The Sixers, who got off to a middling 8-5 start, decided to swing big and gamble on Butler, 29, even though he can become a free agent July 1. It was the first major move for Philadelphia’s rookie general manager, Elton Brand, who was elevated to his post Sept. 20.
Re-signing Butler this summer will be imperative for the Sixers after having surrendered dependable talents like Saric and Covington. But Philadelphia clearly felt as if it had to strike now, after watching one All-Star swingman, Paul George, re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency last summer without ever really considering the Sixers — and then seeing the Toronto Raptors trade for another, Kawhi Leonard.
Although the West remains the far deeper conference, competition at the top of the East is especially fierce given the strong team that the Boston Celtics have assembled, as well as the flashy starts made by the Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. If Butler meshes with Embiid and Simmons, Philadelphia will have made the East’s upper crust even more formidable.
Because Philadelphia will possess Butler’s so-called Larry Bird rights, he is eligible in July to receive a five-year maximum contract from them for an estimated $190 million. Teams that try to sign Butler away from the Sixers will be restricted to offering a four-year maximum at an estimated $141 million.
The Timberwolves ultimately chose a trade that gave them multiple starter-level players who can try to fill the void created by Butler’s departure. The move brings a premature and disappointing end to what Thibodeau undoubtedly hoped would be a long continuation of his successful partnership with Butler in Chicago.
Despite the turmoil of the past eight weeks, there has been no denying Butler’s impact in Minnesota, where he spent only one full season. With Butler on the floor in 2017-18, the Wolves ended a 13-season playoff drought and briefly rose as high as third in the West.
When Thibodeau traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a draft pick (that became the prized Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen) for Butler, he couldn’t have foreseen having to send him elsewhere so soon.
It appeared that the Wolves had the leader they badly needed to guide their prized young duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But rumblings of Butler’s discontent began in earnest in July, convincing numerous rival teams that the Wolves would ultimately have to trade Butler rather than risk losing him in free agency without compensation.