And the Jimmy Butler saga appears to be over. For now.
On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers agreed to send Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2020 second-round pick for Butler and Justin Patton, a source told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Though the trade only involved two teams, rest assured that several teams will feel the impact of Butler’s arrival in Philly.
Let’s run through winners and losers of the blockbuster deal.
One year ago today, the Sixers were a giant question mark, starting out 6-6 with 2018 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, 2017 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing their first full season together alongside veterans J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. The NBA didn’t quite know what to make of the young squad. Heading into the 2017-18 season, ESPN Forecast projected 33.2 wins, while Vegas slotted the over/under at 40.5 wins. They would’ve been lucky to make the playoffs.
And now? After netting Butler, they might be NBA Finals-bound. Might.
This all progressed very quickly. Simmons won Rookie of the Year (no asterisk necessary). Embiid played 63 games and averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the most dominant big men in the league. Covington earned first-team all-defensive honors while making more than 200 3-pointers on the wing. Redick proved to be a perfect fit alongside the young crew. Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli and T.J. McConnell solidified a deep, if unpredictable, rotation. They won 52 games and earned the No. 3 seed, stunning the NBA with their ascension.
The Sixers stumbled out of the gate this season, but with Butler, they’re back in the conversation for a Finals trip. Every champion of the last decade had at least three All-NBA players on their roster. Yesterday, the Sixers had one in Embiid. They have two now and Simmons could be there soon.
Now, they’re no longer the underdog Sixers. They’re going for it all. With Saric and Covington gone, they lose two key members of their core, but this was a deal that they had to make. LeBron James is gone. The Boston Celtics are vulnerable. The Toronto Raptors are led by Kawhi Leonard, who only played nine games last season and has been on a strict no-back-to-back policy. The East is ripe for the taking.
No doubt, the Sixers will have their own issues to sort out. One Eastern Conference executive summed it up like so: “Jimmy is a terrific player, but they have some major fit issues.”
It starts with shooting. The Markelle Fultz Experiment will probably have to be put on the backburner as Butler moves into the starting lineup. Butler has serviceable range on the wing but at just 4.5 attempts from deep per game, Lonzo Ball and Aaron Gordon launch more 3-pointers than the newest Philly import. Playing Butler, Fultz and Simmons together would invite defenses to take up full-time residency in the paint.
It’s time to move Redick into the starting lineup, a move long overdue. The Sixers’ starting lineup with Redick last season boasted the top plus-minus of any five-man lineup in the league (plus-268). After one of the most bizarre rookie seasons in NBA history, Fultz replaced Redick and the lineup got off to a predictably rocky start. So much so that coach Brett Brown had abandoned it to start second halves. The lineup shot a paltry 8-of-26 on 3-pointers in 148 minutes on the court, an unsustainable amount in today’s NBA.
When healthy, Butler is a top-10 player and a two-way monster when he wants to be. Last season, Butler ranked third in ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, an all-in-one metric that estimates a player’s impact on both ends of the floor. He probably isn’t that good, but he’s a superior defender to Covington and more versatile in every respect of the game. The only time the Timberwolves have played respectable defense under Tom Thibodeau is when Butler manned the floor.
For newly-minted general manager Elton Brand, this is a big swing for the fences. But it’s not like he’s swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone. The Sixers will miss Covington and Saric’s presence inside and outside the locker room, but if I had told you one year ago – heck, one month ago -- that the Sixers would acquire Butler without giving up a first-round pick, Embiid, Simmons or Fultz in the deal, most Sixers fans would’ve scrambled to find the pen to sign right away. Nothing’s changed.
The long-term concerns are real. For the moment, forget about the five-year, $190 million contract that Butler is eligible to sign this summer. Butler has missed huge chunks of just about every season he’s played in the league. Over the last five seasons, he also ranks first in minutes per game. Those two might be related. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose have not had pretty post-Thibodeau campaigns (although Rose’s recent resurgence has been delightful). On the other hand, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver have fared just fine.
Who knows how Butler will look in five years when he’ll be making well north of $40 million. Will he be worth $190 million? The Sixers don’t have to answer that now. Though there’s usually a wink-wink agreement in trades like these (see: Chris Paul), the Sixers aren’t obligated by any rule to offer him $190 million this summer. If Butler implodes his third locker room in four years, then they can part ways and not be stuck with his contract.
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James should send a thank-you note, or at the very least an Instagram shout-out, to Thibodeau for trading Butler to the East. The Lakers might fall into the playoffs at this point. One could make an argument that, on Saturday morning, every team in the West (OK, maybe not Phoenix) could plausibly see themselves as a playoff contender. Now, James has one less team to worry about.
At 5-6 and with coach Luke Walton already reportedly getting needled for his performance, the Lakers face an uphill climb to get into the playoffs. Lakers fans will be happy to know that FiveThirtyEight projections still give them a 70 percent shot of getting in. The Butler deal will nudge that higher.
Yes, it might seem like they “lost” out on the Butler sweepstakes, but the Sixers are further up on the totem pole than the Heat and Butler provides more marginal value to them. For the Sixers, Butler gives them a Big Three and a real shot at the East title. If the Heat would’ve gotten Butler, they wouldn’t be demonstrably closer to a 50-win team, because it would likely mean giving up Josh Richardson.
