A year ago this week, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls agreed to a five-player blockbuster trade, the first of many earth-shattering transactions during the summer of 2017 that would significantly reshape the NBA landscape going forward.
As many know, the deal between the Wolves and Bulls sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and recently selected Lauri Markkanen (the 7th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft) to Chicago in exchange for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton (selected by the Bulls with the 16th pick). Although finally completed on June 22, 2017, the trade between the two franchises originally gained steam during the 2016 NBA Draft, when the teams attempted to construct a similar deal based around LaVine, Butler, and Dunn (selected by the Wolves with the 5th overall pick that year), only to both walk away after failing to find common ground on additional compensation.
Was the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
Debating the winners and losers of any deal, let alone a blockbuster trade, is always more enjoyable in the moment. The morning after the 2017 NBA Draft, the Wolves were lauded as thieves for landing the (then) three-time All-Star in exchange for a player coming off a torn ACL, a disappointing first-year player, and a draft pick. Throw in the addition of the 16th pick from the Bulls, and Tom Thibodeau’s approval rating reached an all-time high. In the end, the Wolves “fleeced” the Chicago Bulls.
A full year removed (363 days to be exact), does the general opinion on this blockbuster change? Depends on who you ask. While revisionist history may frown upon using the term “fleeced,” it is undeniable that Tom Thibodeau (whose approval rating during those same 363 days has dropped faster than Andrew Wiggins’ trade value) changed the culture within the franchise by accelerating the timeline, injecting toughness and maturity, and finally putting to bed the idea of “rebuilding.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the simple wins and losses column. During Butler’s first season in Minnesota, the Wolves went 36-23 in the 59 games Butler appeared in, good for a 61% winning percentage. Extrapolate that over an 82-game season, and the Wolves were (on paper) a 50-win team (something that has only happened 4 times during their 29-year history). In Butler’s 59 games, he averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. This was good enough to secure his fourth selection to the All-Star team as well as being named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
The other player the Wolves received in the deal — Justin Patton — played just four more NBA minutes last season than you or I, due to recurring foot injuries. Eternal optimists like myself still envision Patton as a beautiful long-term fit next to Towns, a floor-spacing big with above-average court vision and the ability to protect the rim, while “glass-half empty” subscribers see Patton as just another failed transaction by the Thibs administration.
Regardless of what side you fall on in terms of Patton (and there is a strong case for either), it’s impossible to argue that the Butler blockbuster isn’t still as important today for Minnesota as it was 363 days ago. Teams can’t rebuild forever (although the Wolves sure as hell tried), and at some point you need to turn “maybes” and “what ifs” into reality. Poker chips have no value outside of the casino.
Did Chicago Hit the Bullseye?
While the Wolves posted their best record since 2004 with Butler on the roster, the Bulls secured their worst record since 2003 with Butler off it. As Minnesota traded in their “How to Rebuild” textbook for a “How to Contend,” the Bulls found themselves doing just the opposite, embarking on a true rebuild for the first time since the Bill Cartwright/Scott Skiles era.
The center of that rebuild revolved around Zach LaVine, the bubbly kid from Wenton, WA with Pogo Sticks for legs and video-game like jump shot. Because of a torn ACL he suffered in the 2016 season while playing for the Wolves, LaVine managed to play in only 24 games last year for Chicago. While 2017-2018 was mostly a lost season for LaVine, his blue-collar work ethic and limitless potential as a scorer still make him an extremely intriguing piece for the Bulls to build around. As free agency rapidly approaches, the Bulls will have to make a tough decision regarding their bouncy castle-scaling RFA.
Although LaVine was the prized name in the package headed to Chicago, the 2017-2018 season showed that maybe the most talented player the Bulls received from Minnesota was Markkanen. The 7-footer from Finland flashed countless times during his rookie season, averaging 15.2 points (including 36% from three) and 7.5 rebounds, earning him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. At just 21-years old, “The Finnisher” so far appears to be the real deal, but only time will tell for the Bulls whether Markkanen truly is the ideal modern-age NBA big man, or simply just a “good stats, bad team” type of player.
As for the third piece of Bulls package, Kris Dunn, the jury is still very much out on him. At 24-years-old, Dunn is already the same age as Bradley Beal, a year older than Giannis Antetokounmpo, and FOUR years older than both Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz. Considering the wave of new, young PG’s that rush across the shores of the NBA each season, Dunn’s age, is already tremendously concerning. Pair that with his lack of offensive development (30% career shooter from three), and you begin to have the makings of a poor man’s Marcus Smart, which isn’t ideal for a team looking to solidify their backcourt alongside LaVine.
Get (More) Buckets?
While the Butler trade has been a massive home run thus far, it will still be imperative that the franchise that traded for him navigate his extension waters correctly. Although Jimmy technically still has two years remaining on his current deal, the second year is a player option, which he will almost 100% decline for a more lucrative, long-term deal.
According to Dane Moore of Zone Coverage, Butler could renegotiate a deal this summer, bringing his max salary for the upcoming season from $20.4 to $30.3 million. As Moore points out, this would unearth a new batch of financial problems for the Wolves, but would allow them to lock up their star two-way player for the foreseeable future.
Not extending Butler this offseason would provide the Wolves slightly more breathing room in terms of the salary cap, but would also leave the franchise vulnerable to Butler bolting in 2019. If the upcoming season goes south and the Wolves lose both Butler and Gibson next summer (as well as Thibs), the franchise could quickly find itself yet again on the hamster wheel of mediocrity.
A lot sure has changed in just 363 days. While the news on June 22, 2017 brought a perennial bottom-feeder out of the abyss with newfound excitement and attention, it also brought newly acquired expectations and dilemmas. Trading for Jimmy Butler was a no-brainer then and is still a no-brainer today, as it graduated the Wolves from constant lottery participant to something much more significant. That matters.
However, with the honeymoon season now a thing of the past, the Wolves still have a plethora of problems to address going forward (most notably — management, roster construction, and lack of financial flexibility). While opinions on various Wolves-related issues can vary from one extreme to the other, you’ll be hard pressed to find one person who thinks the Wolves could have sniffed the postseason last year without Butler on board.
Why is that important? Well, no longer are the Wolves lumped into the same category as the Kings, Magic, and Suns. Instead, the Wolves now find themselves answering questions similar to that of the Blazers, Raptors, and Thunder. Armed with multiple All-Stars either in their prime or on the verge of entering it, can the Wolves strike the right chords to upgrade their status yet again and start addressing questions that teams like the Warriors, Cavs, and Spurs recently faced? Only time will tell.