The Jimmy Butler trade saga finally has a resolution. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded Butler and center Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick. With one move, this trade drastically alters both the immediate and long-term futures for both franchises.
76ers swing for the fences
For the Sixers, this is a gamble that has them going all-in for this season. But it also puts them in a place to remain contenders for the foreseeable future. Assuming Butler fits in well with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, reports are that Philadelphia will look to re-sign the likely free-agent-to-be this summer. Given that this offseason is the 76ers’ last chance at cap space before a likely maximum extension kicks in for Ben Simmons, getting Butler (and his Bird rights) now versus waiting for free agency is huge.
Philadelphia sacrificed some depth by trading two starters in Covington and Saric. Butler will take one spot and J.J. Redick will presumably move back into the starting five. While this is a more-than-even swap for the 76ers in the opening unit, it weakens an already depth-challenged reserve group. Even if they move Markelle Fultz to the second unit and start someone like Wilson Chandler, the Sixers have to be looking for bench upgrades.
The lack of depth means Philadelphia will stay active leading up to the trade deadline in early February. The 76ers still have some tradable contracts and have all their own first-round picks and a bucketful of second-rounders to swap. If they can’t make another trade, expect them to be among the most active teams on the buyout market. This worked out well for them last year when they acquired Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, who both had big moments down the stretch and in the playoffs for Philadelphia.
There are two other big concerns for Philadelphia. While Butler is a great player, he functions best when he has the ball in his hands a lot. The 76ers already play primarily through Simmons and Embiid. Adding another high-usage player could tilt the balance in an unfavorable way. There is only one ball. When three guys need it, things can get really tricky to balance.
The other primary concern: lack of shooting. When you have high-usage players, you need players who are good without the ball in their hands. Redick is one of the best all time without the ball, but the rest of the Philadelphia roster features players who aren’t great shooters. Players who aren’t great shooters need the ball to be effective, and a lack of shooting did the 76ers in against the Boston Celtics in the East semifinals last year. The Celtics stuck with Redick, Covington and Belinelli, while playing off everyone else. That made it very hard for Philadelphia to generate enough offense.
Without Covington and Saric, two good shooters who are fine without the ball, coach Brett Brown has some tinkering to do with his lineups. And GM Elton Brand has some work to do to better balance this roster. Could this lead to Philadelphia swallowing hard and moving Fultz for a player who fits better? That remains to be seen, but he’s Brand’s best remaining trade chip. It would be tough to sell on Fultz a little over a year after drafting him first overall, but things have changed. The 76ers might not be able to wait on his development, especially not at the expense of better fits within their new starting five.
Looking further down the line, the Sixers shaved about $30 million of their potential 2019 cap space by acquiring Butler because of his cap hold. But even with Butler on the books, if Philadelphia clears all the rest of its non-guaranteed money, it can still have around $20 million in cap space. If it re-signs Butler, adds one or two free agents with that $20 million and uses the room exception, it’ll replace all of the depth it lost.
Timberwolves make the most of a tough spot
On the Minnesota side, the Timberwolves had to do something. Having Butler stay on the roster was getting more toxic by the day. The Wolves weren’t winning and no one seemed happy. Stars and superstars never deliver the massive return in a trade that is hoped for, but Minnesota did fine here.
The Wolves want to get Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins more touches, and still have two high-usage point guards on the roster in Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose. Covington and Saric will slot in as players who don’t need the ball to be effective. While Butler is an outstanding individual talent, one that willed Minnesota to the playoffs last season, this could lead to a better fit on the court and certainly will lead to better chemistry off it.
Covington is the kind of three-and-D player all good teams crave, and he’s locked up on a very reasonable contract through the 2021-22 season. Covington can hold his own defensively guarding two through four and excels as a spot-up shooter. He should fit in almost seamlessly with the Wolves.
Saric is a bit of a different story. The Wolves (OK, Tom Thibodeau) love Taj Gibson. Gibson’s not going anywhere anytime soon. That means Saric is probably coming off the bench to start his Minnesota tenure. Saric will likely replace Gorgui Dieng or Anthony Tolliver in the rotation, at least initially. If he plays well enough, he could eventually supplant Gibson as the starter. If that doesn’t happen this season, it could happen as soon as next year when Gibson is a free agent.
Saric is up for a rookie-scale contract extension next summer. If he and the Timberwolves can’t reach an agreement, he’ll be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2020. With the Wolves already committed to over $239 million for Towns and Wiggins through 2022-23, having a team-controlled player like Saric is huge. Extending him or re-signing him would further add to an already bloated cap sheet, but it allows them to retain a talent they won’t be able to add otherwise.
Neither Bayless nor Patton has much of a place in this trade beyond salary-matching purposes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see either player eventually waived by their new teams to open a roster spot. Neither has played this season due to injury and the NBA future for each player is very much in doubt.
As for the second-round pick acquired by the Wolves: 2022 is a ways off and Philadelphia had plenty of earlier second-rounders it could have sent to Minnesota. This seems like the Timberwolves were content to gamble a little to see how the Sixers would mesh over the next few years. Minnesota can now wait until the NBA likely approves players to enter the NBA draft straight out of high school, which could lead to deeper draft classes.
Win-win trades are fairly rare in the NBA. And they almost never happen when a star player is involved. Philadelphia added a star to its young core to push things forward in the Eastern Conference. Minnesota eliminated a massive distraction, picked up two solid role players under team control and can hand the reins back to its two youngsters. Given the circumstances, this appears to be a rare win-win deal.
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