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Analysis: Jimmy Butler trade is tempting, but Nets should know better

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler wants to be traded to the Nets. Or the Knicks. Or the Clippers. Or presumably anywhere else he can a) sign a max contract extension, b) compete for a championship, and c) lure a second max salary player, possibly free agent-to-be Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn should be flattered a star of Butler’s caliber wants to play for them, and ecstatic at the prospect of landing two of the biggest fish on the market in the summer of 2019. But the Nets should should stay away from this deal altogether. They’re on the right path. There’s no need to veer from the plan now — unless they can pull it off without mortgaging their future.

Butler is a top-10 player in this league by my estimation. He is a rugged defender, a playmaker, and above all, he’s a winner. Just ask the Timberwolves, whose last playoff appearance before Butler came to town was when Amazon priced at just $43 a share.

But the Wolves want to attach Gorgui Dieng’s hefty contract — three years worth $45.6 million remaining — to any Butler trade. And while the Nets could probably utilize Dieng’s skill set better than the Wolves under Tom Thibodeau ever could, that’s a lot of cap space eating into future free agency spending.

The only way Brooklyn would ever take on that much cap space is if it comes alongside a talented young player and attractive draft assets. Jimmy Butler is neither. He’s an All-Star with all those qualities mentioned earlier. But he’s also 29 years old and has played just one full 82-game season and only one additional season of more than 67 games.

Thibodeau ran Butler into the ground year after year in Chicago, just like he did Luol Deng and Derrick Rose. And when Butler reunited with Thibbs in Minnesota last season, he tore his meniscus and returned just in time for the playoffs.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe presented a hypothetical trade scenario where Brooklyn sends Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe, Kenneth Faried and Denver’s top-12 protected 2019 first-round pick for Butler and Dieng. That reeks of the Carmelo Anthony trade that robbed the Knicks of its young talent and draft assets back in 2011. It also smells a lot like the deal Billy King pulled off that brought Brooklyn Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and years at the bottom of the East without draft picks.

Brooklyn beautifully absorbed cap space this summer when they traded Isaiah Whitehead to the Nuggets for Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Denver’s top-12 protected 2019 first-round pick. They then flipped Arthur to Phoenix for Jared Dudley, a savvy veteran whose $9.5 million contract expires next summer. This is how Brooklyn does business: calculated, meticulous, forward-thinking. Not rushed. Not impulsive. Not reactionary.

The only incentive Brooklyn would have in trading for Butler is to lure Irving to town, and an Irving-Butler duo would fill Barclays Center to capacity every night. But Irving literally said on Celtics media day he wants to see his jersey hang in the rafters alongside Boston legends. That, and in an ESPN story by Jackie MacMullan, Irving says he hasn’t had an extensive conversation with Butler since 2016. Hard pass.

Brooklyn is building for more than just box office numbers. They want to build a culture, a winner, eventually a champion. That takes time; it’s why general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson have formed a united front, preaching patience and incremental progress for so long.

So what’s a trade for Butler that makes sense? Brooklyn owns two first-round picks this year: their own and Denver’s top-12 protected first-rounder. Butler can and will become a free agent this summer. The lesser of those two picks — more than likely Denver’s — is the first chip. Then Brooklyn has to match Butler’s salary: he’s scheduled to make $18.7 million this season. Allen Crabbe ($18.5 million), DeMarre Carroll ($15.4 million) and Kenneth Faried ($13.7 million) is where Brooklyn starts.

But here comes another question: How deep into their pockets are the Nets willing to go? And we’re not talking cash; we’re talking talent. Do the Nets attach Caris LeVert to this deal, a player whose coaches and teammates raved over at Media Day? What about Spencer Dinwiddie? He’ll be due a pay raise next summer, and the Nets may not be able to keep him anyway. How about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a player entering Year 4 of his young career who hasn’t had the production spike some expected? Do the Nets make a repeat offense and trade a future draft pick? Probably not.

Is Crabbe, Hollis-Jefferson and Denver’s protected pick enough to pry Butler from Minnesota? Remember: The Timberwolves gave up Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen for an All-Star who no longer wants to play for them. Thibodeau, GM Scott Layden and owner Glen Taylor are going to find the best deal, and they’re going to find it fast.

Another thing to remember: Wherever Butler is traded, he’s going to seek a max extension. That means a five-year deal worth $189 million that pays 34-year-old Jimmy Butler a $40 million salary. That’s comedy when you consider 28-year-old Butler only played 59 games.

There are a few things Brooklyn should NOT do:

  • Take back Gorgui Dieng’s contract — three years, $45.6 million just doesn’t make sense given their timeline
  • Forfeit any draft picks other than Denver’s protected first-rounder
  • Bank on Irving leaving a championship contender for a team with one star player, an oft-injured star at that.

Butler is a Swiss Army knife, the kind of player that would both thrive in Kenny Atkinson’s offense and jumpstart the Nets’ defense. The Nets need a star, but they don’t need to mortgage their future, again, to land one. They’ve done it before, and they know better than to do it again.

NBA rules favor franchises who draft well and keep their own players. Irving and Butler make better sense for a team like the Knicks, because New York already has a star in Kristaps Porzingis and can exceed the projected $109 million salary cap to re-sign him to a long-term extension next summer.

The Nets have no such superstar, at least not yet. That’s why continuing to build through the draft and trading cap space for draft assets is the way to go.

The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t look for any superstars. They tanked — many would say intentionally — and amassed enough at-bats to hit two home runs in the NBA Draft: Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The Boston Celtics didn’t mortgage their future for any superstar players. They amassed draft picks, used their market and legacy to lure free agents, then pulled the trigger on Irving when the time was right. There are many ways to building a contender, but rushing into signing aging stars isn’t one of them.

The Nets made this mistake before. Sean Marks doesn’t appear to be a man who repeats the mistakes of his predecessors.

Stars don’t want to play for struggling franchises often, and it can be easy to be all-in on a player who wants to be here. But Brooklyn doesn’t need to take a shortcut in its process. It needs to trust it, just like Philadelphia.

The Nets are on the right path. The test, now, is not screwing it up.


11:30 A.M. update: Parker Friedman made a really good case for a Jimmy Butler trade:

Spencer Dinwiddie + Allen Crabbe + Denver’s protected 1st-rounder for Jimmy Butler? It just might be enough to move the needle.