Revisiting Bulls' Jimmy Butler trade from 2017: Who won? Did anyone?


On Monday, the Jimmy Butler trade becomes a toddler. The Bulls swapped their one-time franchise centerpiece plus a first-round draft pick (Justin Patton) to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft (Lauri Markkanen) on June 22, 2017.

And on the blockbuster’s three-year anniversary, with both the Bulls and Timberwolves on the outside looking in of the NBA’s impending 22-team season restart, it feels a fair question: Who won the deal? Did anyone?

First, it bears remembering that both clubs consummated with polar motives. For the Bulls, the trade began the dismantling of the “Three Alphas” in favor of a full-fledged rebuild centered around LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, coach Fred Hoiberg and whatever future lottery picks their future losing ways might have yielded. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, nabbed a bonafide two-way superstar to augment their fresh-faced nucleus of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, surely seeking to set themselves up for a short-term energy boost and, in turn, sustained success in the long-term.

So, each team’s level of success should be examined through those lenses. Let’s break down where the Bulls, Timberwolves and Butler stand three years to the day that all of their trajectories changed forever:

Immediate reaction

In the moment, the return for Butler — then a consensus elite-tier player with two years remaining on a supremely team-friendly five-year $92 million deal — was widely panned, especially given the Bulls’ inclusion of their own first-round pick. 

LaVine had flashed major scoring promise in his third season, but it was cut short by a torn ACL in his left knee which he was still rehabbing. Dunn had been the Bulls’ white whale since the 2016 draft, but struggled to find backcourt playing time for a 31-win Minnesota team in his rookie season, averaging just 3.8 points on 37.7% shooting across 78 games (17.1 minutes per). Markkanen’s blend of size, shooting (42.3% 3P in his freshman season at Arizona) and potential offensive versatility made him an intriguing prospect exiting the draft, but that was all, of course, still hypothetical.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves, helmed by old pal Tom Thibodeau, received the best player (and asset) in the deal by a country mile, the possible final piece to vaulting them from rebuild mode to moderate contention. In Butler, they had a high-level scorer, sublime perimeter defender and tough-minded tone-setter that projected to not only hike their win total, but also burgeon the growth of promising yet one-dimensional cornerstones in Wiggins and Towns. A reigning three-time All-Defensive second-teamer and All-Star, Butler provided the perfect complement for a team rated 27th in defense the year prior and searching for a defined identity.

What’s happened since: Bulls

A rebuild — through the first two years, one that showed promise, but in the third, effectively stalled.

As for the players the Bulls turned Butler into: LaVine, who faced questions about how he would recover from that aforementioned ACL tear, has blossomed into a premier scorer in Chicago. In each of the past two full seasons since his return from injury, he’s bumped his scoring average, usage rate and 3-point percentage; amid a disappointing team-wide 2019-20 campaign, specifically, he posited his highest career points per game mark (25.5) and established himself as a leader in the Bulls’ locker room. To this point, he’s far outperformed the four-year $78 million offer sheet (which has two full years remaining on it) the Bulls matched coming off his stilted, 24-game return in 2017-18. It’s hard to have asked more from LaVine, given his circumstances.

Markkanen’s ceiling remains largely theoretical after a down third season in which he averaged career lows in points and rebounds, and shot career-worst percentages from the floor and 3-point range in fluctuating (but too sparse) playing time. His sophomore season provides the basis of much of the optimism about his long-term fit with the team. In it, he averaged a cool 18.7 points and nine rebounds per contest and enjoyed a scalding-hot February that will be talked about in Bulls lore for years to come. But with rookie extension negotiations looming this offseason, his development hasn’t been linear and he’s appeared in 102 of a possible 147 games over the past two seasons.

Dunn’s Bulls tenure got off to a bumpy start, and trade rumors colored his 2019 offseason. He absorbed those, and a new reserve role with the signing of Tomas Satoransky and drafting of Coby White, and forged the best overall year of his career to date, establishing himself as one of the most tenacious, heady and versatile point-of-attack defenders in the NBA. A fluke MCL sprain sustained against the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 31 cut short a season in which he helped anchor an over-performing Bulls defense (seventh in defensive rating when he went down) and was second in the league in total steals playing just 24.9 minutes per game. But, already 26, Dunn enters restricted free agency in a fraught cap environment and without a clear market for his services — the jury is out on his long-term fit with the Bulls. 

All of which is to say, the return for Butler, which was derided at the time, has been a mixed bag. That would be forgivable if the rebuild the move catalyzed was further along, but the Bulls own just a 71-158 record since June 22, 2017, Hoiberg lasted just a season and change after the organization parted with Butler, and Jim Boylen’s first full season as head coach — one that demanded tangible progress — was littered with injuries, stagnation and just 22 wins (the same as the prior season, though in 17 fewer games). 

