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Trade Grades: Wolves Fleece Bulls In Jimmy Butler Blockbuster

Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau are being reunited in Minnesota after the Wolves fleeced the Bulls in a draft night blockbuster. The Crossover grades both sides of the deal.

The Chicago Bulls have reportedly agreed to trade Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick (Justin Patton) in the NBA draft to the Timberwolves in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen).

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With the draft day blockbuster in the books, The Crossover is grading both sides of the deal. Here's are our analysis for the Wolves and Bulls.

Minnesota Timberwolves: A

The long-awaited reunion between Butler and Tom Thibodeau, who coached him through his upstart years in Chicago, finally comes to fruition. There has never been a question that Thibodeau plays favorites; any coach so exacting is bound to have a type, and Butler fits Thibodeau’s preferences perfectly. A competitive defender who can create for himself and work over opponents away from the ball? That’s the sort of player every team wants and the Wolves desperately need. Butler can be a tone-setter. His leadership in Chicago wasn’t exactly unimpeachable, but it helps to have a coach (and team president) in place who have already earned Butler’s trust. That we can expect a smoother relationship between Butler and team administration also bodes well for Butler carrying out Thibodeau’s plans and demanding the right sorts of contributions of his teammates. 

Butler plays with edge—a commodity in short supply in Minnesota last season. A best-case scenario would have Butler awaken something in Andrew Wiggins, an athletic wing with many of the same tools but a very different disposition. A Butler-Wiggins pairing would, in theory, make the Wolves one of the most flexible teams in the league. Both have post-up skill and off-the-dribble promise. Butler can take the lead defensively most anywhere Minnesota needs and Wiggins should be helped by falling in line on some sort of secondary threat. Factor in Rubio, one of the league’s most disruptive defenders at the point, and the Wolves should be able to muster a much more reliable front. The cold reality of Wiggins and LaVine is that they might never have progressed defensively to the point of stabilizing a winning team. Butler changes that dynamic completely while alleviating the pressure on Wiggins to be an every-night, every-possession stopper.

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Consolidation suits the Wolves. There was room for Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine to put up points as teammates but perhaps not in a way that would allow them to develop to their fullest—particularly when Dunn might at some point have demanded touches. It’s one thing to triangulate an offense when its initiator is a pass-first-second-and-third playmaker like Rubio and quite another when the ball would start with more of a mixed creator like Dunn. Rather than try to incorporate Dunn and stretch the offense even further (all while recovering from the team’s horrid defensive showing last season), Minnesota has centered its roster around a top-15 player. Order itself can be a reason for improvement and Butler will help to provide it.

Whatever Minnesota had hoped Dunn might become when he was drafted last season, Butler is far better. Impressive as LaVine’s breakout scoring season was, the Wolves have invested in a more stable all-around player. And no matter how Minnesota might have otherwise used the No. 7 pick, this course streamlines the playing rotation while ensuring that all three of Towns, Butler, and Wiggins have an opportunity to thrive. That the Wolves accomplished this while staying in the first round—effectively only dropping their selection by nine picks—is a tremendous result.


Chicago Bulls: D

Chicago surrendered the best player in this deal by a mile and returned: an athletic scorer coming off a torn ACL, a 23-year-old sophomore who couldn’t even hold down backup point guard minutes last season for a team that needed them filled, and a 7-foot shooter plucked out of the mid-lottery. All three might be useful players in time, but none compare at all favorably to a two-way star like Butler. Their composite value is a tough sell when each is still unproven in his own way. 

Ultimately, this feels like the kind of return a team could expect when trading a centerpiece player in his final year under contract. The catch is that Butler is locked in through 2019 on a great, team-friendly deal relative to the inflated salary cap. His five-year, $92 million deal is a relic of a different time. The NBA’s new financial reality allowed the Blazers to give a richer deal (on an annual basis) to Allen Crabbe in 2016 than the Bulls could give to Butler in 2015. If all goes well for LaVine, who will be a restricted free agent next summer, he could be in line for a similar payday. The better this trade looks by way of LaVine’s recovery and play, the more expensive retaining him becomes.

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Some of the sacrifice in talent is offset in what would seem to be a cleaner fit. All three of LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen make more immediate sense in Fred Hoiberg’s offense than Butler did. Resolving that friction can be valuable, particularly when a star like Butler has a specific idea of what sort of role best suits him. LaVine and Markkanen should space the floor for one of the most painfully cramped offenses in the league. Dunn and LaVine have the fluidity in their games to curl and cut when the ball isn’t in their hands. There is some theoretical sense to the way the Bulls have changed shape, if not so much in the talent calculus of this deal. This return package (complete with the inclusion of Chicago’s own first rounder) does not properly convey how rare a player Butler is. These are three lottery picks in abstract concept but none so immediately promising as to justify letting Butler go with two years left under contract.

It is especially confusing that the Bulls resisted so many overtures from so many different teams to ultimately settle here. Minnesota even reportedly made a similar offer a season ago built around Dunn and LaVine—one that seems sweetened now due to the discouraging evidence of Dunn’s rookie season. For an older point guard with an NBA-ready frame to flail as a rookie does not bode well. Dunn has a lot to prove; for as much as Chicago needs capable point guards, there was nothing in Dunn’s rookie season to suggest that he is currently such a player. This trade banks on his development. Some growth can be assumed, but any optimism should be tempered by the fact that Dunn is essentially the same age as the flawed but notably more accomplished Elfrid Payton and Marcus Smart.