This first appeared in the Sept. 17 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
Sometime Monday, somewhere in the greater Minneapolis area, Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau will have a meeting of the minds ahead of the opening of Timberwolves camp next week. Despite it being the middle of September, the sit-down will start the countdown to another highly anticipated round of free agency.
Butler is just one of several stars — along with Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Al Horford, among others — scheduled to hit the open market next summer. Between now and whenever the NBA decides to reschedule the start of free agency to make it more marketable as a real-time event, every conversation or comment regarding any of them will constitute headline-grabbing news.
Monday will serve as Butler’s turn in the box, beginning what could potentially be a tumultuous season in Minnesota. Not only is Butler an impending free agent, but Karl-Anthony Towns, the team’s young franchise center, has yet to sign a contract extension. There already are rumblings that Thibodeau, who was given full authority over basketball operations when he was hired two years ago, could be in trouble if this season doesn’t go well.
All of that together doesn’t invoke much optimism for Minnesota’s chances of re-signing Butler next summer. In a league where competent wing play is more valuable than ever, a true two-way star like Butler is a rare commodity.
The one knock on him at this point is durability; Butler missed 23 games last year, mainly because of knee surgery, and has missed at least 15 games in four of the last five seasons. Butler’s connection to Thibodeau is strong, though, and Minnesota does have the talent to be in the upper-echelon of the West. The Timberwolves can offer him an extra year and more than $200 million in salary next summer won’t hurt their cause, either.
Still, whatever Butler’s decision turns out to be, speculation won’t stop until the moment he makes it. And he isn’t alone.
All six players named above will be in the same position as Butler. So, too, will young stars such as Towns and Kristaps Porzingis; both could be restricted free agents if they don’t agree to extensions with their current teams. If DeMarcus Cousins proves he is anywhere close to the player during his one-year deal with the Golden State Warriors that he was before tearing his Achilles’ last season he’ll be expecting a big payday, as well.
And all of this will only continue to feed the ever-growing beast that is the NBA’s offseason transaction machine. The NBA, more than any other pro sports league, is fueled by its top-end talent. Over the past 13 years, teams have been required to have one of 11 current or future Hall of Famers — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Dwight Howard — to even consider a chance at playing for a championship, let alone winning one.
That being said, a summer when at least eight former all-stars will be unrestricted free agents will get plenty of attention. Add in the fact that so many teams from the league’s biggest markets will either have oodles of cap space (Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Bulls, 76ers) or will see multiple big-name free agents hit the market — such as the Warriors (Durant and Thompson) and Celtics (Irving and Horford) — and it truly is a perfect storm for a league that thrives on the transaction game like no other.
Butler became the center of attention Friday, when the news of his meeting with Thibodeau was first reported. But there will be reason for that attention to shift elsewhere soon enough. This is what the next 10 months will be like in the NBA — a never-ending rotation of rumors about the future that creates an endless series of story lines to follow.
This has become the NBA’s lifeblood, what has turned the league into a 365-day-a-year reality show. The collection of stars hitting the market next summer will shift that process into overdrive.
And it all starts Monday with Butler and Thibs.
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