What Have The Knicks Done?

New York Knicks executives in recent years have said they would rebuild cautiously and avoid trading their first-round picks. That approach paid off — sweet-shooting big man Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2015, quickly ascended into a star, giving the team hope that it could finally build something sustainable with just another solid move or two. All the organization needed to do was avoid somehow taking a step backward.

And then Thursday happened.

In response, FiveThirtyEight’s biggest NBA fans gathered to process the reported trade.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I covered the Knicks for five years. Not their worst five, necessarily. But saw their worst season in franchise history. You’re naturally going to see them do things that make you scream, “Why?!” But this is a new level, even for me.

This Porzingis trade, if they don’t land a max-level star or two, is just befuddling.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer/angry Knicks fan): I think I’m going to be a Brooklyn Nets fan now. Why the hell would you do this?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Do we know what draft pick compensation they got, if any? Because that seems pretty important. (These details, which weren’t clear during the time of the chat, emerged shortly after we finished the conversation. New York will receive two future first-round picks in the trade.)

chris.herring: Not the exact terms, no. Though it seems really likely that the Mavs are going to give up something on that front.

natesilver: I guess I’d say this: The process by which the Knicks got to this point is crazy. The outcome, I think, might not be as bad as it seems at first glance. But it really depends on the pick(s).

chris.herring: More than anything, this was about allowing the Knicks to send over their bloated contracts so that they could clear salary cap space. Especially Tim Hardaway Jr., whose deal would’ve made it tough for them to add a second star next to Porzingis this summer.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, if there is a silver lining (Is there a silver lining?), they just freed up a massive amount of cap space.

tchow: Welcome to New York, Kevin Durant!!

chris.herring: Only spent seven or eight years there, but this is where my New York cynicism comes into play. The Knicks haven’t had a very good history when it comes to FAs.

natesilver: They also got a buy-low guy in Dennis Smith Jr., although it seems like they have about 14 other buy-low point guards on the roster right now.

tchow: But in losing Porzingis, doesn’t that make the Knicks a less attractive destination to come play? If you were a max player, why would you look at this team and say, “I want to go to there”?

natesilver: Well, yeah, that’s the catch.

tchow: I guess maybe two max players could buddy up and that nullifies what I just said.

natesilver: A team of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and … uuuhhhh, who’s the third-best player on that team? Smith Jr., I guess?

tchow: I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. This is INSANE!!! I’m still in shock.

chris.herring: If nothing else, I guess this all just surprises me because it speaks to one of two things. Either 1) You have that much confidence that a superstar is coming …

tchow: Well you’re forgetting Zion, Nate.

chris.herring: Or 2) Things had gotten so bad/toxic with Porzingis that you didn’t see how you could make it work with him anymore. They really had no obligation to give into this right now, even if he was unhappy.

neil: Right, he was only a restricted free agent after the season.

tchow: Well, Chris, if things have gotten that bad with Porzingis, you would think they were secretly shopping him around earlier. Is this really the best deal they could get? I find that hard to believe.

natesilver: It is worth keeping in mind that Porzingis has a serious injury that other guys have struggled to recover from, that he hadn’t reached superstar status yet, and that he was about to get expensive. The upside is so high, though, that you’d think a team, maybe a cap-constrained team, might have given up a little more.

chris.herring: Yep. I’m not blown away by the fact that they dealt him. It’s what they dealt him for.

natesilver: Getting technical, but his cap hold is only like $12 million this summer, so that was a big benefit too.

chris.herring: There are two or three different reasons to potentially deal him. I just don’t know that any of them were worth dealing him for that return.

natesilver:

tchow:

FIGHT!!

natesilver: No those don’t contradict. Sign the qualifying offer for one year. Then become a full-fledged free agent in summer 2020.

tchow: Oh damn … you’re right. OK … back to crying.

chris.herring: During the time I spent on the Knicks beat, I got used to watching them attach useful players to ones whose contracts were albatrosses. They traded Tyson Chandler (useful) to unload Raymond Felton (albatross). And Iman Shumpert (useful) to unload JR Smith (albatross).

