Synthesizing Old and New: Analysis of the Jimmy Butler Trade

Unless you have recently emerged from a nuclear bunker after a prolonged sabbatical, it is almost certain that you were aware of the ongoing feud between Jimmy Butler and the Timberwolves organization. Thirteen games into the season and on a five game skid, Thibodeau decided that the Timberwolves can’t win as currently constructed, and dealt Butler along with Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76’ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second round pick. The perception of this trade has been discrepant, though the general consensus is that this trade provides marginal benefit to both teams. We investigate the intricacies of this trade, and whether or not the consensus is valid.

The general trade construction is a common one that is prevalent in most superstar trades of recent memory. A capable veteran along with a promising (save elite) prospect/pick, compounded with filler if needed. Reference the Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Kyrie Irving trades. This trade meets each of the criteria, with the solid veteran piece taking the form of Robert Covington, the prospect materializing as Dario Saric, and Jerryd Bayless availed as the cap filler. Often lost in trades of such structure is the value of the veteran piece. In each of the aforementioned trades, the performance of the veteran with the new team dictates the perception of how successful the trade was.

Extrapolating from this, a key factor in the perception of this trade is the performance of Robert Covington. As a 27 year old 3 and D wing on a four-year contract averaging $11.72 million, Covington is one of the best values in the NBA. In fact, I would stretch to say that Covington is the quintessential hallmark of a modern championship team–a 3 and D player on a bargain of a deal. In our closest point of reference, regard Klay Thompson. Though they are completely different degrees of shooters (Covington shot 7% less from 3 on 1.2 fewer attempts per game), the point of role still stands.

What makes Klay Thompson so conducive to championship basketball is his functionality without err on both sides of the ball. Possessing a usage that nears the average (nearly unheard of among all-stars) and a turnover rate under 10%, there is truly nothing Thompson does offensively that acts as an inhibitor to his team. Likewise, defensively, Thompson frequently matches up with the opponent’s best wing or guard, and this confining defense has been essential to both Warriors championship runs. Above all, the hidden gem of Klay Thompson’s Warriors tenure is his contract. Making up just 13% of the Warriors payroll, Thompson offered the Warriors the flexibility to maintain their Curry-Thomspon-Green core while adding Kevin Durant on top, an acquisition that would prove to be crucial in their three championship run.

All of these attributes are shared by Covington. A Covington offers this same flexibility, as his contract only takes up 8.5% of the possible cap (including luxury tax threshold). With an effective field goal percentage of 56% on 9 shots a game (6 of which are threes), Covington has elite shot selection with substantiated quantity. Though he doesn’t do much in the way of playmaking or shot creation, Covington is an elite off-ball mover and screener, allowing him to score 15.7 points per 36 minutes on a usage of just 14.3 (1.1 points per degree of usage; for reference, Thompson is at 1.13).

Though Covington has a turnover percentage slightly higher than that of Thompson, he compensates through a career free throw rate of 23%, 3.7 percentage points higher than league average and 8.5 points greater than Thompson. This concerted role-conscientiousness offensively makes him an incredibly efficient presence alongside superstars, and thus makes him an offensive asset for a title-contender.

Defensively, his numbers are even more impressive. First-team all defense last year, Covington has seen improvements each year of his career in regards to defensive box plus-minus, and is currently on pace for a career high in percentage of shots contested.

Like Covington, Dario Saric provides contenders with a title necessity: a sixth man. When characterizing a sixth man, one must look at the essential and shared attributes. Looking exclusively at the sixth men of recent championship teams (Iguodala, Jefferson, Allen, Ginobili), the commonality tying all of these players together is solid defense alongside a particular offensive specialty. In the case of Iguodala, it is skewed more defensively, but the fact of the matter remains that this is the most common profile. Saric embodies that mold.

Though Saric lacks the athleticism and positionality of an Iguodala, he compensates through his presence of mind. In watching Saric, it inevitably seems that he is present in every defensive play along the periphery of the restricted area. He stretches out to the perimeter to contest, while maintaining the ability through positioning to keep up with drives despite sub-par length. While not elite, this allows Saric to maintain solid defense nearly throughout the entirety of the half-court, a rarity in the modern NBA.

On the opposite side of the ball, Saric has struggled this season, but outside of this minuscule sample size he has proven to be very good throughout his career. In three seasons, he averages 35% from three on 4.7 attempts per game, allowing him to spread interior defenses quite thin. Though he shoots poorly within the arc (relative to size and position) on 6.6 attempts per game, Saric is incredibly agile and moves very well off-ball, indicating that with added volume alongside more space, Saric has the potential to shoot at a league average clip from the inside. Should Saric become a viable threat from the inside, this only works to enhance his overall game, as interior defensive gravity only opens up the perimeter and off-ball lanes, enabling him to shoot more efficiently with added volume.

For the Timberwolves, a package headlined by Saric and Covington is likely the best they could have hope for in exchange for an aging and potentially cancerous superstar. This trade, while limiting their ceiling, definitively heightens organizational stability and structure. With Covington, they have found a starter for the next four years, and with Saric, they have found an incredibly strong presence off the bench who can provide scoring and can defend. In a theoretical world, Saric is the ideal power forward to pair up with Karl Anthony-Towns. Through his perimeter capabilities (that Gibson lacks), Saric opens up the post for Towns and allows him to facilitate offense through the high block.

