip players, but they are limited in their avenues to acquire new young talent. They have sold or mishandled several picks throughout the years. They will probably be sending their 2018 first round pick to Atlanta via the Adreian Payne trade, which was terrible at the time and looks even worse now. They just traded away their 2016 and 2017 first rounders (Dunn & No. 7) to get Butler as well as their best young supporting piece (LaVine).
Besides Towns, the only first round pick they’ll have from 2015-2018 is Tyus Jones. By the time the Wolves get a chance at a new quality young player, Towns and Wiggins will be heading into their early prime and Butler will be starting to decline. The Timberwolves will have to develop a plan to acquire more talent to avoid falling into the cycle the Clippers are currently stuck in. The Doc/Thibodeau parallels here are concerning.
The second problem is Butler’s next contract. He will be 30 years old by the time his next contract starts, and if the Wolves want to keep him that contract will probably have to be at least four, if not five years long. If Butler is making $30 million as a 33 year old as Towns is entering his prime, his contract could easily become a liability.
Finally, the Timberwolves still need to figure out long-term solutions at point guard and power forward. This will be challenging without picks or money, though they could address these needs in the next few weeks.
This trade will substantially improve the quality of the team in the short term, but it may come at the cost of their odds of winning a championship down the road. Jimmy Butler is more valuable than the assets they gave up to get him, but he is on a much different timetable than the players that could eventually lead the Wolves to the Promised Land.
Expectations for the 2017-2018 season will depend heavily on what the team does in free agency. However, Wiggins and Towns are still so young that it’s hard to envision the Wolves competing with the teams at the very top of the Western Conference. They should definitely be a playoff team, but they are likely headed for an early elimination.
For a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade, acquiring a top-15 player and making the playoffs will reengage the fan base and will serve as an end in itself. This was a good trade for the Wolves and I support it, but there may come a day when they regret making it. At least they’re not the Bulls.
¹Butler has two years at about $20 million per season left on his contract. He also has a player option for a third year which he will almost certainly decline.
²Gorgui Dieng would look fantastic in a Nets uniform