That general dishevelment led to wide-spanning front office changes for the Bulls during the league’s coronavirus-induced hiatus; with the 2019-20 season paused, Michael Reinsdorf hired Arturas Karnisovas as the team’s new executive president of basketball operations, who has installed Marc Eversley at general manager in place of Gar Forman, and added notable names in areas such as scouting (Pat Connelly, VP of player personnel) and cap-ology (J.J. Polk, assistant general manager).

All signs point to a new era in Chicago. But the foundation of the roster — from LaVine and Markkanen to the ensuing lottery picks born out of the Bulls’ rebuild (Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, [insert 2020 choice here] — for the most part still derives in one way or another from the Butler trade.

What’s happened since: Timberwolves

Minnesota’s post-Butler-trade path — if you can believe it — may be even more topsy-turvy. In Butler’s first year with the team, all of their hopes at the time of the deal appeared to come to fruition. While the Timberwolves’ defensive metrics remained static from 2016-17 to 2017-18, their offensive rating rank jumped from 10th to fourth, their record from 31-51 to 47-35, and their standing in a loaded Western Conference from 13th to eighth. Butler and Towns both earned All-Star selections (Towns’ first) and Minnesota snapped a 13-year postseason drought. A feather in Butler and Thibodeau’s caps, to this day, given the franchise’s present state. 

But the tables turned, and did so quickly. In the run-up to the 2018-19 season — a contract year — Butler submitted a trade request while making clear he had no intention of re-signing in Minnesota. Three weeks later, he showed up to a mid-October practice, and vocally lashed out at Thibodeau and miscellaneous Timberwolves executives and players. Thirteen games into the season, he was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second round pick, and Thibodeau was dismissed in January 2019. 

(Obligatory: Patton — who the Timberwolves’ selected with the first-rounder the Bulls sweetened the original Butler deal with — spent the majority of 2017-18 with Minnesota’s G League affiliate, and was tagged onto Butler in the deal with the 76ers. He signed on the cheap with the Oklahoma City Thunder last offseason, but was traded to the Mavericks in January and waived shortly thereafter. He’s thus far appeared in nine career NBA games.)

Since the Butler-Philadelphia trade, the Timberwolves have plunged into a second rebuild of sorts constructed around Towns and D’Angelo Russell (acquired in a deal that included one-time cornerstone Wiggins) under new executive leadership in Gersson Rosas. They’ve also flipped the tenets of the second Butler deal in Covington (for Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and a lottery-protected 2020 first from Brooklyn) and Saric (to trade up for the draft pick that became Jarrett Culver). 

Wheels are spinning, to be sure. But Minnesota finished the truncated 2019-20 season 19-45 and shipped out their 2021 first round pick (top-three protected) in the trade that netted Russell. A long, uphill battle begins for another franchise left far worse off by Butler’s departure than before.

So, who won?

Though it sounds strange to say, the only principle close to being able to declare victory in this trade is Butler, himself. He’s wiggled out of two unpalatable situations since leaving Chicago in Minnesota and Philadelphia — all the while demonstrating his on-court value and ending the trail with a max contract — and is now settled with the Miami Heat on a pact that (as of this writing) will pay him $108,048,600 over the next three seasons. Entering the 2019-20 season restart, Miami owns the best record of the aforementioned three teams (41-24) and is set up for a bright future with budding superstar Bam Adebayo and a stable of promising youngsters surrounding Butler.

“Everything is phenomenal now. Like I tell everybody, I’m happy, man,” Butler told NBC Sports Chicago back in November when the Heat (then 10-3) visited the United Center. “We’re winning. We’re competing at a high level. Organization is great — people around it, teammates … This place fits for me.”

While the Timberwolves have cycled through multiple full-roster iterations since Butler’s departure, there’s still time for the Bulls to earn some brownie points for the deal, too. To this point, LaVine has carried his individual share, Markkanen, with an extended offseason and under the guidance of new front office leadership, could very conceivably right the ship, and despite his flaws, Dunn has carved an impactful niche for himself in the league (though how impactful new management sees that niche being remains to be seen).

But with no offense intended to Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen have emerged as the two sets of shoulders the legacy of this trade rests upon. Entering the rebuild’s third season, they were billed as cornerstone pieces, but an underwhelming campaign that saw the two of them rarely play well in concert unfortunately calls into question their long-term viability as a pairing. It still makes all the sense in the world on paper. Even as questions about both’s defense linger, Markkanen’s size, agility and shooting prowess should make him an incredibly potent pick-and-roll partner for a player with as much dynamism and gravitational pull as LaVine, at the least. But the two each scored 20 points or more in the same game just six times this season, as the Bulls’ offensive rating languished in the bottom three of the league for the vast majority of 2019-20.

With front office changes instituted, LaVine entering the second-to-last-year of his current deal and Markkanen entering a contract year, the clock is ticking on the core of this rebuild to push the project into its next phase. And if the path the Butler trade thrust the Bulls down features some dead ends, so be it.

Perhaps the greatest blessing is the new regime need not ultimately be beholden to columns like this one.

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