Ranking Jimmy Butler's Most Likely Landing Spots in 2019 NBA Free Agency
Welcome to the open market, Jimmy Butler.
Traded twice over the past 24 months, the four-time All-Star swingman is finally free to handpick his next destination. Or rather, he will be once he makes the easy call of declining his $19.8 million player option.
He could choose to go nowhere. The Philadelphia 76ers, after all, pieced together one of the NBA's strongest five-man units.
But maybe the 29-year-old is eager to search for greener grass, say perhaps a place with more shooting and enough wiggle room to fit both himself and one of his basketball BFFs into the budget.
Any time a two-way force hits free agency, he won't have a shortage of suitors. While he'll have to decide what he values most in an employer, we've examined (and ranked) his most likely landing spots.
The Long Shots
Emboldened by the play of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks would like to find their rebuilding accelerator this summer. The Athletic's Sam Amick reported Atlanta's aim is set as high as "everyone from Kevin Durant on down."
While Butler's defense would be a welcome addition, and Atlanta's spacers would give him more attack room, the gap between each's timeline looks problematically wide. Given the bridges he burned on his way out of Minnesota, it's almost impossible to imagine him suiting up alongside an even younger nucleus.
Most of what applies to Atlanta rings true for Dallas. The Mavs have their own young cornerstones in Luka Doncic (20 years old) and Kristaps Porzingis (23), plus an immediate opening for an impact two-way player on the perimeter.
But Dallas hits the same issues with youth, plus it might opt to focus its free-agent funds on a new point guard (Kemba Walker?) or center (Nikola Vucevic?).
Los Angeles Clippers
From the market to the potential double-max room, the Clippers have plenty to offer Butler. And he'd give plenty back with the defense and toughness befitting of a Doc Rivers-led team, plus the offensive tools to either lead or fit into this egalitarian attack.
So, why is this a long shot? Because sources tell Amick that "Butler is not expected to be a top-tier target [of the Clippers], and he may not be one at all." Maybe that changes if they're rebuffed by players like Durant and Kawhi Leonard, or maybe Butler's mileage under Tom Thibodeau and messy splits from his former squads has L.A. thinking his next deal will not age gracefully.
Butler seems perfect for Miami's militaristic approach, which might be the reason it was his preferred destination in September. His defense is already at an Erik Spoelstra-approved level, and his offense is sharp enough to slide into the driver's seat vacated by Dwyane Wade.
Makes sense, doesn't it? There's just one tiny snag—the Heat need a few miracles to even approach his price range. In the unlikely event Hassan Whiteside ($27.1 million) and Goran Dragic ($19.2 million) both decline their player options, Miami would still need to move money around to open up a max slot for Butler.
4. New York Knicks
How would Butler feel about being a backup plan? Answer that question, and you'll discover the likelihood he winds up with the New York Knicks.
The 'Bockers are big-game hunting this summer. More accurately, they're huge-game hunting. While Butler certainly qualifies as the former, the latter might be a threshold even he doesn't reach. Who would? Players like Durant and Kyrie Irving, the two cornerstones of the Knicks' "grand plan," according to The Athletic's Frank Isola.
Let's assume Durant gets a 12:01 a.m. ET call from the Knicks on July 1. Then, let's imagine his preferred running mate (probably Irving) gets the next one. How long will Butler be willing to wait for his phone to buzz?
If the answer is as long as they need, then New York might shoot up this list.
He reportedly set his sights on the blue and orange in September, and the organization's appeal has likely only grown since. There are no hurdles to two max slots, some of the youngsters showed significant growth (Butler plus Mitchell Robinson equals defensive powerhouse?), and the incoming draft pick could deliver a lottery jackpot.
The Knicks have enough positives to hold a firm place in this discussion. But with their attention likely elsewhere for now and their roster short on experience, this probably isn't his first choice.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Butler isn't likely to get the Los Angeles Lakers' initial recruiting call either, but they might be quicker to pivot off the top targets if elites are as reluctant to play with LeBron James as it sounds.
The Lakers have targeted him before. Last summer, Butler had interest in them, but they couldn't make the contracts match for a deal, per Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. Before Butler landed in Philly, the Lakers tried to pry him out of Minnesota, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin.
Maybe that's why multiple executives told B/R Mag's Howard Beck that "Butler might choose the Lakers."
It's not a perfect fit. Butler is a pinch more ball-dominant and a tad worse at perimeter shooting than James' ideal sidekick. And if trade talks divided L.A.'s locker room, what might a no-bleeps-given scrimmage with Butler do?
Then again, Butler seems like the type to "take the challenge" of playing with LeBron when others seem hesitant to do so. His defensive activity could help make up for James' occasional lack thereof. Butler's propensity for getting buckets would also make him James' best scoring sidekick since Kyrie Irving ducked out of Northeast Ohio.
It's fair to question the upside of the James-Butler Lakers and whether they'd be worth the money on the back end of their deals. But L.A. might be further along than its 37-45 record indicates, as the team went 15-8 with a plus-5.3 net rating when James, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball played together. And it's worth noting the addition of Butler wouldn't prevent the Lakers from pursuing Anthony Davis again.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
It all sounded so simple in the honeymoon phase.
Shortly after word leaked of Butler's arrival in Philly, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported both sides "fully expect to reach a deal on a long-term contract this summer." The Sixers had their coveted third star, it seemed, and Butler had his long-term security.
Maybe that's still what each side sees in the other.
Butler was as advertised for the Sixers, as they outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He wound up with a plus-4.09 real plus-minus, good for 22nd overall and second at his position, per ESPN.com.
Philly, in turn, posted the highest winning percentage Butler had enjoyed since his rookie season (.622). The Sixers had enough scoring depth for Butler to exert most of his energy at the defensive end, but he was still their designated closer. While the postseason's bright lights seemed to get the best of some teammates, James Literally Jimmy delivered time and again.
The Sixers want to re-sign him, and he could do much worse than staying put.
But he could also do better with the No. 1 team here, which can offer him better spacing, a hand-selected running mate and a market upgrade.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets were one of three preferred landing spots Butler submitted in September. While they brought up the rear then, it's easy to envision them springing to the front given everything that's transpired since.
Brooklyn added 14 wins to its total and then pestered Butler's Sixers in the opening round. D'Angelo Russell became an All-Star and threw his hat in the Most Improved Player award race. Health permitting, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert could've been in the MIP running, too. Joe Harris went Human Torch on everyone (50.0/47.4/82.7). Jarrett Allen became addicted to stuffing superstars.
None of this went unnoticed.
"They're a good team," Butler told reporters in March. "They have a lot [of players] that can really score the basketball. They guard well; big fella [Allen] protects the rim extremely well."
They also launch a ton of threes—36.2 per game, or exactly six more than Philadelphia. That equates to a lot more breathing room for Butler, whose methodical style works best with optimal spacing. Nearly 38 percent of his field-goal attempts came after at least three dribbles. Brooklyn's superior sniping would make it harder to throw extra defenders at his attacks.
The Nets organically became a destination. General manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson pulled all the right strings. Nearly every draft pick that needed to hit did, and some in a major way.
Now, Brooklyn can use that growth to lure in not just Butler but maybe a second star of his choice. It could be Irving. Maybe it's Russell.
The Nets have options. And good players. And financial flexibility. And synergy between their front office and coaching staff. And a major market.
And, if Butler is seeing what we're seeing, more to offer him than anyone else.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.