Butler is one of the league’s best two-way talents, capable of changing a game on offense or defense. He has developed a hard-nosed reputation as someone who can quickly change the culture of a team. The 29-year-old should be a near-ideal trade target for just about any team still looking to make a jump as NBA training camps open this week.
Yet for all his undeniable star power, the reality is that Butler would be an ideal fit with only a few of the teams that are most interested in his services. Much of that stems from how unique a player he is — and the two or three red flags that would make his acquisition more of a gamble than usual.
The list of teams that have expressed interest in dealing for Butler includes the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers — a pair of teams Butler likes — as well as the Pistons, Rockets, Heat, Sixers, Blazers and Kings, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
But realistically, trading for Butler is not an automatic win for all these teams. The size of his contract, the type of role he demands to play and the assets that will be required to obtain him make the trade a significant gamble. From that list, there are maybe four (the Clippers, Pistons, Heat and Blazers) where the move seems worth the risk. For others, there are clear pitfalls that could render such a move disastrous.
Perhaps the most glaring issue to consider is the amount of time Butler has played over the past five seasons: an NBA-high 37.6 minutes per game in that span1 and 26 games in which he logged at least 45 minutes since 2013-14 — 11 games more than the next player on the list, per Basketball-Reference.com.
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All of that could factor into how someone like Butler — who relies mostly on his physicality instead of his jump shot — ages as a player. But last season alone was less than ideal from a health standpoint. After ranking at the top of the minutes per game leaderboard in late February, Butler went down with a right knee injury that required surgery. And while injuries are often an unpredictable thing, Butler’s wasn’t the biggest shock in the world. He had missed four games in January with a sore right knee that might have required an MRI, and then Butler took the unusual step of sitting out the All-Star game the following month, citing a need for rest. Five days later, he was hurt to the point that he required the procedure on his meniscus.
Butler takes on grueling tasks as someone who’s often the primary ball-handler — particularly in the clutch, where his aggressive style drew more free-throw trips than any player — and who guards the other team’s best scorer. And the potential for injuries to slow a player down as he reaches his 30s should give any club pause before sinking assets into a deal for him — let alone signing him to a max extension worth five years and $190 million in 2019, when he’s due to become a free agent.
Zooming all the way out for a moment, let’s be clear: Butler is absolutely worth a sizable gamble from merely a talent perspective. His coach, Tom Thibodeau — who thinks so highly of Butler that he reportedly asked him on Monday to reconsider his trade request — called the swingman a “top-10 player in the league.”
On the night of Feb. 23, when Butler suffered his knee injury, the Timberwolves were tied for third place in the loaded West. By the time he came back came back six weeks later, they’d slipped to eighth. Minnesota needed to win its last three games of the season — including a thrilling win-and-you’re-in finale against Denver — to secure the franchise’s first playoff trip in 14 years.
With Butler, the Wolves were arguably a top-three team in the NBA, outscoring opponents by more than 8 points per 100 possessions;2 without him, the club had the profile of a bottom-10 squad, hemorrhaging nearly 5 points per 100 possessions. Not many stars, or even superstars, possess that kind of game-changing impact.
Still, there’s a pretty compelling case to be made that Butler simply doesn’t make sense on certain clubs — particularly young, developing ones, with whom he might lack patience. He frustrated younger teammates in Chicago two seasons ago when he questioned whether they cared as much as he did about winning, a critique that led to coach Fred Hoiberg benching him to start a game. Then this past year in Minnesota, reports suggested that Butler didn’t always see eye-to-eye with young star Karl-Anthony Towns. (Towns finally agreed to his five-year, $190 million extension in the wake of Butler’s trade request, which lent credence to the report. But Towns on Monday chalked it up to “awkward” timing and coincidence, saying the issues were unrelated.) Taking that into account, a young team like the Nets or the Kings — still in the developmental phases — wouldn’t seem to be ideal for Butler.
The other thing worth considering with Butler, especially in Houston, Philadelphia or Portland, is how he’d fit alongside another ball-dominant guard. That experiment didn’t play out all that well when the Bulls had both Butler and Derrick Rose sharing the backcourt, and reports bubbled to the surface about there being a bit of a power struggle because of the lack of clarity in their roles.
There’d be no such question with the Clippers or Heat. And the Pistons and Blazers desperately need talent upgrades to enhance their standing in their respective conferences — something that’s especially true of Portland, even if there would be questions about Butler’s fit with Damian Lillard.
Few NBA players can impact a game the way Butler can. But given what we know about the talented guard, only a few teams would be smart to move heaven and earth to trade for him right now.