natesilver: Were Hardaway and Lee that untradeable? They aren’t terrible players, and their contracts aren’t that bad.

chris.herring: Neither is a bad player. Maybe overpaid (I’ve definitely argued that with Hardaway).

natesilver: In some sense, everyone in the deal is a distressed asset.

chris.herring: If anything, Hardaway is just pricey because of what you want to accomplish this summer.

tchow: Watch Dennis Smith Jr. come out of this as the best player in the trade.

natesilver: It’s not nothing.

chris.herring: But Porzingis should not be the sweetener in any deal like this! He’s the lone All-Star changing hands here.

neil: Smith Jr. certainly got a lot of hype as a rookie last year.

tchow: KP 👏 IS 👏 A 👏 UNICORN

chris.herring: I’ll put it this way: Smith and his folks floated that he potentially wanted out of Dallas a week or two ago. That came and went, likely because no one felt like he was worth all that much. He’s explosive. He’s young enough to gamble something on. But he’s not even a clear starter in everyone’s eyes.

natesilver: So what else could they have gotten? What do we think the market price for Porzingis would be? Would Toronto have given up Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, for instance, and taken on either Hardaway or Lee but not both?

chris.herring: It was only 20 minutes or so before the trade reports came that this tweet went out.

natesilver: I’m just saying that if you clear the decks for two max free agents but you have a guy like Siakam making just $2.5 million a year, that gives you a lot more to work with.

chris.herring: Notice how smart we perceive those particular franchises to be. I saw someone say, “The smart franchises are circling the dumb one.” Almost like the Knicks were the prey here.

tchow: Right?? I keep thinking there must be other, better trades.

chris.herring: For sure. At least with Siakam, you have a good, athletic two-way player to build around.

tchow: This is all just us talking, right? There were no reports that Toronto was even looking to offer Siakam. Right? Right?

chris.herring: I honestly don’t know whether Smith will be a starter two or three years from now. There’s some faith because of how young he is, but he hasn’t shown consistency yet. And the Knicks haven’t been great with developing two-way talent at the guard spot lately.

natesilver: I wanna know about the draft pick(s) too. Dallas still owns its own pick if it’s 1-5 this year — otherwise it goes to Atlanta — and they’re probably still going to end up in the lottery.

neil: I think we are being very NYC-centric here and focusing on the Knicks’ angle. But for the Mavs, their new Doncic-Porzingis combo seems like it could eventually be very scary.

natesilver: NYC IS BASKETBALL MECCA, NEIL! SUCH A MECCA THAT THE ONLY GOOD PLAYER ON THE KNICKS IN THE PAST 10 YEARS GETS TRADED FOR CAP SPACE

neil: No, it’s not (“The Decline Of New York City As An NBA Talent Generator”).

tchow: No, Neil’s right. Forget the Knicks. I already have. Porzingis and Luka together is going to be amazing!! No way Dirk retires now.

chris.herring: Dallas is gonna be fun.

natesilver: Yeah, how did they do that? Turn the No. 5 pick and — Dennis Smith Jr.? — into Luka and Porzingis?

chris.herring: The Knicks were spending all this time trying to find a running mate for KP, and now Porzingis has Doncic.

tchow: So right now, we have them projected to be way out of the playoffs. When is Porzingis supposed to return? I’m getting ahead of myself

chris.herring: They’re relevant now. Even if they unloaded a hefty part of their rotation here to get Porzingis. But this was a great move for them.

natesilver: It was a little bit ambiguous. Dallas is tanking, obviously, so maybe they just play him for like six games to show he still had something left (as an inducement to free agents, etc.) and then find some excuse to shut him down.

chris.herring: Yeah. Porzingis probably wasn’t going to play for NYK this year. Maybe he gets into a few games for Dallas, but I doubt it.

natesilver: Yeah, they might as well tank too. Maybe not an outright tank, but they do keep their own pick if it’s 1-5.

chris.herring: If you’re the Mavs, this makes sense. You’ve still got Harrison Barnes under contract making a lot of money. Hardaway is under contract a couple more years.

tchow: “Makes sense” is such an understatement here.

natesilver: Don’t the Mavs have space for a max free agent too?

chris.herring: I don’t think so? Not with all the money they just took on.

