MINNEAPOLIS — In athletic competitions, every loss counts exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if your team loses in a hard-fought triple-overtime battle or in a 50-point blowout. In the standings, a loss is a loss is a loss.
But in NBA front office dealings, wins and losses aren’t binary things. They require context and nuance. Every loss is not the same. There’s the loss with the little L; sure, the other team got the slightly better haul in the trade, but not by much. There’s the Loss with the Big L, where the entire league is abuzz about how one general manager stole another general manager’s lunch money. And then there’s the all-caps LOSS, which equals something more than a loss. It’s the abject failure of an entire franchise.
The loss that the Minnesota Timberwolves chalked up on Saturday, when they reportedly finally traded their vocally disenchanted superstar Jimmy Butler, was of the little-L loss variety.
Given the context of the rotten situation that the Butler fiasco put Tom Thibodeau, Scott Layden and the entire Timberwolves organization through, this little-L loss felt a lot more like a win.
And Thibodeau, who has taken the brunt of the blame for this disastrous turn in Minnesota, gets a bit of redemption.
Thibodeau being willing to wait to pull the trigger on a deal for nearly two months after Butler’s trade demand became public allowed him to get a better deal than the potential deals that have been reported in recent weeks.
In exchange for Butler and dead-weight forward Justin Patton, the Timberwolves got forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric, guard Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-rounder. That’s two starter-caliber forwards on team-friendly deals. Covington is signed for three more seasons after this one at an average of slightly above $12 million a year. In Covington, the Timberwolves get a 39-percent three-point shooter who was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team last season. Saric is signed through next season, and the Timberwolves could extend a qualifying offer of $4.8 million to him for the 2020-21 season. In Saric, the Timberwolves get another long three-point shooter who presents matchup problems for opponents and can gobble up rebounds.
Did the Timberwolves get a top-15 player in exchange for their top-15 player? No. Of course they didn’t. That never happens in trades like this.
That’s why this trade is a little-L loss. The NBA is a stars league, and the Timberwolves lost a star without getting one in return. In essence, they traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen — what they initially gave up to get Butler — for Covington and Saric. On paper, that doesn’t look like a win.
But it’s not a Big-L loss.
A Big-L loss would have been Thibodeau, or owner Glen Taylor, panicking at the Timberwolves’ miserable start to the season — they’re 4-9, third-to-last in the West, having gone 0-8 on the road and lost their last five games — and taking the easiest offer available. If the Timberwolves had traded Butler to the Houston Rockets for four protected first-round picks — picks that likely wouldn’t have been very high, and with the potential of at least one of those four picks disappearing altogether — that would have been a Big-L loss.
And an all-caps LOSS would have been for Butler to hang around the Timberwolves all season, destroying the team’s chemistry before leaving in free agency at the end of the season. Losing a top-15 NBA player (or a top-10 NBA player, depending on your view of Butler) for nothing would have been an unmitigated disaster.
What Thibodeau got was, on the whole, pretty good. The Timberwolves — who have moved into the modern NBA this season as they have shot eight more three-pointers a game than last season, when they took fewer threes than any other team — added two excellent shooters on team-friendly deals. They didn’t get as much salary-cap relief as they might have liked — Gorgui Dieng is still on the payroll for two more seasons after this one — but they gave themselves more salary-cap flexibility. In context, this little-L loss looks like a win.
In talking with NBA executives the past several weeks, there have been a couple of consistent themes when they spoke about the Butler/Timberwolves saga. One was that executives were incredibly confused with what was happening in Minnesota — how there never seemed to be a consistent storyline coming out of the front office, and how executives were completely uncertain about what sort of haul Thibodeau could realistically ask for. The other theme was that they felt empathy for Thibodeau and Layden. While Timberwolves’ fans have taken their Butler-related rage out on Thibs, the fact remains that both Thibs and Layden are widely respected among their colleagues.
Trade requests happen all the time in the NBA — it’s part of the game — but rarely do they consume as much emotional energy as this Butler trade request has. Part of the blame certainly lies with the Timberwolves for not dealing Butler over the summer. But the majority of the blame for this disastrous situation is the fault of Butler, an alpha male among alpha males, someone with one of the biggest and most strident personalities in the NBA — and, according to executives I’ve spoken with, a player who has transformed in recent years from a hungry, me-against-the-world underdog story into an ego-driven star who can tear at the fiber of a team.
The 76ers took a necessary risk in acquiring Butler. When you have a chance to get a top-15 player, you do it. The trade vaulted the Sixers from a team that appeared destined for the second tier in the East, behind the Toronto Raptors and, perhaps, the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, into a title contender. Las Vegas’ odds for the Sixers to win the East immediately rose from 7-1 to 3-1 after the trade news broke.
But make no mistake: It is a risk. Executives around the league worry about two things with Butler: Whether his injury history — the 29-year-old has missed 15 or more games in four of his past five seasons — and past heavy minutes load makes a max contract exceedingly risky. (ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers and Butler “have every intention” of signing a long-term deal this summer.) The other concern: whether Butler’s electrifying personality has the chance of short-circuiting the delicate chemistry of an NBA team. That’s what has happened in his past two stops; will it happen in Philadelphia as well? But the Sixers now have a big three. It’s a risk worth taking.
The risk for the Timberwolves was more about waiting too long to trade him. What if the trade market evaporated? What if no better deals came around? What if Butler got injured, killing his trade value? What if they lost a top-15 player for nothing, and took the all-caps LOSS that would be the worst possible scenario?
The Timberwolves did not get equal value for this top-15 player. You never do. But they jettisoned a volatile player who has turned the franchise upside down the past couple months. And they sent him to the East, so the Timberwolves don’t have to deal with Butler in their own conference. Now the Timberwolves have an intriguing roster. A lineup of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Karl-Anthony Towns feels like a lineup made for the modern, spread-the-floor NBA. Plus they have some nice other pieces as well: The revitalized Derrick Rose, the promising rookie Josh Okogie, the sweet-shooting Anthony Tolliver and the veteran leader Taj Gibson. Minnesota fans should recognize that Thibs took a no-win situation and ended up making something positive out of it.
So take the L, Minnesota. Because given the context, this L isn’t really an L at all.