When the Minnesota Timberwolves dealt Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric back in November, it signaled an end to one of the more bizarre situations we've seen for quite some time.
Two months later, Butler is set to face his old team for the first time since the blockbuster trade that altered the trajectory for both franchises.
Now that the dust has settled, what have we learned from that trade so far?
Butler's fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
From Day 1, the biggest takeaway from this trade would be how Butler fits in alongside the 76ers' franchise pillars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
After a tumultuous end to the stint playing alongside a similarly exciting young duo in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, all eyes would be on Butler to see if he could make it work in a new city.
Within his first two weeks on his team, Butler hit a pair of game winners that seemed to immediately and perfectly articulate just why the 76ers made that trade in the first place. One of the league's worst fourth-quarter offences over the last year and change, they finally had a closer.
"They told me to go win the game." - Jimmy Butler- Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 26, 2018
📊: 34 PTS (18 in the 4th), 12 REB, 5 3PTS, 4 STL, 1 GM Winner (2nd in 8 days)
And yet despite that strong first impression, the results have been a mixed bag largely left for interpretation in the eye of the beholder.
The 76ers' star trio has played 383 minutes together in 22 games with a net rating of +0.1. The offence with all of them on the court performs at a rate that would fall in the mid 20s over the course of an entire season while the defence has performed at a rate that would rank sixth.
While not bad per se, that's overall an underwhelming start for a trio that was on paper supposed to give the 76ers a big edge in collective star power, at least in the Eastern Conference.
MORE: It's way too early to give up on Philly's Big Three
There have been questions raised from all directions.
Embiid for a time lamented about his role. Butler himself has commented on how he's used. And of course there's non-stop chatter on how Simmons adapts to more time spent off the ball where his lack of an outside shot becomes more problematic.
There's enough talent that those three should be able to produce regardless of who else shares the floor and yet the puzzle pieces are just awkward enough for that not to be the case, at least thus far.
They're an entirely different group when JJ Redick is a part of the equation.
Embiid and Simmons destroy anyone and everyone when playing without Butler.
You can play with these combinations all day and come to a conclusion that fits your narrative.
The 76ers made this move for April, May and June, not for January. The truth is that it's still too early to judge these three and that we won't fully know until the playoffs.
Karl-Anthony Towns: The Force Awakens
The most positive development for Minnesota has been the resurgence of Towns, who has simply been a different player since the departure of Butler.
Prior to the Butler trade, Towns just didn't look like the same wrecking ball from a year ago when he was named All-NBA Second Team after averaging 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game as a 22-year-old.
Though he was still putting up 20 and 10, Towns seemed to come and go depending on the night with a series of uninspiring performances in marquee matchups.
- Eight points on 2-6 shooting in the season opener.
- 14 points on 5-17 shooting in a loss to the Toronto Raptors
- 13 points on 5-13 shooting in a loss to the Golden State Warriors
- 13 points on 5-16 shooting in a loss to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps it was telling that with the writing on the wall for an imminent deal, Towns' breakout performance of the season came in his final game alongside Butler as a teammate when he exploded for 39 points and 19 rebounds, albeit in a loss.
With Butler now in Philadelphia, Towns is averaging 23.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 51% from the floor. He once again looks like the player that NBA GMs not that long ago deemed the one they would most want to build a franchise around.
Philly's updated title chances
At the time of the trade, the 76ers were 8-6, fourth in the East and 4.5 GB of the Raptors in the East.
They had a negative scoring margin and were coming off a pair of overtime losses to the Grizzlies and Hornets, two losses that had they swung the other way would have left Philly at 10-4, which would have certainly looked better even if somewhat misleading.
Since the trade (not including the game on Nov. 12 which they played without Butler on the day of the trade), the 76ers are 19-10, tied for the fifth-best record in the East. They are, however, only 10th in net rating over that same span, most notably two spots behind the Timberwolves.
As mentioned above, incorporating a major piece like Butler takes time so it's too early to read too much into things. According to Inpredictable.com, the 76ers have a 52% chance of finishing with the five seed. That would mean a difficult first-round series in a conference that features a major drop off after the first five teams.
There's still time to course correct and finish among the top three. But finishing without even home court in the first round would surely be considered a loss for a team with legitimate hopes of reaching the NBA Finals.
Robert Covington and Dario Saric
Both Covington and Saric are very good players that fill in nicely next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in the Wolves' re-calibrated new world order.
After finally receiving All-Defence recognition for the first time in his career last season, Covington is once again demonstrating that he's got serious chops on that end as a "do-it-all" perimeter defender that can play up or down depending on matchups.
Prior to the trade, the 76ers had a top 10 defence while the Timberwolves ranked just 28th. Since then, Minnesota ranks 10th in defensive rating while the 76ers have slid down to 14th.
At the centre of it all is Covington, who logged major minutes in Philadelphia and is doing the same in Minnesota. As he did a year ago, Covington once again ranks second in the entire league in defensive real plus-minus among all perimeter players behind only Paul George.
Though he's not starting as he did in Philadelphia, Saric has proven a useful spacer on a team desperate for more shooting. He's a natural fit offensively next to Towns as a cutter, spot-up shooter and passer, even if the numbers don't yet bare it out.
Moving forward, the 24-year-old Saric better fits the timeline in Minnesota as well. Starting power forward Taj Gibson is 34 and sitting on an expiring contract that pays him $14 million. While Saric has one more year left on his rookie deal after this one before the Timberwolves will have to make a decision, he's at the very least a relatively high upside piece with significant value.
Depending on the direction they go now that Tom Thibodeau is out, it's not out of the question that Gibson is moved for an asset now, thus clearing the path for a longer look at Saric this season.
End of the Tom Thibodeau Era
The Timberwolves decided to move on from Thibodeau a couple of months after the Butler trade.
In Thibodeau's two and a half years in Minnesota, the Timberwolves went 97-107 (47.5%). He led the franchise to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003-04, ending the longest active postseason drought in the league at the time.
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the move caught Thibodeau by surprise, as he expected to finish the season as head coach. He left with the second-most wins in team history, tied with Rick Adelman and trailing Flip Saunders.
Ryan Saunders, the son of Flip Saunders, has since taken over for Thibodeau. The team has already picked up a couple of impressive wins under him, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder by two points in his debut and the New Orleans Pelicans by four points a couple of days later.
It's early, but the Timberwolves are playing a different style under Saunders that has them shooting more 3s and playing more through Towns and Wiggins.
They enter Tuesday's game 2-1 with Saunders as their interim head coach.