How much is Jimmy Butler worth in a trade?
According to the latest reporting from ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski, the high demands of Minnesota Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau have scuttled the possibility of satisfying Butler’s request for a trade so far. Other teams believe that if Thibodeau is willing to trade Butler at all, he wants to recoup the same value the Timberwolves gave up to get Butler from the Chicago Bulls last June.
Realistically, Butler’s trade value is lower now that he’s heading into what will likely be the final season of his contract. (Butler has a $19.8 million player option for 2019-20 that he will decline barring serious injury.) So what is an appropriate expectation for Butler’s trade value?
Butler’s value in 2018-19
There’s no doubt that a healthy Butler will be a good value this season, when he’ll count $20.4 million against the cap as part of the max contract he signed with the Bulls prior to the NBA salary cap increasing rapidly when the league’s current TV deals kicked in. That’s the league’s 40th-highest cap hit. Butler counts less than Danilo Gallinari ($21.6 million), Chandler Parsons ($24.1 million) and teammate Andrew Wiggins ($25.5 million).
Based on a combination of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric and ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM), I project Butler as providing 13.9 wins above replacement this season, good for seventh in the NBA. If that sounds high, remember two important factors working in Butler’s favor: He finished fourth in RPM last season and plays the wing spots that have proved most difficult to replace in recent seasons.
The caveat to that value is Butler is being projected for 75 games by my SCHOENE projection system, which would be the third-highest total of his career. Butler has missed an average of 15 games over the past five seasons, including 23 last season, when he underwent surgery on the meniscus in his right knee after the All-Star break. If we prorate Butler’s value to 67 games, he drops to 12.5 wins above replacement and 13th in the league — near where Butler finished in our NBArank voting (14th).
The time Butler missed in 2017-18 did reinforce his value. Minnesota went 10-13 in the 23 games Butler sat out, a 36-win pace over a full season. With Butler healthy, the Timberwolves went 37-22, a 51-win pace. Because of the players they’d have to give up, a team dealing for Butler can’t quite count on that kind of leap. Nonetheless, after a reasonable trade Butler would still make whatever team ultimately lands him more competitive this season.
Butler’s value on his next contract
The team that trades for Butler will get full Bird rights to potentially re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s where things start to get trickier. Butler will be able to command a huge raise, with an estimated max starting salary of $32.7 million. That would translate into a maximum five-year deal using Bird rights worth $190 million, as compared to a max deal of four years and $141 million with another team.
At the beginning of a max contract, Butler may still be a solid value. Historically, I’ve found that each win above replacement costs teams about 3.5 percent of the salary cap in free agency. Since Butler’s max salary will start at 30 percent of the cap, that means he’d have to produce at least about 8.5 WARP per season to live up to his deal. My multiyear projections suggest Butler producing 12.9 wins above replacement in 2019-20 and 10.3 in 2020-21, the first two years of his next contract. (That’s based on the full 13.9 wins above replacement this season as a starting point.)
Three years is as far out as my projections go. To look deeper into Butler’s next deal, we can utilize FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system, which goes further into the future using the development of similar players. Translating their wins above replacement metric to the same scale I’m using, CARMELO projects Butler as producing 8.6 wins above replacement in 2021-22, 7.6 in 2022-23 and 5.9 in 2023-24 at age 34. That makes it clear that unless Butler can age better than typical players of his ilk, he’ll be heavily overpaid on the back half of a five-year max deal.
It’s probably more realistic that Butler will age quicker than average, given his injury history and the heavy workload he has carried throughout his career. Butler led the league by playing 38.7 minutes per game in 2014-15 under Thibodeau in Chicago and has ranked in the NBA’s top four in minutes per game each of the past five seasons.
Trade value contingent on situation
Considering all of the factors discussed in the previous section, I think it’s likely a five-year max deal for Butler would ultimately prove a bad investment for his new team. Frankly, a team that knew it could sign Butler in free agency next summer would be better off waiting and getting him on a four-year max deal with smaller raises from season to season (capped at 5 percent when changing teams, as compared to max 8 percent raises using Bird rights).
As a result, there are two compelling factors that make a Butler trade worth doing now. First, there’s the value of having him on the roster this season, which is considerable. Based on the cost of a win in free agency this summer (a little more than $2 million), the conservative projection for Butler’s 2018-19 value still makes him worth at least $7 million more than his cap hit, equivalent to the surplus value of a 2019 first-round pick in the late teens. If teams believe Butler can stay as healthy as projected by SCHOENE, he’d potentially provide as much surplus value as a 2019 first-round pick in the top 10.
Second, some teams — most notably the Miami Heat — can’t sign Butler in free agency next summer because they don’t have salary-cap space. Miami would have to make a trade to get Butler, either now or via sign-and-trade as a free agent.
Given that the teams on Butler’s original list of desired destinations ( Brooklyn Nets, LA Clippers and New York Knicks) aren’t realistically contenders this season with him, the Heat appear to represent Minnesota’s best chance of getting value in a trade. Assuming the Timberwolves’ asking price becomes more reasonable, Miami may determine the value of contending for home-court advantage in the first round this season and potentially re-signing Butler next summer is worth the cost.