This trade was their free agency, in a way. Dallas very quietly just hit us with a Nash/Dirk redux. Except Luka can score better than Nash, and Porzingis can defend.

natesilver: It looks like they should have cap space in 2020-21, though, when the Barnes/Powell contracts all come off the books.

chris.herring: Two or three years from now, they’ll have cap money again, and you imagine players would want to team up with a duo like that.

tchow: (if Porzingis signs)

chris.herring: Porzingis will be 25 in two years. Luka will be 22. Also, can we talk about the fact that the Mavs were at the Garden last night? And Mark Cuban was there. I imagine this topic came up.

natesilver: Ahhh didn’t think about that. But, yeah, it seems pretty weird to think this deal was just conjured up out of thin air.

tchow: They knew. They fucking knew.

chris.herring: Dennis Smith Jr. logged a triple-double.

natesilver: Haha.

tchow:

natesilver: Oh shit!!!!!

tchow: Look at that. That’s a “we’re going to be teammates” handshake.

natesilver: THE FIX WAS IN.

chris.herring: I soooo hope the Knicks — who could’ve drafted Smith but instead took Frank Ntilikina — weren’t enamored by his good game to where they said, “You know what? That sounds good to us.”

tchow: Chris, that is EXACTLY what happened.

chris.herring: What it all comes down to for the Knicks is free agency: If you land two guys who are truly worth it, it’s hard to look back at this and be angry.

tchow: And there is my silver lining.

chris.herring: But for the time being, it is just astounding.

natesilver: The Knicks also haven’t drafted very well. Kevin Knox is regarded as a future rotation piece, if not a star, and I sorta get why because he looks like a good player, but his numbers are unbelievably terrible.

chris.herring: Also: My favorite stat ever, from my Knick beat days: The Knicks haven’t re-signed one of their draft picks on a multiyear deal since Charlie Ward, who they took in 1994. Trading Porzingis keeps that alive.

natesilver: Wow. BASKETBALL MECCA.

tchow: That is insane.

chris.herring: So them wanting to build it through free agency is fitting.

natesilver: I think I have to go to their next home game just to see what a shitshow it is.

tchow: FiveThirtyEight field trip, Nate?

natesilver: I’m down, dude. At least tickets will be cheap.

tchow: Hey, at least we still have Allonzo Trier. And Enes Kanter is back. Things are looking up for the Knicks.

chris.herring: Not that it has any bearing on how this summer pans out. But I think their last four deals for $90 million or more were, in this order: Melo, Amar’e Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston.

natesilver: I mean, just look at this shit:

tchow: My god that is … depressing.

natesilver: I guess their bigs have been OK? Noah Vonleh and Luke Kornet and Mitchell Robinson?

neil: Ooof, you were not kidding about Knox’s numbers, Nate.

natesilver: Yeah, Neil, and it’s not just some advanced stats thing. He’s shooting just 37 percent. Just 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. For a guy who’s pretty athletic, that’s kind of sad.

neil: Maybe he’s on the Enes Kanter diet.

natesilver: Knox has a nice-looking 3-point stroke, and I guess you can say he’d get the numbers up if they weren’t tanking. That’s what’s a little hard to figure out on a team like the Knicks where they basically don’t have any incentive to work in their shot selection or to play defense.

tchow: If this is just going to become a shitting on Knox chat, I think it’s time to end it.

natesilver: I’m happy to also shit on other Knicks.

tchow: Just for fun, to end this chat, should we all say who we think won this trade?

chris.herring: Assuming the Knicks don’t land two absolute studs in FA, the Mavs.

natesilver: It’s clearly a good trade for Dallas. Where it ends up on the spectrum from “terrible” to “OK” for the Knicks depends on the draft picks and, yeah, the free agent situation.

chris.herring: Agreed, Nate. You just paired two of the best 25-and-under players in the league together. It could turn out to be a home run for both sides. I just don’t have that level of faith that everything will go right for New York.

