The Minnesota Timberwolves have agreed to trade Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick. On an organizational level, this is a rare win-win deal in which both teams get great value. But on an individual level?
The winner of this deal is one Karl-Anthony Towns.
Consider Towns’ history. As a second-year player, Towns averaged 25.1 PPG (54.2% FG, 83.2% FT), 12.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.3 BPG, 0.7 SPG and 2.6 TO … to put himself in the future MVP conversation.
Jimmy Butler joined the team before Towns’ third season, and Towns produced a largely similar stat line, though with fewer points scored. This was logical, as Butler had taken over as the primary offensive option for the Timberwolves and ate into Towns’ shots. But what about this season, Towns’ fourth, when he should be moving more firmly toward his prime?
Through the first nine games that Towns played next to Butler this season, he averaged 15.3 PPG (40.5% FG, 96.3% FT (3.0 FTA)), 10.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG and 3.4 TO.
This would be a dramatic fall-off for Towns, almost unprecedented for a player of his ability.
As a comparison, let’s examine the first four seasons for five other star big men who entered the NBA at age 19 or 20, similar to Towns: Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh. The following were their average player efficiency rating (PER) scores in each of their first four seasons:
Rookie: 17.1 PER
Year 2: 20.9 PER
Year 3: 23.8 PER
Year 4: 24.3 PER
On the whole, big men of this level tend to improve pretty steadily from their late teenage years up through their first several seasons. Here is the progression of yearly PER for Towns, with all 13 of his Year 4 games factored in, including those played without Butler:
Rookie: 22.5 PER
Year 2: 25.9 PER
Year 3: 24.9 PER
Year 4: 20.8 PER
First, note that Towns was ahead of the average of the other five through each of the first three seasons before his slow start in Year 4. Second, not only did the group of five average their highest combined PER in Year 4, but none of the five set a new career low in PER in Year 4. Thus, Towns’ performance this season with Butler in the lineup seemed almost unsustainably terrible unless he had a hidden injury.
The main argument against a hidden injury to Towns? Butler has sat out three games, and Towns played in all of them.
Add in the most recent game, when Butler and Towns played together the night before the big trade was publicly announced, and in those four games, Towns averaged 30.3 PPG (54.8% FG, 87.9% FT), 11.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.0 BPG and 2.0 TO.
Numbers that, in fact, one would expect from Towns if he were on the usual fourth-year plan of big men of his ilk. Thus, it’s probably not an injury that has held Towns back. His issues seem to correlate exactly with Butler’s being around with no indication that he was going to be traded.
The elephant in the room is that Butler reportedly had an acrimonious relationship with Towns, along with Andrew Wiggins, and this friction is credited as a primary reason why Butler wanted a trade.
Well, Butler got his wish. And if Towns’ play without Butler thus far is an accurate indication of what he will do moving forward, then fantasy managers with Towns on their team just got their wish granted as well.
The 76ers won this trade because they just made a power move that seems likely to vault them into legitimate championship contention for the foreseeable future.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are two of the most talented young players in the NBA, but the team needed someone who could create consistent offense for himself and his team off the dribble and also had the ability to knock down jumpers when the defense packs in. The 76ers hoped that they had that in former top overall pick Markelle Fultz, but Fultz is still struggling to reach that level after losing his rookie season to injury.
Butler, on the other hand, is exactly that player. He has strengths in all of the 76ers’ areas of weakness, and on top of that, he is an excellent wing defender, a tough competitor, and he’s never shown any fear of the big moment or the big matchup.
On the downside, the 76ers gave up two very good players in Covington and Saric who played a lot of minutes. The team will need to adjust to their absence, and there will be more minutes and production available than Butler can absorb by himself.
Simmons (31.8 MPG), JJ Redick (30.9 MPG), Fultz (24.3 MPG), Mike Muscala (20.6 MPG), Landry Shamet (19.8 MPG) and Wilson Chandler (13.7 MPG, still recovering from injury) could see increases in playing time and activity after the move.
Shamet and Muscala seem most likely to see bigger minutes in the short term as they are both frontcourt options, while Chandler could be a winner in the long run once he gets healthy.
The Timberwolves also won this trade because the expectation was that they would not be able to get close to value in a Butler trade due to his upcoming free agency and his public trade demands. However, in Saric and Covington, the Timberwolves got two very good, starting-caliber forwards who are both young enough to be part of their core.
Saric has been a productive starter during the Embiid/Simmons era, but he came onto the scene around the same time as them and was often overshadowed by their greatness in somewhat overlapping roles. During his rookie season, though, with Simmons and Embiid sidelined by injury, Saric produced a 20-game stretch during which he averaged 20.0 PPG (47.0% FG, 80.7% FT), 8.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.6 3PG, 1.1 SPG and 0.7 BPG with 2.7 TO.
Saric was underutilized in Philadelphia, and while he’ll have to compete with Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng for power forward minutes in Minnesota, Saric has the talent to flirt with 20/10 averages while stretching the floor from the 4-spot. If he gets the minutes, he could flourish for the Timberwolves.
Covington is a player who has had much more impact than he is often credited with, because he makes so much of his impact on defense. Covington finished 25th in the NBA in real plus-minus (RPM) during the 2016-17 season, and upped that to eighth in the NBA during the 2017-18 season. He accomplished this huge impact primarily on defense, where he finished fourth in defensive RPM (DRPM) in 2016-17 and third in 2017-18.
The Timberwolves desperately need help on defense, where they currently rank 29th in the NBA with 116.5 points allowed per 100 possessions after finishing 27th, 27th and 28th in that stat during the previous three seasons. Covington is also a strong 3-point shooter, having knocked down at least 2.0 3PG on an average of 35.9 3FG% during the past four-plus seasons.
The biggest question mark is how the minutes will break down in the Timberwolves’ frontcourt moving forward. Towns’ roughly 35 minutes are guaranteed at center, but Saric, Covington, Wiggins, Gibson, Anthony Tolliver and Dieng are all natural forwards who will be fighting for the remaining 110 frontcourt minutes.
While Wiggins could conceivably ease the pressure by spending more time at the 2, there are still more contributors than there are minutes in the mix. However, Saric and Covington instantly slot in as the second- and third-best players on the team, even ahead of anything that Wiggins has ever shown, and thus should earn their share of the minutes.
Winners and losers
Overall, Towns is the player whose numbers should benefit the most with this trade. He was drafted as a top-five player in many fantasy leagues, and with Butler gone, he should play up to that level and perhaps beyond. Butler’s numbers might take a bit of a hit in Philadelphia, as both Embiid and Simmons are still at the top of the offensive pecking order.
Covington’s production likely won’t change much if he gets minutes, but Saric has the potential to improve significantly in Minnesota. Wiggins is an enigma, as always, and will likely vie with Jeff Teague and the newly resurgent Derrick Rose to become the primary backcourt scoring threat for the Timberwolves. He still has yet to show that he can do anything else at a high level, though he could really benefit from picking up a good bit of Covington’s 3-and-D game.
The 76ers could also see a previously unheralded player like Shamet or Muscala develop into a viable fantasy option by absorbing some of the departed minutes, so their next few games are worth keeping an eye on as well.