It’s not a stretch to think Richardson is a Baby Butler. He’s a high-energy bulldog of a defender and already a better 3-point shooter than Butler. He doesn’t have the same handles, but like Butler, he’s worlds better than he was coming into the league. Richardson is 25 years old and already averaging 20 points per game as the focal point of the Heat’s offense. He’ll also make $11.6 million in 2021-22, about $30 million fewer than Butler’s expected annual salary.
Pat Riley, who is turning 74 years old in March, could have gotten desperate and cleared out the cupboard for Butler. Something like Richardson, Bam Adebayo and a first-rounder sounds reasonable. But Riley was wise to sit tight. The Heat should let this keep growing.
The Bulls have to feel good about their Butler haul. For one, they received a first-round pick in a deep draft that ended up being the No. 7 overall pick. Some might argue that they got lucky by landing Lauri Markkanen, but there were plenty of talents available at that spot. Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith, OG Anunoby, Adebayo, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Smith, John Collins and Zach Collins were all still on the board when the Bulls made their pick. If it wasn’t Markkanen, they’d still be fine.
And then you throw in Zach LaVine, whose lengthy ACL recovery held sneaky tank value for the rights to draft a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. LaVine is still a sieve defensively, but he’s fourth in scoring and doing so efficiently. Kris Dunn, also acquired in the Butler deal, could be a solid starter, which didn’t look to be the case in Minnesota.
It’s not entirely logical to compare the two deals at two different junctures. But what just played out in Minnesota? It could have been a real scenario for Chicago, to let Butler stew and watch his trade stock plummet. Instead, the Bulls made the deal in the summer before the season, something the Timberwolves probably wish they did.
This wasn’t a bad deal for Minnesota. It wasn’t a great one either. The problem was the wait.
President of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau could have capitulated to Butler’s trade demand before training camp when it was clear he wanted out. Instead, they held firm and it only got uglier from there. Butler threw a now-infamous tantrum at practice, capping it by reportedly shouting, “You ****ing need me” to general manager Scott Layden. Friday night, after playing 41 minutes against the Kings, Butler told The Athletic’s Sam Amick “that **** has to stop.” I’m sure there’s more we don’t know.
Letting this saga get to this point was a mistake on Minnesota’s part. It lowered their leverage in trade talks and, as a result, they ended up settling for a pair of rotation players with questionable upside and no first-round picks.
Saric has been quietly awful this season. The 25-year-old is shooting 36 percent from the floor and looks lost offensively while trying to play next to Fultz. His rates were down across the board, not just in the scoring department. His PER fell from 15.8 last season to 8.2 this season, his deflection rate is half what it was last season and his game overall has been amiss.
The Timberwolves bought low on Saric, but they should be happy with Covington. He’s a super-long 3-and-D specialist who should fit nicely next to Andrew Wiggins. But Timberwolves fans will learn quickly that “RoCo” struggles to create his own shot and rarely gets to the line. Richardson would be a Jimmy Butler replacement. Covington is not a Jimmy Butler replacement. That said, he provides some much-needed stretch to the Wolves offense, sinking 37.2 percent of his 3 over the last two seasons.
No one’s feeling sorry for the Timberwolves here. They have Karl-Anthony Towns. But it was clear that the chemistry never really came together between he and Butler. This season, the rift had gotten to point where it’s clearly poisoning the on-court product. Last season, Butler assisted one of every 7.4 Towns field goals. This season, Butler has assisted on only eight of 89, or one every 11.1 baskets. Not surprisingly, the team’s offensive rating with Towns and Butler on the court has fallen from to 115.2 points per 100 possessions to a rotten 103.9 points per 100 possessions. And remember, points are up league-wide. It was time to pull the plug.
And the Timberwolves did just that. There’s some honor in trying to play it out this season, but this is when Thibodeau’s strong relationship with Butler was supposed to come in handy. It should have been clear to Thibodeau the President that this wasn’t going to work out. But Thibodeau the Coach may have instead prioritized retaining talent in order to return to the playoffs. By waiting and ending up with a so-so package, they likely cost themselves wins down the line.
You think the Rockets could use Butler right now? Of course, they could. Like Philadelphia, the Rockets were one star away from serious contention for a Finals spot. Now, one of those gettable stars is off the board.
From the start, it was tough to see how they’d come up with the on-court assets to rival Philadelphia’s package. They weren’t giving up Clint Capela and the rest of the roster isn’t brimming with young studs. It’s clear now that the Timberwolves wanted actual players rather than long-term picks. Houston’s reported offer of four first-rounders and some filler wasn’t going to get it done.
The Rockets need a shakeup of some sort (and we’ll get to this another day). Their offense is in shambles and their seventh-ranked defense last season is now ranked 21st. Yeah, they could use a two-way star, but now he’s suiting up for the Sixers. Silver lining: At least that star is out of the Western Conference.
Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee
Each of these elite powers have already pummeled the Sixers this season. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that.