natesilver: There is a downside risk with Porzingis, too, which is that he’s never really healthy again. But you do have a year to evaluate him before making a commitment. So the fact that he’s not looking to sign a long-term extension right away is both a bug and a feature.

chris.herring: I guess.

neil: And given the lengths we’ve seen teams go to just to have a chance to get a franchise-altering star, it seems worth it.

chris.herring: I’d be OK with that gamble if it means giving up DSJ and a pick. Dallas has always been willing to roll the dice on acquiring a star.

tchow: You know who won? NBA Twitter won cause this is going to provide so much content for the next few days/until Anthony Davis gets traded.

chris.herring: They even traded Tyson Chandler the summer after he was the linchpin to their title because they thought it’d allow them a chance at a star. They wanted to clear space.

neil: The NBA needs to push its trade deadline further from the Super Bowl.

Wait your turn, NBA! You’ll have the limelight next week.

chris.herring: NOPE. In fact, I hope Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign today, too.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): My two cents: I lost because I’m waiting for Nate to file a piece about independent presidential campaigns and the Porzingis trade has, I’m sure, delayed it.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Ben Simmons Has Old-School Range. In 2019, That’s A Problem.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most interesting teams of the 2018-19 NBA season so far — and that hasn’t always been a good thing. On the court, they’re a fast-paced squad with a ton of young talent, but they haven’t quite made the leap forward people expected after last year’s breakout performance. Off the court, they followed up a crazy offseason with the blockbuster trade of the year to date, snagging Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves. But perhaps predictably, it didn’t take long before reports emerged about drama between Butler and Philly’s coaching staff. Stir in Joel Embiid’s troll tweets and the depressing saga of former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s shot, and there’s never a dull moment with these Sixers.

Somewhat quietly amid the craziness, though, point-forward Ben Simmons’s shooting has also become a major subplot in Philadelphia’s mercurial ascent. Late in his rookie season, we noted that Simmons had never made a 3-pointer in his NBA career; he’s now 126 games in, and that’s still true — in fact, he hasn’t even attempted one this season. Only 10 percent of Simmons’ shots have even come outside of 10 feet from the basket. Here’s what his highly compressed shot chart looks like this season, according to Austin Clemens’ Swish 2.0 tool:

It’s like something you might have seen from an NBA star of the 1970s or 1980s — if only we’d had shot charts for players back then. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Simmons from being an extremely productive NBA player: He currently ranks 16th in the league in Win Shares and is tied for 14th in Value Over Replacement Player.

But as SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck pointed out a few weeks ago, Simmons’s unwillingness to shoot could be hampering Philly’s potential against better opponents. “In Simmons’ 11 career games against the Celtics,” Ellentuck wrote, “Boston has outscored Philly by 125 points in 402 minutes with him on the floor, according to StatMuse.” By comparison, that number was somehow 134 points worse than Embiid’s plus-minus against Boston in a comparable number of minutes.1 Ellentuck went on to show a similar split for Simmons against other contenders (such as the Toronto Raptors), and more favorable splits against poor teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, although a lot of that is to be expected — obviously a good player on a good team will have a better plus-minus against bad teams than fellow good ones.

Individually, though, Simmons does have one of the NBA’s largest splits in performance based on the quality of the opponent, and the Sixers have won disproportionately more games against bad teams than good ones. Using data from HoopsStats.com, I broke out the DRE (Daily RAPM Estimate, a useful all-in-one “game score”-type stat from Nylon Calculus) per 36 minutes for every player who logged at least 500 minutes against opponents who are better and opponents who are worse than .500 this season.

Many players across the league see a decline in production when facing tougher teams, but Simmons has seen the fourth-biggest drop-off. And while No. 1 on the list belongs to Steph Curry of all players, Curry still does plenty of damage against good teams, ranking eighth in DRE per 36 vs. teams with winning records. Simmons, by contrast, ranks 77th against those same opponents.

Which players drop off against good teams?

