I’ve felt all along that the Sixers were the best destination for Butler, at least among the teams on his original wish list, because they are contenders now and his skill set fits well alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, I was envisioning a version of this deal built around former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz that would have helped the Timberwolves more in the long run and been less painful for Philadelphia in the short term. This is a different gamble altogether, one that may only be the start of moves to come for the 76ers.
Adding Butler gives Philadelphia three players who ranked in the top 20 of ESPN’s NBArank exercise before this season, something only the Golden State Warriors (who actually had four) can also boast. At the same time, trading two starters who were averaging a combined 64 minutes per game this season for one contributor — Patton is sidelined and unlikely to see meaningful playing time if healthy — will test the Sixers’ already questionable depth. (Even Butler can’t possibly play 64 minutes per game.)
By virtue of the three-for-two trade, Philadelphia now has 14 players on full NBA contracts. (Neither of the 76ers’ two-way players, Demetrius Jackson and Shake Milton, has yet seen any playing time.) Two of them, Patton and Zhaire Smith, are sidelined by recurrent foot injuries. Another two, rookie Jonah Bolden and second-year wing Furkan Korkmaz, have seen limited playing time. That leaves Brett Brown with exactly 10 reliable rotation options, several of whom — including Wilson Chandler, still on a minutes limit as he works back from hamstring injury — have a history of missing extended periods.
So Philadelphia is betting on either near-perfect health or the ability to continue adding to the roster midseason. While the Sixers had to trade away their biggest expiring contract, belonging to Bayless, they still have expiring deals for Mike Muscala ($5 million), Patton ($2.7 million) and Korkmaz ($1.7 million) that could be used to add depth, plus Chandler’s $12.8 million contract for a bigger move. With an open roster spot and their $4.45 million room midlevel exception still available to offer, Philadelphia also becomes an attractive destination for buyout candidates, having added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova through this route last season.
In the long run, the Sixers retain a decent amount of flexibility even if they re-sign Butler as an unrestricted free agent this summer, as they plan to do, according to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe. With Butler’s $30.8 million cap hold on the books, Philadelphia still projects to have in the neighborhood of $19 million in cap room next summer to add pieces around a core of Butler, Embiid, Simmons and perhaps Fultz. With so many of their rotation players to be free agents — the 76ers would have to renounce the rights to Chandler, Muscala and J.J. Redick to maximize their cap space — nailing those pickups will be crucial as Philadelphia aims to build the strongest possible team as Embiid and Simmons enter their prime years.
From the Sixers’ perspective, the evaluation of this trade comes down to this question: Will Butler be more valuable than Covington, Saric and whoever they could have signed with the $15 million or so extra cap space they would have had next summer? That question is debatable, and depends a great deal on how attractive you think Philadelphia would be as a destination for max free agents.
At this point, I’d lean toward saying no. While Butler isn’t likely a rental acquisition despite his ability to become a free agent next summer by declining a $19.8 million player option (a near certainty), his next contract may prove an overpay as Butler ages.
And despite Butler’s ability to play with or without the ball, which makes him a good on-court fit with Simmons and Embiid — although perhaps not Fultz, given the Sixers get awfully light on shooting with all four players together — there’s also the question of how he’ll blend with young leaders in the locker room after clashing with teammates in both Chicago and Minnesota.
Given those concerns, and the fact that the depth hit means this doesn’t necessarily make Philadelphia much stronger now, I probably would have passed on this particular incarnation of a Butler trade. That analysis, however, treats this as the ultimate move rather than the start of a Sixers makeover. If they can improve their depth between now and the playoffs, adding Butler will do more to help them win in the short term.
After they fell to 4-9 with Friday night’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, their fifth consecutive defeat after a .500 start, it was obvious the Timberwolves could no longer hope to stay in contention this season with Butler on the roster. Adding two starters will improve Minnesota’s depth as the team hopes to salvage this season while keeping an eye on the future.
From the Timberwolves’ standpoint, there’s a lot to like about this deal. Unlike reported offers from the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, this one doesn’t force Minnesota to take on any negative, long-term salary. Bayless is in the final season of his contract, leaving the Timberwolves with a pair of team-friendly contracts. Covington is just starting a four-year, $47 million deal that pays him like a fringe starter going forward (in exchange, Covington got a balloon payment last season as part of a renegotiation of his previous contract), while Saric will make a combined $6 million this season and next as part of his rookie contract.
Although it was obviously Minnesota’s preference, re-signing Butler to a max deal next summer would have put the Timberwolves in the luxury tax, a tough position to justify for a non-contender. With Covington and Saric on the books instead, Minnesota will have somewhere between $12-15 million in buffer room under the tax if Jeff Teague picks up his $19 million player option for 2019-20. Things could get a bit trickier in 2020-21, after Saric’s rookie contract expires and before Gorgui Dieng‘s deal ends, but the Timberwolves have time to figure that situation out.
Minnesota also gets two players who are immediate contributors but young enough to grow with the Timberwolves’ young core of Karl-Anthony Towns (who will turn 23 next week) and Andrew Wiggins (already 23). At 28, Covington is older but has a 3-and-D skill set that should age reasonably well, and at 25 Saric is much younger than Minnesota’s older starters.
The downside here is that the Timberwolves get neither a draft pick of consequence out of the Butler trade nor a young prospect with star potential. Covington has likely maxed out his development, and while Saric has more upside given his youth and playmaking ability, his slump to start this season has exposed how dependent Saric is on making 3s (as he did in 2017-18 at a 39 percent clip) to score efficiently.
With little hope of adding a star through free agency or the draft, Minnesota is suddenly counting on Wiggins achieving the potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, two spots ahead of his injured Kansas teammate Embiid. So far, Wiggins has been unable to channel his skill set and athletic gifts into anything but volume scoring. With Butler’s departure, Wiggins has the opportunity to justify a leading role in the offense. If not now, that may never happen for Wiggins despite his youth.
When Tom Thibodeau came to Minnesota after Towns’ promising rookie season, the Timberwolves’ potential appeared limitless. Now, in part because of the original deal for Butler, one I wholeheartedly endorsed at the time, their ceiling appears much more modest. (Getting nothing from the pick acquired from Chicago with Butler, used on Patton before injuries derailed his development, has been a key factor. The next two centers drafted were promising John Collins and Jarrett Allen.)
There’s no going back for Minnesota, and if a package from the Heat centered around promising wing Josh Richardson was off the table after Richardson’s strong start to the season, there probably wasn’t a better deal available for the Timberwolves. Having shed Butler and his baggage, they’ll have to try to make the most of this season and what remains of their young core.