If this concept can be applied outside of theory, this could open up Towns’ entire game, and if his usage can match the heightened role he could average in the realm of 28-15-5. Financially, this move potentially allows the Timberwolves to be discount players next offseason, as the expiring contracts of Jerryd Bayless, Taj Gibson, Tyus Jones, and Derrick Rose (assuming no re-sign and Jeff Teague exercises player option) frees up around $6.24 million in pure cap and up to $27 million in space whilst avoiding the luxury tax.

It is important to note that Saric will be up for an extension (2 years remaining on contract), likely in the range of $20 million, but that won’t kick in until the 2020-2021 season. This means that if the market fleshes out on older meddling stars (such as Kris Middleton or Kemba Walker), as it likely will, the Timberwolves could be players for a short-term deal. With sizable luck, such as a Warriors disbandment, the Timberwolves could be in play for a top-three seed in the West, heights that would be made impossible by a long term Jimmy Butler commitment.

Regarding Butler, this is a move that is considered high ceiling, low floor for the Sixers. Butler offers a third superstar to the already elite Simmons and Embiid core, and being off the perimeter variation he theoretically offers what the Sixers lack: shooting. Both Simmons and Embiid are excellent playmakers in their own rights, but neither can create for themselves on the perimeter. Embiid, though improving as a floor-spacer and shooter, is still too inconsistent from three to be considered a legitimate threat, and through 14 games Ben Simmons is yet to attempt a three-pointer.

Adding Butler, the Sixers hope to enforce a perimeter threat, thus opening space for Embiid on the post and Simmons drives. This is the logic of the move that I like. Through adding another high-usage superstar, the Sixers are pacing their offense for an efficiency uptick by abiding by the “125 Theory”.

This theory, one of my own creation, surmises that in a vacuum, the starting lineup of a team should have a usage summing to 125. Of course, it is impossible to reach a usage of 125 among a five-man rotation, as 100 is the only perceivable number. However, the crux of this theory is that through assembling on-ball play-makers who maintain decent efficiency, this forces former on-ball play-makers to work in greater quantities off-ball, thus increasing efficiency as the quantity of shots per player is reduced but the quality is increased (see James Harden and Chris Paul). The Sixers new superstar trio have an average usage of 26.9, and thus fulfill the requirements of this theory.

However, I question the effectiveness of this theory when applied with a core of sub-par perimeter shooters. The theory is evidently contingent upon adequate spacing. Without said spacing and with Simmons off-ball, both Embiid and Simmons would be funneled to the basket, thus decreasing their effectiveness and increasing the defensive perimeter attention on Redick and Butler. Thus, the most probable outcome is Simmons remains as the initiator, forcing Butler to work off-ball and in turn produce more efficiently, with a lessened volume. Simmons as ball-handler equips him with defensive attention on the perimeter, opening cutting lanes for Butler and freeing space for perimeter movement from Redick.

Regarding the Sixers cap situation, it is a dismal one for certain. Entering next summer, the Sixers have Redick, Chandler, Butler, Patton, McConnell, Muscala, and Johnson coming off the books, affording them $60 million under the luxury tax. Of course, Butler has committed to re-signing, likely incurring $30 million, cutting this cap figure by $10 million. This leaves just $49.841 million left with only 7 players signed.

The Sixers own up to six picks in the upcoming draft (5 in the second round), and assuming three make the active roster, this leaves an estimated $40 million left to be distributed among 5 remaining roster spots. Of course, now thrust into the role of a contender, the Sixers likely will be able to sign veterans and slightly discounted deals, but with a competitive market next summer, it is unlikely that the Sixers will be able to shore up their bench enough to provide championship-level depth. To make matters worse, Ben Simmons is up for an extension this summer, and barring catastrophic injury, it is a given that he will receive the 25% max.

Though this figure won’t be applied to the cap until the 2020-2021 season, it likely means that $90 million–70% of the projected cap up to the luxury tax–will be tied up between the likes of Embiid, Butler, and Simmons. This leaves $40 million to be distributed among 12 players without ceding to the luxury tax. Thus, the Sixers financial situation (and an aging Jimmy Butler) make their window of contention very tight, especially so if Markelle Fultz does not pan out.

This is to say, this is not a window-oriented move from the Sixers. They went all-in, disregarding the timeline, potentially dooming Hinkie’s vision. Hinkie afforded the Sixers two legitimate superstars (Simmons drafted from a Hinkie-acquired pick), solid role players (such as Saric and Covington), and a plethora of future high-value picks. Brian Colangelo already worked to soil the process by trading two likely top-five picks to take Markelle Fultz, who at this point might peak as a bench piece.

Suddenly, you turn around, and the aforementioned picks stockpile is depleted. Robert Covington and Dario Saric embodied the process. One, a long-shot D-Leaguer who was given a chance and let their work ethic win out. The other, a mysterious, seemingly mystical European prospect who was boom or bust. Hinkie crafted both into legitimate pieces of a championship team, centered around an organically crafted core. That’s gone. Rather than go with youth, potential, the long window, modern Sixers management opted for the one-year window. Five years down the road, it is not improbable that Jimmy Butler will be the NBA’s worst contract, hindering the prime of Simmons and Embiid and the Sixers best shot at a title. The Sixers mortgaged the future for the present; typically a negative sum investment. They mortgaged a vision for impatience, synthetically creating a do-or-die scenario where it wasn’t present before. It remains to be seen which will win-out.

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