Jimmy Butler Isn't the Answer for Cavs in Year 1 Without LeBron James

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 7: Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves covers LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game on February 7, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE  (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Despite having lost the NBA's greatest player, the Cleveland Cavaliers are refusing to rebuild.

Just weeks after LeBron James announced he would join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs handed new face of the franchise Kevin Love a four-year, $120 million contract extension. They've also held on to veterans Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and George Hill and even brought back 35-year-old locker room favorite Channing Frye.

While no single player can fill James' shoes, the Cavs are apparently pursuing four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler of the Minnesota Timberwolves to help them stay competitive in the Eastern Conference. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who previously worked together on the 2014 Love-Andrew Wiggins trade, were seen talking privately at the NBA board of governors meeting.

On paper, Butler makes sense for Cleveland. He has averaged more than 20 points per game in each of the past four seasons, plays terrific defense and can slide into James' old spot at small forward or start at shooting guard. The combination of Butler and Love would probably be enough to guarantee a playoff spot in the East and would signify the Cavaliers' refusal to roll over in their second post-LeBron stint.

While all that sounds good, it would be merely a temporary fix for a team that needs to rebuild.

   

What Would Butler Cost?

It's difficult to gauge what the Timberwolves want for Butler.

A rebuild seems out of the question after the team's first playoff appearance in 14 years, especially since Taylor is 77 years old. Minnesota is also loaded with veterans and a few hefty contracts, meaning even trading Butler for young talent and draft picks wouldn't be enough to blow things up.

The Cavaliers' best trade assets are rookie point guard Collin Sexton, center Larry Nance Jr., small forward Cedi Osman and future first-round picks starting in 2021. Love cannot be traded until Jan. 24 following the signing of his extension, and Rodney Hood (trade-eligible Dec. 15) would have to agree to be dealt.

That leaves veterans like Korver, Thompson, Smith, Hill and Jordan Clarkson. Each could fill a role for the Wolves, but none would move the needle in a potential trade.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 8:  Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves on the defense against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 8, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

There's zero chance Cleveland gives up Sexton. The eighth overall pick of the 2018 draft, he has turned out to be the main piece of the Kyrie Irving trade and the franchise's future at point guard. The Cavs refused to deal the Brooklyn Nets pick they used to select Sexton even when James was under contract.

A deal would have to hinge on Nance and/or Osman, who are expected to start this season and are still on their rookie contracts. A combination of either with Korver and Clarkson roughly matches Butler's $20.4 million salary. Still, Cleveland may not want to part with a young, cost-controlled starter for Butler, and Minnesota may be expecting far more in return.

In short, the Cavs shouldn't give up their young talent for a possible rental of Butler, and the Wolves need better veterans than Cleveland can offer to stay competitive in the Western Conference.

   

Summer 2019

If Butler is traded to the Cavs, what happens next summer?

The 29-year-old wing could opt out of the final year of his contract and sign a max deal with Cleveland for five years or, more likely, leave and sign a four-year deal somewhere else.

Both are bad options for the Cavs.

Butler already turned down a four-year, $110 million extension offer by the Timberwolves this summer. Thinking he'd settle for anything less than that after another big year would be a mistake.

If he did take a max offer from the Cavaliers, they would have to allocate more than $60 million per year to Butler and Love alone, over half of the NBA's projected salary cap for next season.

There's also a durability concern.

Butler tore his meniscus and missed 23 games last season, which is concerning given his career. He's averaged a whopping 37.6 minutes per game over the past five years, even leading the NBA with 38.7 in 2014-15.

Part of that was due to the Thibodeau factor. Butler has played under Tom Thibodeau for five of his seven pro seasons, which historically hasn't been good for a player's long-term health. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng went from All-Stars to barely used role players after they turned 30, an age when some players are still in their primes. There has to be a similar concern about Butler.

SHENZHEN, CHINA - OCTOBER 04:  Head coach Tom Thibodeau(L) and Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during practice at Shenzhen Gymnasium as part of 2017 NBA Global Games China on October 4, 2017 in Shenzhen, China.  (Photo by Zhong Zhi
Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

If Butler left the Cavs in free agency, it would be yet another major blow to a team that's lost Irving and James in back-to-back offseasons. Cleveland would be in an even worse place than it is now given the assets it'd have to surrender for Butler.

There's also the question of how far the team, even with Butler and Love, could go. At their best, the Cavs would likely be the fourth or fifth seed in the East, a conference the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers appear set to take over.

"Jimmy's a great guy. He's a real hard worker. He's really grown since the year I played with him as a player and a person," Korver, the Cavaliers' only player who's been a teammate of Butler, told Bleacher Report. But he also said, "We need to focus on what we've got right now."

The Cavaliers would be smart to pass on a trade for Butler. He's not good enough to carry them to the Finals like James, but he's too good to leave them in position to collect a lottery pick to build around. Paying him next summer would also be an issue, and having another star walk out the door in free agency would be crippling.

Cleveland needs to keep its focus on its own young talent—no matter how tempting a trade for Butler may be.

   

Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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