Jimmy Butler was the Timberwolves’ best and most valuable player last season. The Wolves were 37-22 with their star guard in the lineup during the 2017-18 campaign, and 10-13 when he was out.
He’s the biggest reason Minnesota ended its 14-year playoff drought. On many occasions throughout the season, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said Butler “changed everything.”
“We know how important he is,” Thibodeau said Thursday, “and we feel he’s one of the best players in the league.”
His resume suggests as much. Butler is a four-time all-star who has made All-NBA third team each of the past two seasons. But how long will he be in Minnesota? There’s one more year on Butler’s contract before a player option for the 2019-20 season that he’s sure to decline. The only way for Thibodeau and Co. to guarantee one of the game’s top two-way players stays in Minnesota for years to come is to extend Butler’s contract this offseason. Forget free agency, Butler’s contract situation is the biggest issue facing the Wolves this offseason.
“Every day we work at it,” Thibodeau said of a possible extension for Butler. “I think how you manage that on a daily basis is important. I think our communication with him is important.”
But striking a deal is easier said than done. Minnesota could offer Butler a straight four-year extension worth about $110 million this summer, but that would require Butler leaving a lot of money on the table, which isn’t going to happen. If the Wolves want to lock Butler in now, they’ll likely have to re-negotiate his contract, which would involve essentially ripping up the final year of the guard’s contract and signing him to a 5-year max deal worth somewhere in the ballpark of $177 million.
To do that, Minnesota would have to move enough money to go from well over the salary cap to under it, which doesn’t seem likely. Still, when confronted with that issue, Thibodeau said “there’s options” for the Wolves to get that done.
It would almost certainly involve finding a trade partner to take on the remaining three years and $48 million of Gorgui Dieng’s contract, which wouldn’t be easy, and/or dealing 23-year-old Andrew Wiggins, which the Wolves don’t seem ready to do.
If Minnesota can’t clear the cap space, Butler will go into what will certainly be the last year of his contract. Next offseason, Minnesota would be able to offer Butler a five-year deal worth up to $187 million, depending on where the league salary cap landed, while other teams could only offer Butler a four-year deal worth around $140 million.
So the money would still be in the Wolves’ corner in 2019, but would that be enough? Thibodeau said he has “a pretty good understanding of what makes (Butler) tick.”
One of those things, Thibodeau noted, was “the chance to win big.” He’s not wrong. Butler wants to win at the highest level. But can he do that in Minnesota? The Wolves were in good shape to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last season before Butler went down with a torn meniscus that kept him out of 17 games. He returned just in time to help the Wolves clinch a playoff spot, and Minnesota was bounced by Houston in the first round.
Minnesota could be poised to make a leap in the Western Conference should Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns progress. Maybe that’s what Thibodeau is banking on, because if the Wolves don’t show they’re capable of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future, Butler could be bolting next offseason in search of greener pastures.
“From the time he got here, we understood how important he is,” Thibodeau said. “I know the type of environment he’s looking for, and I think when you look at the players we have here, I think that’s appealing. So all those things factor into it.”
Potentially losing the star wing for nothing next summer would be a tough pill for Minnesota swallow after dealing for Butler last offseason. If the Wolves don’t lock up Butler long term this offseason, they seem to have two options — trade Butler this summer or during the season to salvage some value, or roll the dice in 2019.