Is Jimmy Butler avoiding LeBron James in favor of Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers?

With the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/lal" data-ylk="slk:Lakers">Lakers</a> conspicuously omitted from <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4912/" data-ylk="slk:Jimmy Butler">Jimmy Butler</a>’s trade demand list, hey may be targeting a superstar teammate not named <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a>. (AP)
With the Lakers conspicuously omitted from Jimmy Butler’s trade demand list, hey may be targeting a superstar teammate not named LeBron James. (AP)

News of Jimmy Butler demanding to be traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday was not a huge surprise.

His long-simmering tension with teammate Karl-Anthony Towns is no secret.

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What was surprising was the list of teams reported on his trade demand — the Los Angeles Clippers, the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. Well, more specifically, it was the major-market team left off that list, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Butler targeting teams with 2019 cap space

The Clippers, Knicks and Nets have all worked to clear cap space for next summer’s free-agency extravaganza that’s expected to involve Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving along with Butler if he doesn’t commit to an extension, which could be worth 5 years and $190 million next summer.

An extension like that would be available to the Timberwolves or whichever team he was traded to this season. But if he were to leave Minnesota as a free agent next summer, a max-deal with a new team would be worth four years and $141 million, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski. Hence, the trade-me-now demands from Butler, who seems hellbent on leaving Minnesota.

Why not the Lakers?

But the Lakers have also freed up cap room in order to lure another star to play alongside LeBron James. Why would that not be an appealing destination for Butler?

Wojnarowski delivered a couple of reports in the aftermath of the reported Butler trade demands that shed some light on what Butler might be thinking.

Butler doesn’t want to play with LeBron?

One of those was that Butler had previously considered the Lakers, but James’ arrival in L.A. turned out to be a deterrent.

Per Wojnarowski:

“Butler had once imagined playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but LeBron James’ arrival as the franchise’s cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career, league sources said.”

That seems odd. Teaming up with James for a chance to compete for championships with an NBA glamour franchise seems the exact kind of thing that would be appealing to a star in his prime.

Does Butler want to hold sway with one of his desired new teams to build a core in his image? Does he want to have control over whom he plays with after being turned off by the reported discord in Minnesota?

Is Jimmy Butler maneuvering to team up with Kawhi Leonard in LA. in 2019? (Getty)
Is Jimmy Butler maneuvering to team up with Kawhi Leonard in LA. in 2019? (Getty)

Does Butler want to team up with Kawhi in L.A.?

Wojnarowski later reported that the Clippers were Butler’s primary destination, while adding an interesting nugget on Leonard.

Per Wojnarowski:

“Butler’s ability to partner on the Clippers with a second star player in a deep summer free agency market holds a strong appeal to Butler, league sources said.

The Clippers have two max contract slots available in July, and are emerging as a front-runner for Toronto’s All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard when he becomes a free agent in July, league sources said.”

Why Butler would prefer Leonard and the Clippers over James and the Lakers is not clear. The situation is, however, fascinating.

James, 33 with a ton of basketball miles, is obviously approaching the downside of his career, even if his play on the court has not come close to resembling decline.

Leonard, 27, is on the upswing of his prime assuming the quad problems that kept him sidelined most of last season don’t turn out to be a lingering issue. That may add up be a more attractive situation for a 29-year-old Butler.

Another power play from an NBA player

What is clear is that players in the NBA wield power over their careers more than any other league, and Butler’s power move is the latest example. Like Leonard forced the hands of the San Antonio Spurs to trade him before the end of his contract, Butler is doing the same and with significant leverage.

Minnesota gave up what amounts to three first-round draft picks to Chicago in Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen. If the Timberwolves don’t trade Butler now, he’s made clear that they run the significant risk of getting nothing in return on that investment over the long run.

If Butler and Leonard are communicating about a mutual desire to end up with the Clippers, it’s reminiscent of the original player-power play of the modern era when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat.

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