The Knicks made their declaration, drew their line in the sand regarding Jimmy Butler.
“We’re not going to trade our draft picks,” team president Steve Mills told season ticket holders at the equivalent of a Knicks pep rally earlier this week. “We’re going to build this team the right way. What we’re not going to do is trade away assets to get a [free agent] that we can go get on our own later.”
Usually, executives leave wiggle room. Plausible deniability. But that statement from Mills was absolute, broadcast on Facebook for the world to see. It also arrived just one day before Butler met with the Timberwolves to request a trade, telling their brass he prefers three destinations – the Knicks, Nets and Clippers.
This is another test of the patience that Mills and GM Scott Perry have been preaching for the last year. Because there are good reasons to trade for Butler, a free agent in 2019, even if it requires retracting statements and relinquishing one future first-round draft pick.
Most importantly, acquiring Butler (assuming it’s not in exchange for expiring contracts) still leaves the Knicks with enough cap space to sign another max free agent next summer, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving highest on their list. It also makes the Knicks more attractive to those free agents, specifically Irving, who, according to reports, has been plotting to team up with Butler.
Put it another way: the Knicks can go into the summer of 2019 hoping to land either Durant, Irving OR Butler. Or, they can sell Butler on their roster to help land either Durant or Irving. It could be the difference between the formation of a star-studded lineup or totally striking out in the summer 2019, which the Knicks have told everybody they’ve circled.
Of course, there are potential perils to this plan, which is why the Knicks likely won’t engage in serious talks, let alone pull the trigger.
Butler, despite his two-way gifts and elite work rate, is not a transcendent star.
At 29, he’s coming off meniscus surgery, and the Knicks should be questioning whether all those grinding minutes under Tom Thibodeau will hasten a physical breakdown. Trading for Butler also means the Knicks are ready to commit to a five-year extension. It’s a huge gamble for a player who has been dissatisfied in his two NBA stops – Chicago and Minnesota — and this Knicks front office has been averse to such risk.
Patience and no expectations has been the mantra, as boring and uninspiring as that sounds. If James Dolan doesn’t step in and stomp his feet, Butler-to-the-Knicks is not likely to happen via trade, not unless the Timberwolves want to giftwrap their All-Star for Frank Ntilikina and spare parts.
According to ESPN, T-Wolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau is thus far unwilling to trade Butler. The last three superstars who were traded after similar requests – Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard – were all sent to destinations outside of their wishlists. It’s not unfathomable that Butler included the Nets on his list to put pressure on the Knicks. Seven years ago Dolan was motivated to deal for Carmelo Anthony because it kept him out of Brooklyn.
Butler desires New York for the same reasons Anthony did back then – the big market, the exposure, the opportunities for endorsements and to work in glamorous industries. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is good pals with actor Mark Wahlberg and played himself in the 2016 comedy, “Office Christmas Party.”
Butler has ambitions bigger than Minnesota. And based on his desired three teams, it’s safe to say Butler’s priority is not winning basketball games.
But even beyond the market issues, Butler was dogged by rumors that he hated conceding the spotlight to Derrick Rose in Chicago, and that he didn’t get along with Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota. There are flags around Butler, in other words, which may not be red, but at least orange.