Biggest declines in Nylon Calculus’s Daily RAPM Estimate (DRE) for 2018-19 NBA players against opponents with winning records vs. losing records

DRE per 36 minutes
Player Team vs. .500+ vs. <.500 Diff
Stephen Curry GSW 10.1 15.1 -5.0
De’Aaron Fox SAC 7.2 12.0 -4.9
Nikola Jokic DEN 9.6 13.9 -4.3
Ben Simmons PHI 7.2 11.1 -4.0
Enes Kanter NYK 5.9 9.7 -3.9
Victor Oladipo IND 7.1 10.9 -3.8
James Harden HOU 11.2 14.7 -3.5
Kevin Durant GSW 9.7 13.2 -3.4
Klay Thompson GSW 5.8 9.1 -3.3
Russell Westbrook OKC 7.9 11.1 -3.2

Minimum 500 minutes played; 2019 DRE as of Jan. 15.

Sources: hoopsstats, Nylon Calculus

In addition to Curry, you can also see the maniacally stat-stuffing James Harden and even Curry’s own teammates Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson near the top of the list. So in itself, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of postseason limitations or of players who haven’t yet reached their full potential. But there’s a difference between players who are amazing against all kinds of teams (just playing extra-great against bad ones) and ones who feast on bad opponents in particular.

Right now, Simmons is fitting into the latter category. He sees greatly reduced rates of scoring (from 19.2 points per 36 minutes to 15.5), shooting efficiency (from a 60.1 field goal percentage to 54.2) and foul-drawing (from 6.2 free throw attempts per 36 to 5.5) against winning clubs, along with an increase in turnovers (from 3.5 per 36 to 4.0). (Simmons’ rebounds and assists stay roughly stable between each level of competition.) These opponents are the ones best equipped to approach Simmons like Boston did in the playoffs last year, cutting off driving lanes and exploiting the reduced amount of space his shooting range requires them to defend.

But there’s also evidence Simmons’s game is adapting in his second healthy season as a pro. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, his drives per game are down from 15.5 last season (sixth-most in the league) to 9.0 (54th-most), and his pick-and-roll ballhandling plays are down from 18.1 to 8.1 — largely due to the arrival of Butler, who commands 10.0 picks per game as a ballhandler and tries 8.6 drives per game. So while Simmons now gets the vast majority of his buckets in transition, which makes sense given his skill set, he’s also ramped up his workload in areas more closely linked to traditional big men, such as rolling off screens and posting up. And more importantly, he’s gradually been taking more jumpers over the past few weeks: In January (through Tuesday’s game), 14 percent of Simmons’s shots have come from outside 10 feet of the basket (with a field goal percentage of 29 percent), compared with only 11 percent of shots (and a 20 percent field goal percentage) in October through December.

Simmons still has a lot of work to do in these new parts of his game, but he is at least showing some signs of developing a more diversified offensive profile. And the fact that he’s managed to increase his true shooting percentage and offensive efficiency somewhat significantly while doing so has to be encouraging for the Sixers in the grand scheme of Simmons’s evolution as a player. Although his shortcomings may still leave him vulnerable to good teams for now, that may not always be the case.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

The Thunder Are Playing Way Better, But Are They A Real Contender?

Roll back the calendar a couple months, and things weren’t going so well in Oklahoma City. The Thunder had to open their season without former MVP Russell Westbrook, who was in the final stages of his knee rehabilitation following a late-summer arthroscopic procedure. And even after getting him back a few games in, the club struggled out of the gate, beginning 0-4 and becoming the last team in the Western Conference to claim its first victory.

Fast-forward to Christmas, the Thunder are currently one of the NBA’s hottest teams; winners in 21 of their last 28. Paul George has played MVP-level ball, averaging 32 points on 53 percent shooting the past few weeks. And Oklahoma City has the league’s second-best defense, a notable stat since Andre Roberson, perhaps the team’s best defender, has missed the entire season.

With OKC a game out of first in the West, and no one separating themselves as the top challenger to the Warriors, it’s time to ask: Have the Thunder become legitimate contenders?

