With less than a week to go before the 2018-19 season tips off, Jimmy Butler has yet to rejoin the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The official explanation is that the four-time All-Star is rehabbing a wrist injury that has been bothering him since this spring. But the worst-kept secret in the NBA has served as the league's biggest source of drama in the lead-up to opening night: Butler wants out of Minnesota, and T-Wolves head coach and president Tom Thibodeau has little interest in meeting his trade demands.
The weeks since Butler's trade request first became public on Sept. 19 (via The Athletic's Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski) have been filled with stops and starts. Butler has been linked to the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, who remain the T-Wolves' most logical trade partner.
Like any of these trade demands, from Kawhi Leonard's drawn-out saga in San Antonio earlier this summer to Kyrie Irving's escape from Cleveland last August, Minnesota's predicament with Butler is complicated and multifaceted. Looking at the motivations of everybody involved, there isn't an easy source of blame.
Butler holds a $19.8 million player option for the 2019-20 season, which he is all but certain to decline to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. His relationship with All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who just inked a five-year extension with the T-Wolves that could be worth as much as $190 million, has grown untenable.
With a long-term future in Minnesota a non-starter, Butler has significant financial motivation to maneuver his way to a new team before February's trade deadline. Any team that trades for Butler will be able to re-sign him next summer using his Bird rights to a five-year, $190 million max deal. If he signs with another team as a free agent, the most he could command is a four-year deal worth around $140 million.
It's easy to see why Butler has chosen to exercise his leverage to make the prospect of keeping him unappetizing for the Timberwolves.
From Thibodeau's standpoint, trading Butler for the sake of trading him would amount to career suicide. Last June, Thibodeau engineered a reunion with Butler by trading three promising young players to the Chicago Bulls for him: guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and last year's No. 7 overall pick, forward Lauri Markkanen. Butler's first year in Minnesota resulted in the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2004, but that has been overshadowed by the subsequent chaos surrounding his trade demand.
If the Timberwolves trade Butler for a lesser return than what they gave up to land him a year ago, it could put Thibodeau's standing as both team president and head coach in jeopardy.
Even in the best-case scenario, no trade is likely to return a player as good as Butler, who has made All-NBA teams in each of the past two seasons and All-Defensive teams in four of the past five. When he was on the court last season, the T-Wolves outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When he sat, they were outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. Minnesota went 37-22 in the 59 games Butler played and 10-13 in the 23 games he missed.
Any Butler trade will result in a step back for the Timberwolves in 2018-19, which is anathema for Thibodeau, one of the most maniacally winning-obsessed coaches in the league. If Minnesota misses the playoffs either with or without Butler, Thibodeau will almost certainly be fired.
If he's going down one way or the other, it's easy to understand why Thibodeau wants to go out on his terms rather than being forced to make what he sees as a bad trade.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor reportedly has been pushing to get a deal done sooner rather than later, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, even going over the heads of Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden to solicit offers from interested teams himself. The drawn-out, public nature of this saga has further damaged the T-Wolves' public image, mere months after the end of their 14-year playoff drought appeared to signal a return to respectability.
To Taylor, the sooner this entire ordeal can be put to rest, the sooner the organization can move on and focus on rebuilding credibility around the league. The longer the T-Wolves remain in the headlines for the wrong reasons, the more dysfunctional they appear, which could have long-term implications with fans and free agents down the road.
Thus far, the Timberwolves have yet to receive a convincing enough offer to entice Thibodeau or Taylor to pull the trigger. This was easy to see coming, as the T-Wolves have next to no leverage in these trade talks. Three of the four teams Butler has shown interest in joining—the Clippers, Knicks and Nets—will have enough cap space next summer to sign him outright as a free agent. They have no reason to give up attractive picks or players a year early unless Minnesota drastically lowers its asking price.
The fourth suitor for Butler, Miami, is the most logical fit from all angles. Unlike other teams involved in the talks, the Heat will not have the cap room to sign Butler next summer. If they want to land Butler or any other player of his caliber, they have no choice but to pony up something close to what Minnesota wants in a trade.
At various points in the past week, Marc Stein of the New York Times and Wojnarowski have reported that the Wolves and Heat came close to agreeing on a deal, only to have it fall apart in the final stages of negotiation. The pieces are there for the two teams to make a deal; it's now a matter of meeting in the middle on a package.
As their roster stands, the Heat are exactly what they were last season: a middle-tier playoff team with the sixth-highest payroll in the league, per Spotrac, and no realistic hope of getting past the first or second round. Adding a two-way All-Star like Butler would give them at least a puncher's chance of sneaking into the top tier of the East alongside the likes of Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
Given the Timberwolves' lack of leverage, it makes sense for the Heat to hold out from including their best trade chips, namely guard Josh Richardson and promising young big man Bam Adebayo. However, Butler's talent and the Heat's lack of cap flexibility gives them a sense of urgency to make a deal that doesn't exist elsewhere on the trade market.
Butler's fit in Miami appears seamless on paper. Much of his disillusionment in Minnesota stems from his perception that Towns and highly paid T-Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins don't share his commitment to winning at all costs. The Heat's work-hard culture, which stems from team president Pat Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra, is the sort of environment in which Butler would thrive.
It also doesn't hurt that Butler developed a close friendship with Dwyane Wade during their season as Bulls teammates in 2016-17. With Wade having announced that the upcoming season will be his last, a passing of the torch to Butler as the new face of basketball in South Florida makes almost too much sense not to happen.
The Timberwolves are reportedly prepared to go into the season with Butler still on the roster if they don't get a trade offer they like, according to Charania and Krawczynski. In the short term, they might be able to make it work. The Denver Nuggets dealt with a similar situation going into the 2010-11 season after Carmelo Anthony voiced a desire to be traded before the start of training camp. They didn't make a deal until that February's trade deadline, when they shipped Anthony to the Knicks.
In the meantime, Anthony showed up to work and did his job. Butler will surely do the same thing if he's still in Minnesota.
But the sooner this drawn-out soap opera comes to an end, the better for everyone involved.