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Six Degrees of the Jimmy Butler Trade Demand

How will Jimmy Butler’s trade request play out? While the Knicks, Nets and Clippers mull a blockbuster deal, it’s also worth examining what his request means for LeBron, Kyrie and Thibs.

The Jimmy Butler trade request was a perfect way to return for another year of basketball news. This story has feuding All-Stars, countless trade machine scenarios, salacious Instagram theories, small markets getting screwed, big markets getting suckered into free–agent dreams, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving potentially engaged in a shadow recruiting war—it's all here, it's all very NBA. I love it. I'm also a little bewildered by the task of processing potential trades in the middle of September, but apparently that's a thing that we're going to start doing now. So with that, here are the six sides to the Butler trade request and how it might reshape the league.

1. What Jimmy Butler's list says about LeBron James. This discussion inspired lots of angry feedback on Twitter yesterday, so we may as well start here. Kyrie asked to be traded from a Cavs team that was a lock to make the Finals the next couple of years. Paul George wanted to be a Laker for his entire life, then decided to stay in Oklahoma City when it was time to join LeBron this summer. And now there's Butler, who reportedly listed three preferred trade destinations in big markets, none of which was the big market team that recently signed the best player in the sport. According to Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN, "Butler had once imagined playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but LeBron James' arrival as the franchise's cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career, league sources said." 

That kind of LeBron indifference (at best) has been a quiet theme of the league's biggest decisions over the past year. It's also one that will remain relevant as we pick through Klay Thompson free agency rumors and Anthony Davis trades over the next nine months. Do superstars still care about playing with LeBron? As The Athletic's Shams Charania noted of Kawhi Leonard a few months ago, "I don’t think he’s jumping for joy that LeBron James is in L.A. with the Lakers. If anything, that’s going to make him look maybe more toward the Clippers."

This shift isn't necessarily a signal that LeBron's style or personality is what's wearing on fellow stars—as some critics allege—but it seems to be a real change regardless. For one thing, LeBron is several years older than most of the All-Stars he'll be asked to recruit over the next few years. That's new. He was recruiting fellow members of his draft class when he joined the Heat, and when he went to Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was already there. What's more, while most star free agents leave for bigger markets to enhance their profile, LeBron casts the biggest shadow in the sport. He dominates the ball on the court and every story afterward. If you win with him, he gets most of the credit. If you lose with him, you are the help that isn't good enough. It's a thankless role that would be a complicated deal for anyone to consider.

None of this is really LeBron's fault, either. He dominates the spotlight because he's one of the two best players the NBA has seen in 70 years. He dominates the ball because putting the ball in LeBron's hands is almost always the best thing for a basketball team. All of that makes sense, and if there's a disconnect with the next generation, it's not LeBron's fault that he was in the Finals while most of today's stars were in high school. But whatever the origins, the waning influence with the next generation seems real. And if nothing else, that development is worth acknowledging for the sake of appreciating exactly what LeBron's trying to do in Los Angeles and how hard it might be. He has spent the second half of his career using his power to conjure superteams out of thin air. Now, as he sets out to do it one more time, there are several good reasons today's stars might think twice about joining him. 

Jimmy Butler was never going to make or break any Lakers success, but his list on Wednesday was a reminder of what LeBron's challenge really is. 


2. Butler's trade value is complicated. OK, back to the central figure Wednesday. Here's what I wrote about Butler in this Wolves column from earlier this week: 

He works so hard that his contributions are generally beyond reproach, but maybe they shouldn’t be. He is a flat-out maniac who's wonderful to watch as a fan, but it's pretty clear he'd be exhausting to deal with on a daily basis. On the court and beyond, he hasn't shown the ability to adapt to young teammates and find ways to empower them. Lack of growth from young stars isn't strictly a Towns and Andrew Wiggins problem, or even a Thibodeau problem. In the same way that Russell Westbrook’s domineering personality is the best thing about him and also a challenge for everyone around him, Butler’s grinding approach forces his teammates to either fight him for control or be marginalized while he takes over the end of games.

Butler has been great enough to make that deal worthwhile, but as his body breaks down with age and his contract gets expensive after his free agency next summer, the bargain is going to get more complicated. Anyone paying attention to the Minnesota offseason can see that it already has.

I really do love Butler as a fan, but he is 29 years old, he's played 70 games just once in the past five years, and the track record of 30-something Thibs survivors is not encouraging. Also, Butler is a free agent next summer, which means he's about to be eligible for a deal worth somewhere between $140 million over four years and $190 million over five. If a team like the Lakers "lost" these sweepstakes, that could be a blessing. There are some significant risks in play here. It's a good thing that Butler didn't throw any desperate, traditionally impulsive teams onto his... Oh, what's that?! 

3. Manhattan vs. Brooklyn! What's great about the Knicks and Nets stockpiling cap space is that at least one of them is likely to strike out entirely. There are only so many superstars available, and half of them are going to end up on one or two teams. Somebody is going to be left with $70 million in cap space and only Tobias Harris to spend it on. 

Nevertheless, it was great to see the Nets and Knicks make the top three for Butler, who has the wish list of someone who got a little too deep into the NBA podcast world over the summer.

Much like the Clippers when they got an audience with LeBron during the madness of 2010 free agency, even landing in that tweet is a tremendous win for the Nets. And for the record, that 2010 LeBron meeting did portend big things in L.A., as the team traded for Chris Paul 18 months later. Maybe that's what's coming in Brooklyn? Even if Butler isn't the answer, it's clear that the combination of New York City and "Bezos-level" cap space will at least get the Nets in the room with stars next summer. 

