LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler and the Philadelphia 76ers (49-27) have high aspirations for the coming postseason. The Los Angeles Lakers have similarly ambitious plans this spring and summer, with an eye toward next season and beyond.
How well the Sixers fare in the playoffs could have long-term ramifications, especially for Butler, who is expected to opt out of the $19.8 million final year of his contract to seek a new deal starting at roughly $32.7 million. It's going to be expensive for the Sixers to keep their core together with Tobias Harris and JJ Redick also entering free agency, one that could quickly reach next season's projected $132 million luxury tax threshold.
If the price tag proves too daunting, Butler may be the casualty. Enter LeBron James and the Lakers.
The Lakers have been working to add an All-Star next to James since the three-time champion announced his intentions to sign last July. Butler could be a serious candidate for their available cap space this offseason.
"L.A., sources said, was one of several teams to inquire about Butler before the swingman was traded to Philadelphia," Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com reported on Friday.
Butler would give the Lakers another aggressive scorer and wing defender. He's not a true shooter, but when it comes to point-getting, his nickname is "Jimmy Buckets."
With the 76ers, Butler has averaged 18.5 points, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals through 53 games since the November trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves. He'd represent a talent upgrade for the Lakers, without costing the franchise any of their young core.
Los Angeles should be able to reach the necessary $32.7 million in cap room to offer Butler a contract worth up to four years and $140.6 million by renouncing their rights to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Mike Muscala, Lance Stephenson and Reggie Bullock.
Should Butler sign, the Lakers would still have their $4.8 million room exception to add another piece in free agency, but after that, the rest of the roster would need to be filled with minimum players or others acquired via trade.
That might mean Butler with James, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner and Isaac Bonga. Or perhaps the Lakers still look to move some or all their youthful players for veteran talent.
Los Angeles will certainly reach out once again to the New Orleans Pelicans this summer, with the hope of acquiring All-Star forward Anthony Davis. If they can reach a deal, the Lakers can sign Butler first and then trade most, if not all, of their remaining core to acquire Davis.
If so, Los Angeles may need to include its first-round pick from June's NBA draft, where the Lakers currently project to select at roughly No. 10. The draft lottery to determine the official order will be held on May 14.
If not, the team could land a player like Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke or Rui Hachimura, Kentucky's Keldon Johnson or Texas' Jaxson Hayes, among others. Butler would be an upgrade over Caldwell-Pope, Rondo and Stephenson, improving a team that was very promising until James strained his groin on Christmas Day (joining a litany of other injuries to Ball, Ingram, Rondo, etc.).
Butler will turn 30 before the start of next season, older than Davis (26), but the bigger concern is LeBron reaching 35 in December. Other potential options, instead of Butler, include Kawhi Leonard (nearing 28), Kyrie Irving (27), Klay Thompson (29), Kevin Durant (31 before 2019-20) and Kemba Walker (almost 29).
Should president Earvin "Magic" Johnson succeed in landing Davis and Butler, the Lakers would boast a powerful three-star lineup to flesh out with quality role players (preferably shooters) on inexpensive contracts.
The Lakers shouldn't be considered the favorite for any specific top free agent, but Butler may not have the same market as a Durant, Irving or Leonard, which may make him more readily available to Los Angeles provided the 76ers don't make him a priority.
In early January, before the Harris trade, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that Butler "has aggressively challenged coach Brett Brown on his role in the offense, complicating an already tenuous chemistry."
"Butler has been vocal in his contesting of Brown and his system, including a recent film session in Portland that some witnesses considered 'disrespectful' and beyond normal player-coach discourse," Wojnarowski continued. "Butler's sluggish assimilation into the Sixers environment is causing some concern about his long-term viability and fit with the organization."
It remains to be seen if Butler and Philadelphia will have similar issues through the pressure cooker of the postseason. The buzz circling around the league is that the Sixers will commit first to Harris, and while Butler may return, it's no lock.
The Lakers will explore their options before the draft, with the hope that the Davis situation is resolved in principle before July. Even if Los Angeles isn't his destination, closure would help everyone involved (call it the entire league) move forward.
Will Butler be "the" Lakers' target or "a" Lakers target? There's a difference. If they're going after a bigger name first, they may miss out. Other teams will have cap room, like the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings. Butler could be off the board by the time the Lakers turn to Plan C, D or E.
After missing the playoffs for six straight years, the Lakers dream of being a contender once again. July's blockbuster signing of James was a big step toward that until injuries set the team back. The 2018-19 roster was good at full strength—their record with James, Kuzma, Ball and Ingram was 15-8, good enough for a 53-win pace—but wasn't really built to absorb significant injuries.
If the Lakers can build a three-star triumvirate, perhaps with Davis as the third, they'd be a top-heavy superteam with questionable depth. If it's just James and Butler without Davis, then Ingram, Ball and Kuzma will need to prove they can stay healthy as a group.
The former would have a shot to be a favorite in the Western Conference, but with Butler and without Davis, the Lakers might be more of a middling playoff team (which is still an improvement).
Three superstars is a long shot, Butler may be the likelier outcome as the Lakers turn to the next tier—provided he's still on the board if the Lakers don't wait too long trying to land a bigger name.