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Jimmy Butler Gives the Wolves a Top-Tier Big-3 and Much More

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While other teams added young talent Thursday night, the Wolves were busy creating a three-headed monster through the acquisition of Jimmy Butler.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

After a year of rumors, the Wolves finally wound up getting a “Thibs-guy.”

Jimmy Butler, like every other Chicago Bulls player coached by Tom Thibodeau from 2010-2015, has consistently had been connected to the Wolves since Thibodeau took the reigns last summer. But those rumors often felt more like a convenient narrative driven by player agents and media assumptions than actual interest. The Wolves front office has been extremely quiet since Thibs and Scott Layden came to town.

While frequently the narrative of, “well, he’s a Thibs Guy’” caught steam, that steam often proved to be but a puff. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng did not join the Wolves as free agents last offseason nor did Derrick Rose or Taj Gibson at the trade deadline. As a result, I thought the acquisition of Butler was more than likely a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.

But I was wrong. He’s here. Holy hell, he’s here.

Wrapping my head around that is difficult for many Timberwolves-y reasons, but as it soaks in I am beginning to realize the Wolves, now, have a true stud.The list of wing players that can even sniff the same tier as Butler is short. In the entire Eastern Conference, the list is three players, at most; LeBron James (of course), Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the West, there is Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and (maybe) Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson. When that sinks in, saying goodbye to Zach LaVine becomes a lot easier.

But this trade would not have been possible without LaVine who, in spite of a torn ACL, was still worth Butler to the Bulls. And this is where Flip Saunders deserves a hat tip for writing LaVine’s name on a scrap of paper before the 2014 draft. Flip took a home run swing on a college backup from UCLA who didn’t really have a positional distinction, and he connected. All credit does not go to Flip. A Canis shout out goes to Zach for living in the gym these past three seasons and developing into a real and still growing prospect. If this Butler trade actually puts the Wolves on the map, that pick of LaVine—13th overall in 2014—will have been a crucial turn in the treasure hunt.

But Zach is gone. And The Baby Big Three is dead. It is time for Minnesota to have a big three that is real. No more gimmicks. Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins are a real threat as Towns and Wiggins enter their third and fourth season, respectively. How many teams in the league will have better top-three players next season?

Tiers of “Big-3’s” in the NBA

“Not Even Close to Wolves”

Brooklyn- D’Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker

Chicago- Dwyane Wade, Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez

Orlando- Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton

“Blah”

Atlanta- Paul Millsap (free agent), Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore.

Detroit- Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson

New York- Kristaps Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony, Courtney Lee

“C’mon, Wait Your Turn”

Philadelphia- Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz

Phoenix- Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Josh Jackson

Denver- Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris

Sacramento- Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, De’Aaron Fox

LAL- Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball

“They’re Good, But the Wolves Are (now) Better”

Milwaukee- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton

Miami- Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson

Charlotte- Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Dwight Howard

Dallas- Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews

Indiana- Paul George, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young

“It’s Super Close”

Memphis- Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Chandler Parsons

Boston- Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Avery Bradley

Portland- Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic

Oklahoma City- Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo

“Too Much Free Agency Confusion To Say”

LAC- Chris Paul (free agent), Blake Griffin (player option), DeAndre Jordan

Toronto- Kyle Lowry (free agent), DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibake (free agent)

Utah- Gordon Hayward (free agent), Rudy Gobert, George Hill (free agent)

New Orleans- Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday (free agent)

Washington Wizards- John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter (free agent)

“Better Than Wolves Top-3”

Golden State- Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green

Cleveland- LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love

San Antonio- Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green

Houston- James Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon/Trevor Ariza

This is not to say Jimmy Butler makes the Wolves a top-10 team in the NBA. More moves—not limited to strengthening the bench—are needed to make the Wolves a playoff team let alone a true contender, but the base of the Wolves iceberg is strong.

To assume anything but yet another stride forward from Towns and Wiggins would be cynical. Good players get better when surrounded by great players, and Butler is that. The trickle down effect to Towns and Wiggins, not to mention Ricky Rubio, will be real both on and off the court. And while there are a few reasons to be skeptical about the Wiggins and Butler pairing from the way each player was used last season, the positives of fresh and more mature blood should have a positive effect on Wiggins. For Towns and Rubio, it’s all gravy. The positives of a teammate (Butler’s caliber) that requires defensive gravity when on offense assuredly benefits the two of them.

Get excited, this is real.

Four Happy Thoughts About Jimmy

1. Butler will bring defensive physicality.

Butler is not only a good team defender, he is a fearless isolation defender who counters an opponents isolation with physicality. Back in the Chicago Thibs days, the amount of space Butler’s teammates would give him to defend was staggering. Thibs and Butler’s Chicago teammates trusted him to at the very least slow down his opponent's route to the basket. Butler is an in-your-shorts defender with a combination of strength and speed to slow down almost anyone on the perimeter. This allows his teammates to stay close to surrounding shooters and buys time to recover even if he begins to get beat. Butler was the Eastern Conference’s best LeBron plug back in his Miami days.

2. Butler has a deep understanding of the Thibs defensive system.

A major downfall of the Wolves last season was the drawn-out process of learning how to play D the Thibs way. As we’ve covered incessantly here, the defense did not work, especially ICE-ing pick and rolls. Having Butler at the point of attack will change everything. Ooh baby, check out that ICE.

3. Butler’s ability to isolate, on offense, will improve Wiggins’s efficiency.

In theory, this takes form in two ways. First, Butler is the better one-on-one player and is therefore theoretically, scoring more often than Wiggins did in such scenarios. The fear of Butler’s isolation will create space for Wiggins—a superior three-point shooter than many of Butler’s previous teammates. If the defense sinks into the lane to take away the isolation, Butler will find the second defenders man for an open look.

Secondly, when the roles are reversed and it is Wiggins in isolation, Butler’s defender will be less likely to help in fear of the kick to Butler. Too many minutes of Wiggins career have been flanked by non-scorers, the likes of Brandon Rush and Tayshaun Prince. There should be far fewer possessions, like this one, where Wiggins is isolating into a group of opponent jerseys. Butler will change the spacing immensely.

4. This was the best (if not only) way for the Wolves to add a star.

Had this trade not happened, the Wolves were fast approaching a salary cap reality in which they would not have been able to add a high-level free agent. This upcoming season marks the last season of Wiggins and LaVine’s rookie scale contract. Both players would have been bound for raises into the $20-25 million range entering 2018. With the Dieng and Rubio contracts, the Wolves would have been capped out. This was going to be the last offseason of cap space in Minnesota.

While there were dreams of Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin, the reality of any top-end free agent signing in Minnesota was low. It’s Minnesota. Even if Millsap or Griffin would have signed, their deals would have paid them an average annual salary likely over $30 million, an issue considering Millsap’s age and Griffin’s injury history. Butler who is making $18.7 million this season and $19.6 the following season is a bargain in the new salary cap environment. Butler not only elevates the quality of the Wolves top-3 but also leaves room for another acquisition.

If the Wolves waive Jordan Hill (highly likely) and renounce all free agents (including Shabazz Muhammad) they are looking at around $18.6 million in cap space left for this offseason. While that number is too low to go after Millsap or Griffin, it does leave the door open for a J.J. Redick, Andre Iguodala, or JaMychal Green. Butler will not only be an asset on the floor but in the flexibility he gives the Wolves finances.

Spirits are high in Minnesota because Jimmy Butler is the “Thibs Guy” that we obsessed over but never thought was real. It’s all so real. Welcome, Jimmy.