On June 22, the Minnesota Timberwolves completed a draft-day trade for the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler. Minnesota relinquished Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the seventh pick in return for Jimmy Butler and the sixteenth pick. The Timberwolves proceeded to select the freshman center of Creighton University, Justin Patton.
Butler is a 27-year-old, 6’7 hybrid who plays the shooting guard and small forward positions. He is a three-time all-star, three-time member of the NBA’s All-Defense Team, the 2015 Most Improved Player of the Year, and most recently, he received his first nod to the All-NBA Third Team. In 2012, the Chicago Bulls drafted him 30th overall. After an inconsequential rookie season, he capitalized on a Luol Deng injury in his second season, asserting himself into the Bulls playing rotation. He quickly established himself as a full-time starter and sooner than expected, a franchise cornerstone.
Butler is an acknowledged workaholic. Ben Golliver’s 2014 Sports Illustrated piece highlights Butler’s three-a-day workout routine throughout a summer that lacked all internet and cable access. Additionally, he allegedly feuded with former teammate Derrick Rose over his lack of a work ethic. Thanks to his disciplined nature, Butler quickly rose through the NBA’s ranks while underneath the mentorship and coaching of current Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations, Tom Thibodeau.
Throughout the past year, Thibodeau has kept the Timberwolves linked to Butler through trade rumors. He mirrors Thibodeau’s hard-working nature and nearly freakish drive for success, and he will instantly become the Wolves primary option on both ends of the court. Moreover, expect his selfless attitude to be a seamless fit into the Minnesota locker room.
Patton is a 7’0 center with a 7’2 wingspan. He entered Creighton as a four-star recruit and was touted as a future lottery draft pick. His physical immaturity led to a red-shirted freshman season, but in his sole season on the court, he emerged as an effective rim-running center. He cuts hard, finishes facing the basket effectively, and has the athletic ability to continue doing so in the NBA. He will need to improve upon his 52% free throw rate, but he is able and willing to shoot open jump shots—a manifestation of the necessary confidence to overcome the mental burden of inconsistent free-throw shooting. Defensively, he has the length and athleticism to develop into a strong rebounder, but he will need to add strength. Despite his redshirt season spent bulking up, his frame remained skinny enough that his collegiate foes could push him around; the NBA will fare no easier. While Patton’s draft stock barely fell out of the lottery, all in all, he possesses the tools to become a contributing NBA center—the Wolves just have to remain patient and work diligently to improve upon his fundamental approach to the game.
Assessing the Situation
While many analysts are ‘grading’ the Wolves’ move as an A+ move, the trade’s final evaluation is years from fruition. Butler single-handedly offers Minnesota its best opportunity yet to end a thirteen-year playoff drought. Trading for a player of his caliber—likely one of the top fifteen players in the NBA—as he enters the prime of his career is unprecedented. Moreover, snagging such a player for the price of a draft downgrade, Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine carries the whisperings of a heist.
Meanwhile, after his selection to the All-NBA third team, Jimmy Butler is gaining steam as he enters his prime. If he continues to improve, Butler may enter MVP consideration; if he stagnates, Butler is a perennial all-star that has already proven his ability to carry a roster much weaker than the Wolves’ into the playoffs. Butler will immediately become the Wolves primary wing defender, unloading the burden from Wiggins who has routinely floundered in the face of elite offensive competition. Moreover, grow excited for the defensive pairing of Butler and Rubio—perhaps Rubio will finally receive recognition for the astounding ball hawk that he is. Conversely, Butler is an adept passer who enjoys cutting off the ball and sharing the wealth offensively. Adding Butler to an already-emerging offense should instill fear; letting Butler lead an adolescent but evolving defense feels like the final blow.
For over a year now, the basketball world has anticipated Thibodeau’s first win-now transaction. Would his reputation as impatient coach cloud his decision-making as front-office president? A year ago, trade rumors involving Butler circulated, but nothing materialized. Thibodeau followed the draft with a quiet off-season, maintaining his cap space and allowing himself a season for evaluation.
While the Butler trade indicates Thibodeau’s first aggressive push, it acts as a double-edged sword. As mentioned, Butler oozes work ethic and discipline. He is a team-first player and routinely prioritizes team success. His youthful age suggests a harmonious timeline alongside budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. As Butler peaks in his stardom, the Minnesotan fantasy has Towns following suit and only a few years behind. Perhaps this move creates the perfect storm of win-now and win-later, and moreover, Thibodeau’s selection of Justin Patton follows suit.
NBA-draft psychology typically falls into two schools of thought: fit versus potential. Drafting for fit typically implies that an organization is in a win-now mode. While rookies can be slow to develop, drafting for fit is not necessarily short-sighted. Finding a rookie who can immediately contribute can save organizations millions in free agency, and as the Warriors can attest (Patrick McCaw), can play a major role in securing an NBA championship. However, for an organization suffering through a decade of mismanagement, drafting for fit can seem improvident.
At the sixteenth pick, Justin Patton is a high-value risk that indicates an emphasis on the future. If he is developed with patience, Patton can become the top center of this draft class. He should receive an immediate opportunity backing up Dieng and Towns at the center position, but if he fails to perform, Minnesotans are best suited to remain patient. NBA rookie big men typically come with a prolonged timeline, and Patton perhaps more than others. With the selection of Justin Patton, Thibodeau has manifested his ability to separate his win-now coaching nature from the necessary forethought of an NBA President.
To leave you with a final thought, there is no winner until hindsight can evaluate such a trade. If Butler fails to carry the Wolves to the playoffs and leaves town after two seasons, the Wolves will look like they mortgaged a part of their future for two lousy seasons. Even if these two seasons entail first-round playoff exits, it will be debated if Butler was worth what was given up.
Meanwhile, LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen’s development in Chicago will determine the value of what was lost. If Dunn can become establish himself as a starting-level point guard and LaVine as a viable first or second option, the Wolves suddenly forfeited two critical assets. If either flame out, or all three peak as role players the trade’s ‘winner’ can just as quickly shift.
Evaluating a trade is a dangerous and volatile game that depends on too many what-ifs, none of which are yet to be answered. However, this is not to take away from the current state of excitement in Minnesota. Looking at present value, the Wolves lost an unknown commodity, along with two players that have yet to exhibit any irreplaceable virtue. In exchange, the Wolves received the best player they have had since Kevin Garnett. Future performance will determine the supposed ‘winner’ of this trade, but at the moment, there is no evidence to advocate that anybody but Minnesota came out on top and that Chicago has a long and treacherous road ahead, one that Minnesota fans are all too familiar with.
In a single day, Tom Thibodeau completed his second and third major decision as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ President of Basketball Operations. His decisions manifested an ability to separate his operational role from his coaching role—he improved upon the current state of the roster without sacrificing the future. However, his work is far from over; the front office has a crucial free-agency period ahead. Most importantly, Thibodeau must learn to transition back to being a head coach and use these pieces to end a Minnesotan drought.