The Jimmy Butler Trade Request saga has been strange to watch for people who have paid attention to the Boston Celtics over the last few years.
After all, in the past, the Celtics have been embedded in talks whenever a star player is disgruntled and looking for a new situation. With young prospects, picks and friendly contracts up and down their roster, the Celtics always had the pieces to make deals work (and their attractive assets made them a team others wanted involved, if only to drive up the price).
The Celtics have made it clear they are happy with the current team as constructed, and Butler’s trade request from the Minnesota Timberwolves holds a lot less intrigue, aside from the general drama reported by Adrian Wojnarowski and Rachel Nichols yesterday.
But at various times over the last two years, the Celtics seemed very close to trading for Butler. The closest may have been prior to the 2016 NBA Draft, when they pulled back and simply drafted Jaylen Brown instead of picking Kris Dunn on behalf of Chicago. So purely out of curiosity (and — this is important — purely based in speculation): How different would the current Celtics look if they had traded for Butler instead of drafting Brown?
For starters, obviously, Brown isn’t with the team. We can also cross Gordon Hayward off the roster, since the Celtics wouldn’t have had max money available to outright sign him in the summer of 2017 with Butler’s deal on the books.
Do the Celtics still have enough assets to pull off the deal for Kyrie Irving in that scenario? Probably. Given what the Timberwolves gave up to acquire Butler, it seems incredibly unlikely Boston would have dealt multiple Brooklyn picks to get him (and Chicago demanding multiple Brooklyn picks probably would have ended negotiations).
So the Celtics still would have had Isaiah Thomas, and they still would have had the 2018 Nets pick, which were the two main negotiating points in their deal for Irving (whether or not Boston would have included Jae Crowder in this scenario is a little unclear, since he and Butler are friendly).
In any case, the Celtics still would have been able to pull off the Great Jayson Tatum Heist, if they wanted. But the more intriguing question is whether they would have pushed harder for Paul George if Butler was on the team. After all, there would have been less reason to build around a younger window without Brown. The Celtics certainly liked Tatum, but a Thomas, Butler, George and Horford core (with the knowledge Boston may have had that Irving could spring free later in the summer) might have been more intriguing than an unproven rookie.
So if the Celtics had traded for Butler, their core after the summer of 2017 likely would have looked something like Irving, Butler, Tatum and Horford, or Irving, Butler, George and Horford.
Those scenarios beg other questions. Are Irving, George and Horford maniacal enough to keep Butler happy? Would George, who seems to enjoy OKC, have wanted to stay in Boston? Is Irving still The Guy on that team, and if not, does he still tell season-ticket holders he wants to stick around?
Which of those three timelines produces the best short-term squad is a little unclear. George and Butler are both top-20 players, and if the Irving/George/Butler/Horford squad got along, they would be versatile, switchable monsters. Tatum showed last year he’s ready to be considered a star, so perhaps his bucket-getting takes yet another step forward in the Irving/Horford/Butler/Tatum eventuality.
But the present squad has quite clearly the brightest and longest future window. If Hayward returns to full health at any point this year and the Celtics overcome the same chemistry issues the other squads would have faced, they might even be better in the short term.
The other timelines would have produced excellent teams — almost certainly contenders — but the Celtics are pretty thrilled with this one. Boston might have had a better experience with Butler than Minnesota (whose experience seems like the worst-case scenario), but the Timberwolves are a reminder that sometimes trades for stars turn disastrous.