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As for the other team in New York, ESPN's Ian Begley notes that "Knicks president Steve Mills said at a fan event on Monday that the Knicks will not trade assets for players that they feel they can sign in free agency." The Knicks already have Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox looks promising, and it's probably smarter to play for one more lottery pick in June and save all grand plans for the summer. That makes sense if it's really the plan, although New York might as well kick the tires on Minnesota's Tim Hardaway Jr. interest (or try to convince Thibs that Courtney Lee played for the Bulls). In general, Butler makes sense on the Knicks for only one reason, and it's the same reason paying $190 million to a 30-year-old guard could make sense in Brooklyn: trading for Butler (possibly) means Kyrie Irving is coming as well.

Why the Nets, Knicks and Clippers Make (Some) Sense for Jimmy Butler

4. Kyrie looms over everything. It still seems crazy that Kyrie Irving could walk away from a superteam in Boston, but there has been speculation pointing that direction for months now. Half the rumors say that Kyrie would love to return to New York City, and half say that he could team up with Kevin Durant and long-time friend Jimmy Butler. While LeBron tries to recruit stars to Los Angeles, it's at least possible that Kyrie is already playing the same game for next summer. (Related: Who has the advantage if LeBron gets Anthony Davis, but Kyrie is playing with Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant?)

Kyrie free agency was easy to dismiss when Celtics angst was first floated during the NBA Finals in June, but it's become harder to ignore the longer the buzz has lingered. Wednesday's Butler news might be what takes the speculation from subtext to text. If Kyrie isn't at least considering a New York move, it becomes much harder to explain the Nets and Knicks as Butler favorites. 

There are dozens of follow-up questions from there. Namely: Would these two players even fit as teammates? Would it be a good idea to commit between $350 and $400 million to two guards with the injury history of Butler and Irving? How did they become such good friends without anyone realizing it? Is any friendship really strong enough to make it worthwhile to go spend a year on an awful Knicks team? Where is Kevin Durant in all of this—is he part of the plan? Does all of this trace back to Team USA? If so, does that mean Kawhi isn't part of the plan? Are sneaker companies and/or sports agencies involved? And speaking of Rio, does anyone remember that Jimmy Butler is scared of water, hated staying on the Team USA cruise ship, and requested living quarters that didn't have a view of the ocean? Was that room where this master plan was forged?

There are lots of unknowns here. But, again, there is just enough corroborated evidence to make you wonder—like any good conspiracy theory.


5. In Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau deserves blame for everything, but blaming him for this situation feels unfair.The Wolves situation is dark. Butler is on his way out, and while Andrew Wiggins' brother is elated, it's hard to feel great about Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns after the way the past year has unfolded. On the bright side, and we're reaching here, at least the Wolves won't have to spend all year pretending everything is fine?

Thibodeau deserves blame for most of what has gone wrong here, particularly the lack of progress from his young stars and the apparently toxic environment behind the scenes in Minnesota. He's failed as both a coach and a manager. When Thibodeau first took over with the Wolves, a friend in the league predicted that he'd win a lot the first few years and that "it will get ugly at the end." That second phase has come sooner than anyone could've guessed. 

Having said all of that, it seems a bit disingenuous to crush Thibs for the way the Butler trade has played out. The minute Minnesota acquired Butler, the risk of his departure was clear. He was an aging guard going to a small market and looking to contend in a loaded conference, two years away from free agency. There was some obvious risk there. Practically the entire basketball media loved the trade anyway—the Wolves were done with trips to the lottery, the logic went, and it was time to bet on the young guys they already had. On draft night, it absolutely looked like they swindled the Bulls. 

There have been other times over the past few years when Thibodeau's urgency got the better of him—betting big on Gorgui Dieng, passing on Jamal Murray, signing Derrick Rose but the Butler trade wasn't crazy at the time, and it's not even especially crazy in hindsight. Kris Dunn was not the answer, and while Donovan Mitchell might have been nice, Dennis Smith Jr. and Lauri Markkanen won't make the playoffs until the 2020s. The Butler trade was a decent gamble that didn't work out. If we're looking at things Thibs has done wrong in Minnesota, I'm not sure it cracks the top 10. (As for the young guys, I'm pretty confused by the Andrew Wiggins/Nick Wiggins/Stephen Jackson beef, but I look forward to remembering this tweet during some of the 8-25 shooting nights we get from Wiggins this season.) 

6. So, the Clippers? They can offer win-now players like Tobias Harris and Patrick Beverley, they can throw in a mid-2020s first round pick, and Butler is "most determined" to find his way to L.A. While Butler/Kyrie/Durant superteams will probably never go further than New York Post fan fiction, the Clippers assembling a Butler/Kawhi foundation is very much in play. Given the list we have from Butler, a deal with the Clips seems like the most sensible outcome for everyone involved. Of course, Kyrie Irving's list last summer began with the Knicks, Wolves, Spurs, and Heat, so there is always the chance that all of this speculation is meaningless.  

In general, NBA news is always a little bit stranger than anything we could have scripted. Jimmy Butler demanding a trade to the Clippers less than a week before training camp is one more reminder. It's also a great excuse to spend the rest of the week poring over IG gossip and reckless speculation about 2019 superteams. Welcome back, basketball.