It’s been nine days since news emerged that Jimmy Butler requested a trade from the Timberwolves. It seems like it’s been longer, right? That’s what happens when a situation feels urgent and is examined with such scrutiny. So if you’re thinking: Are the Wolves EVER going to make this trade? … well, I imagine the answer is yes. And really, it’s not strange that it hasn’t happened yet.
What is noticeable is that in the last couple days, the reporting on a potential Butler swap has shifted (at least somewhat) from rival teams griping about mixed messages from the Wolves to actual interest. Information seems to be drying up, which — contrary to what it might seem — could be an indication that actual talks are getting more serious.
ESPN reported early Thursday that talks between the Wolves and Heat were ongoing, but asking price was a sticking point. The lead of that story was this:
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ asking price to trade All-Star forward Jimmy Butler remains quality veterans, top prospects, future assets and salary-cap relief, which is presently too steep of a package for interested teams, league sources told ESPN.
The story also suggested teams are skeptical that Wolves coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau really wants to trade Butler, but that could also be interpreted that teams are frustrated because Thibodeau has set — at least initially — a high asking price. Isn’t that how you negotiate? Start high and come down to an agreeable middle.
Plugged in Houston-based reporter Mark Berman chimed in late Thursday with a tweet that the Rockets are “making a strong effort” to land Butler. If so, that’s good news for the Wolves. Multiple teams with serious interest is how you set a market. The ESPN story also mentioned Houston, along with the Clippers and Cavaliers.
As for specific players the Wolves could get in a deal with either team, I’ll mostly leave that to all the frantic Trade Machine experts. I think a Miami deal centered around low-cost wing Josh Richardson and talented but costly big man Hassan Whiteside would be fair, especially if the Heat would take on Gorgui Dieng’s contract in the deal. Houston has fewer assets, but something built around Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker could be attractive to Thibodeau and his bid to return to the playoffs.
I’m more interested in trying to examine what type of deal the Wolves might be able to make based on similar NBA deals in recent history. What I’ve found in that pursuit is:
The timing of this potential trade is very rare and makes it hard to sort out the potential return.
I don’t have a complete list of every trade ever made in the NBA, but The Score did a pretty thorough list of 12 NBA blockbuster trades of the past decade — a good starting point, since a Butler deal would perhaps fall under that category.
What we find there is not surprising: big trades usually happen either right around the draft/start of free agency or at the trade deadline. Five of the 12 deals on that list happened between June 28 and July 12 and another four were around the trade deadline. (The Wolves’ acquisition of Butler in 2017, which didn’t make the list, was a draft night move as well).
Of the other three: The Dwight Howard trade on Aug. 10 was a complicated four-team affair that took a while to hammer out.
The Kyrie Irving trade happened Aug. 30. News of his trade request broke July 24, and the meeting in which he requested the trade happened a week earlier. The deal took a while, but it still happened well before camp opened and had a two-month head start on Butler.
The real outlier — and only real comparison, timing-wise to Butler — was the Oklahoma City trade of James Harden to the Rockets. That happened on Oct. 27, 2012 — three days before the start of the regular season on Oct. 30. Considering the NBA moved its schedule up and now opens Oct. 16, the Butler deal will be somewhat on that timeline.
Like Butler, Harden was a year from reaching free agency. He couldn’t reach a deal on an extension with the Thunder, who were offering four years, $55.5 million. He wanted the max, which then was four years for $60 million. That right there tells you how much has changed, by the way, since the max extension Butler wants is five years, $190 million — more than three times the total value of Harden’s deal. It seems crazy in retrospect to think the Thunder balked at $4.5 million more over four years, but I digress.
Harden was the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and was 23 years old. It’s hard to compare his value to Butler’s, but the Thunder received in return: Kevin Martin (a quality veteran), Jeremy Lamb (the No. 12 pick in that year’s draft), two future first-round picks (one of which became Steven Adams) and a second-rounder. It was also a cost-effective move.
The deal didn’t turn out great since Harden went on to become an MVP, Lamb was solid but not great and Martin left after one year. But the haul, at least on its face, would seem to satisfy all four things the Wolves apparently covet based on ESPN’s report.
For a more comparable player and situation — albeit with different timing — maybe we should look at another Oklahoma City trade: the deal they made to get Paul George last summer after he requested a trade from Indiana with a year left on his contract.
The Pacers received Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in return. While the initial verdict seemed to be that Indiana was fleeced, Oladipo blossomed in his first year with the Pacers and will make far less the next three seasons than George will. Sabonis had a solid first year and is under contract for two more years on a cheap rookie scale deal.
The Pacers didn’t get a future asset, but they got salary relief, a quality young veteran in Oladipo and a promising young player in Sabonis.
The Thunder made the deal with no assurances that George would be around for more than a year. Indeed, it seemed like he would bolt for the Lakers after that year, but instead he re-upped with OKC.
George is a two-way wing like Butler, is roughly the same age as Butler and in a recent SI.com ranking he came in as the 11th-best player in the league while Butler came in 10th. They’re about as similar as two players can be.
That trade, of course, happened in late June — when any team considering a big move could then also calculate how to shape the rest of its roster in relation. That’s the trick with Butler: It’s not that the Wolves can’t find a taker, but any team seriously interested in a deal has to consider both the short-term and long-term implications.
I’d say if the Wolves can pull off a comparable deal to the one the Pacers got, they would come out looking pretty nice. The Pacers actually improved from 42 to 48 wins in the season after the trade and pushed the LeBron-led Cavaliers to seven games in an opening round playoff series before losing.
Long story short: It doesn’t seem so far-fetched that the Wolves will be able to get most — if not all — of that reported wish list in a Butler swap. It might just take a little more time and patience.