Nylon Calculus: How were Paul George and Jimmy Butler gotten for so little?

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 26: Jimmy Butler
CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 26: Jimmy Butler /

The free agency frenzy has been an exciting one so far, but there are a couple of trades — Paul George and Jimmy Butler — have really defined the offseason so far. Usually we see similar patterns year-to-year with only a few surprises, but there were two traded fairly close to each and for similarly perplexing returns. Team-building is tough, and landing a star can be nigh impossible. But sometimes they can be grabbed for next to nothing — and that should be a point of optimism.

Paul George and his ultimate role

For an All-Star in his prime with an Olympic resume, Paul George got traded for a fairly paltry package. There was Victor Oladipo, who’s a starting caliber player but not much more than that — and he has no outstanding strengths. He’s 25 now, and barring a sudden jump in his ball-handling skills I don’t see much growth going forward. The second player traded was Domantas Sabonis, who had an underwhelming rookie year and wasn’t particularly loved during the draft itself; he may have just been loved by Indiana (Looking at some versions of Chad Ford’s mock drafts, Indiana was pegged to take him 20th). And, well, that’s it — there was no pick attached or no other player involved. As has been pointed out before, it was the exact same package used a year ago in the Serge Ibaka trade, who was also on the last year of his contract.

Actually, Paul George being in the last year of his deal does partly explain why he was traded for a starter and a mediocre rookie — just partly. There’s this belief that he’ll go to the Los Angeles Lakers after the next season, for whatever reason. I can understand his love for a favorite childhood team and to live out a dream, but he’s in the prime of his career and should be thinking about what’s best for displaying his basketball skills. He won’t always be young enough to be a key contributor on a contender.

In this sense, I think it’s a fantastic trade overall because the Thunder need him, and his skills will be well suited there. He’s not best as the star scorer of a great offense because his ball-handling isn’t there and he’s not a dominating scorer, but he’s definitely can carry the load as a secondary scorer and his efforts are best focused on the defensive end where his length and athleticism can lead to top-tier status, when he’s engaged.

In recent seasons with the Pacers, they’ve had so little help he’s been more focused on offense, but I believe he’s best in what I’d call a “super’ 3-and-D role, where he can provide the typical 3-and-D duties with a heavy offensive load. This also means he could fit on virtually any team in the league because no contender (should) want to turn down a 3-and-D player, especially one who’s an upgrade in most areas. You can see that in the chart below (I used multi-year RPM from the regular season for defense, which is best for long-term, stable value) — few players offer a combination of 3-point shooting and defense like him. It’s why he’d be wasted on the Lakers, who will be, in all likelihood, still be far from contention in a year.

Jimmy Butler’s midwest move

Similarly, Jimmy Butler, who by many measures has been playing like a borderline MVP candidate, was traded for a weak package. The main piece, Zach LaVine, again like the trade above, has one year left on his contract, and could become very expensive. And, of course, he has the ACL injury. If you believe what the advanced stats say about him, this is a laughable trade so far. The Timberwolves, consistently, have played significantly worse with him on the court, whether he’s at point guard or shooting guard.

Chicago also picked up Kris Dunn, and, again, as with the Pacers’ Paul George haul, he’s another rookie coming off a rough season. He did virtually nothing well, and he was one of the older rookies. Perhaps Chicago loved him during the draft itself, but it’s hard to see why the heavy interest. Other than that, Chicago got to move up from No. 16 to No. 7 in the draft, taking Lauri Markkanen. Somehow, they couldn’t convince Minnesota to give up a pick for one of the best players in the league; this was a highway robbery. Unlike George, Butler doesn’t expire in a year, as his contract goes to 2020, where he has a player option.

For Minnesota, Jimmy Butler isn’t the greatest fit. As you can see in the graph above, he’s not quite the shooter to earn the 3-and-D tag. He’s a high-usage slasher who can post-up without a consistent outside shot, which is pretty much who Andrew Wiggins is — and in fact that’s who Jeff Teague is too. Unfortunately, Tom Thibodeau is one who sticks with traditional big-man schemes, so the spacing could become cramped. Regardless, it’s obviously better they have Butler than otherwise, and just the loss of Zach LaVine will be a huge net gain for them. They’ve been on average seven points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court, even though he’s a starter; if you make adjustments, as in adjusted plus/minus, he still looks terrible. It’s not a great fit, but Butler’s worth the hassle.

In the cases of both trades, it’s strange no one had a better offer. Barring inexplicable love for Zach LaVine or Victor Oladipo, it seems like it’d be easy to create a better package. Indeed, there are unofficial reports out there about what Boston had offered before, and while we shouldn’t trust Danny Ainge on what he totally could have done, it would not have taken a fortune to bring either guy over. Star players are supposed to be expensive and tough to find. It’s strange seeing player movement like this, but at the very least it makes for a more interesting league.

Next: Nylon Calculus -- Spacing Rating and why the Timberwolves may struggle

And, hey, maybe it means your favorite team is just a few days away from trading a mediocre starter and a rookie for an all-star. Apparently anything is possible now.