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Tom Thibodeau finally reached his breaking point. After dealing with weeks of well-publicized drama – a training camp holdout, completely unprofessional and disruptive behavior, and missed games from his team’s de facto leader – the Timberwolves president and head coach had finally had enough of Jimmy Butler. When the Timberwolves fell to 4-9 after a loss to the Sacramento Kings, Thibodeau knew he had to acquiesce to Butler’s trade demand if he wanted any chance of salvaging his team’s season (and likely his job). A deal was finalized Nov. 10 to send the disgruntled Butler and injured center Justin Patton to Philadelphia for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round draft pick.
It is tough to replace a top-15 player like Butler in a trade, especially when you have little leverage at the bargaining table because everyone knows Butler was poisoning the Wolves’ locker room and was going to leave town at his first opportunity. The Wolves did fairly well in this deal, especially because it is clear their goal was to keep the team competitive instead of initiating another rebuilding cycle. Covington and Saric were key players on the 76ers team that reached the eastern conference semifinals last year. Both are young enough to grow alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins while still having skill sets that will fit nicely on the Wolves roster today.
Covington is an elite defensive wing who can knock down open threes. He is shooting 39 percent beyond the arc with 5.9 attempts from downtown per game this season. He earned a first-team all-defense spot last year, and he should be able to replace (if not improve upon) what Butler gave the Wolves on the defensive end of the floor. At 6-foot-9-inches and 225 pounds, he will form the longest and most athletic wing duo in the NBA alongside Wiggins (6-foot-8-inches and 194 pounds). If Wiggins engages on defense, they can potentially make things extremely difficult on opposing wings, and a lineup of Towns, Saric, Covington and Wiggins will be able to switch screens and be generally interchangeable across the 2-5 positions. Covington also signed an extremely team-friendly four-year, $46.8 million deal that will make him an affordable part of the Wolves’ future.
Saric, who is only 24 years old, is a playmaking forward whose skills were not put to best use in a lineup in Philly that already featured ball-dominant big men Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Because Towns can space the floor, it should create driving and passing lanes for Saric, who should flourish if given opportunities to create from the high post. Saric is an elite passer for a power forward, and he can also score effectively when given the opportunity. Basically, he is the rich man’s version of Nemanja Bjelica, a player Wolves fans are sorely missing this year. The key to incorporating Saric effectively will be Towns buying in on the defensive end, because a Towns-Saric front-court pairing looks questionable at best, defensively. Depending on matchups (not a lot of teams feature old-school dual big man lineups anymore), if Thibodeau is smart with his rotations, he should be able to stagger Taj Gibson’s minutes to limit the defensive exposure of a Towns-Saric unit.
One other silver lining from this deal is the Wolves dodged giving an aging Jimmy Butler a max-level five-year contract. While Butler has shown he is clearly worth the money when he is healthy and locked in, the team that signs him to that deal is going to be paying for past performance. Butler is already showing signs of breaking down physically, and he has quite a few miles on his tires from his Thibodeau-era seasons in Chicago. Similar players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng did not age well. Butler is already 29. His next deal will likely run through his age-35 season. I have serious doubts he is going to be a max-level player over the last few years of that deal.
Butler got what he wanted, and now he is going to bring his volatile energy and leadership style to a 76ers locker room led by two players, Embiid and Simmons, who are 24 or younger. Butler has not shown much of an ability to mesh with younger teammates in Chicago and Minnesota, and if his Philadelphia tenure follows a similar trajectory, he could unravel everything that was built in Philadelphia through the process. The 76ers took a major gamble in this deal because there is no assurance Butler will sign there after this season. I certainly would not trust the guy’s word at this point if I were leading an NBA team after seeing what he did to Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. There is a strong possibility Wolves fans are going to look back on this deal in a few years and be thankful the team cut bait on Butler when they did.
Timberwolves deal Butler to 76ers
By Andy Thayer