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Column: As Clippers consider Jimmy Butler trade, they’d better not make another Blake mistake

Jimmy Butler’s contract is front and center for Timberwolves’ offseason
Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler is an All-NBA talent who has battled injuries during his career.
(Carlos Gonzalez / Minneapolis Star Tribune)

The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to trade Jimmy Butler, and it’s going to happen soon.

The team didn’t announce this — there was no press release, no tweet, no official word. But Saturday, the Timberwolves made it clear — by delivering $190 million to another player.

By agreeing to a max extension with 22-year-old center Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota put itself in the right corner — the one with an eye toward the future — instead of the one full of drama, awkwardness and a guaranteed unhappy ending.

It’s forced teams such as the Clippers to decide if it’s worth sacrificing cap space and assets for a great player who just might not be a difference-maker.

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Butler, who recently turned 29, wants out of Minnesota. He told the Wolves he would not re-sign with them at the end of the season. The team, which hosts its media day Monday, excused him from faking smiles and gushing about the team’s potential. Then, word came, via the Athletic, that Butler won’t be there when practice starts Tuesday.

The response to all of this, coincidence or not, was to extend the contract of Towns — a signal to every team that Minnesota is open for business. So Butler almost certainly will be dealt in the next few days, leaving teams to assess what is Butler worth — and what kind of player is he?

One NBA executive described the latter question as “tricky.”

If a team acquires Butler, particularly one with whom he’ll likely re-sign next summer, it probably will have to fork over nearly $200 million to a player who has played heavy minutes while dealing with injuries. That team likely will have to make Butler one of the NBA’s highest-paid players despite below-average three-point shooting — essentially a must for a modern shooting guard or small forward. And, it almost certainly will have to pay him into his mid-30s — without being sure he deserves that kind of deal.

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Despite those reasons to back off, this is true: Butler is a great player, a unique talent who can affect games on both ends. He’s big and strong enough to body up the league’s top wings, and he’s taken and made big shots in playoff games.

According to league sources, though, teams are hesitant to offer assets and that max contract to acquire and keep Butler. The Clippers seem like a logical landing spot — the team is aware it’s on Butler’s list of preferred destinations and it has the max space next summer to sign him and another star like Kawhi Leonard.

It seems obvious that the Clippers should jump at the chance for a star as they rebuild. But rosters around the NBA are filled with players on contracts similar to the one Butler surely will sign next summer and the Clippers, luckily enough, were able to shed one last season. Because Detroit was desperate for a star, the Clippers were able to move Blake Griffin, getting out from under a contract that’ll pay him between $31.8 million and $38.9 million in each of the next four seasons, despite the fact Griffin has played no more than 67 games in each of the last four seasons.

Griffin is a star — a five-time All-Star power forward — but there were reasons to be concerned about that much money over that many years for someone with his injury history and limited ability to stretch defenses. The same can be said about Butler, a four-time All-Star who has missed at least 15 games in four of the last five seasons.

Do the Clippers want to go down that road again, perhaps, with Leonard and Butler? Maybe, depending on the cost.

Ideally, the Clippers would acquire Butler in a deal that sends Danilo Gallinari to Minnesota along with a draft pick or young talent — not including this year’s top pick, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A deal also could be centered around Tobias Harris, who will be a free agent after the season.

It’s a gamble for a team like the Clippers, who are trying to put together a future. Butler would be a safer bet for a ready-made contender — Houston and Philadelphia come to mind.

With the Timberwolves signaling that they’re ready to move on, someone will move forward with Butler — he’s too good not to consider.

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For the star players of his ilk, teams probably aren’t sure if the returns are worth the cost.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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