The answer, to this point, is something of a mixed bag. Yes, the defense has been downright dominant at times, and their overall net rating suggests they belong in the conversation. But the offense — slightly below average, and still with considerable flaws beyond Westbrook, George, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder — doesn’t enjoy that same level of success each night.

There’s no question about this team’s most abundant strength. Its imposing length and eye-popping athleticism stands out even more now, with Jerami Grant starting and Nerlens Noel and rookie Hamidou Diallo getting minutes off the bench (and without Carmelo Anthony as a weak link teams can attack relentlessly in screen-and-rolls). And aside from largely negating pick-and-rolls — third in efficiency against them1 — the Thunder get their hands on just about everything, ranking second in the NBA in deflections, and second in recovered loose balls. Oklahoma City is lightning quick and has a ton of collective hustle among its youngsters, making it tough to score even in situations that would normally present easy fast-break opportunities. One sign of that: After forcing a Thunder turnover, it takes opposing teams 9.4 seconds on average to get off a shot attempt, tied for the second-longest span in the NBA, according to Inpredictable.

The club addressed one of its biggest problems over the years — the awful bench depth — when it acquired Schroder in the deal to dump Anthony. But on some level, OKC’s main problem now is the same as it ever was: In a league where basically everyone can shoot from outside, the Thunder still struggle mightily from distance. They’re tied for second worst in 3-point accuracy, and Westbrook — while he’s cut down considerably on his long, midrange 2’s — is on pace to have one of the worst volume 3-point shooting campaigns of all-time, at just 23.6 percent on nearly five attempts from deep per game. As such, OKC ranks in the bottom 10 in effective field goal percentage, the lone contender in that group among several teams likely to make the lottery.

There’s obvious room for upside. Beyond the continued hope that Roberson will rejoin them at some point this season, the Thunder also have one of the youngest rotations in the NBA. They have seven players who are 25 or younger and have logged at least 300 minutes already.

If there’s a downside, it’s that Oklahoma City hasn’t been thoroughly tested from a scheduling standpoint yet. In fact, only Boston has played an easier slate to this point. According to a preseason BPI tracker, the Thunder’s projected winning percentage was expected to get progressively worse each month after December because of the escalating schedule to come. (Another possible challenge, though OKC would love to get Roberson back from injury, would be the potential spacing problems upon Roberson’s return. There’s already limited shooting on the floor, and his unwillingness to pull the trigger would further hinder the effort to fix that conundrum.)

Nonetheless, FiveThirtyEight’s newly updated projection model really seems to like the Thunder’s chances of becoming Golden State’s most viable challenger out West. Despite the incredibly solid Denver Nuggets’ turnaround, which has them virtually tied for first place, the system gives Oklahoma City a 10 percent probability of making it to the NBA Finals, more than double that of any other Western Conference team.

Time will tell whether those projections were merely an overshoot. But for the time being, after a slow start this season and two consecutive first-round flameouts the past two years, the Thunder will gladly take making it onto Santa’s nice list heading into their Christmas Day game.

How Good Is The Sixers’ Brand-New Big Three?

For more than a month, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau had a common refrain when asked about the Jimmy Butler saga: The team couldn’t allow itself to be distracted by the dysfunction and the rumors surrounding their star swingman, who requested a trade before camp.

But after Friday’s loss in Sacramento — which left Minnesota winless on its five-game road trip — even Thibodeau came to the realization that things were unraveling too quickly this way, and that the club could no longer try and split the middle on this highly awkward situation.

As such, the Timberwolves on Saturday finally dealt Butler to the highly talented Sixers, while Philadelphia sent over Robert Covington and Dario Saric, a couple of solid players who can be part of the Wolves’ future while potentially helping Minnesota win right now, too1.

If there’s a significant takeaway here, though, it’s that the Sixers are truly going for it. In doing so, they’re sacrificing a considerable amount of depth, cohesion and patience, essentially cashing those in to land a third star. The Butler trade increases Philly’s probability of reaching the NBA finals from 11 percent to 16 percent in our projection system — a mark that puts them more in line with the Celtics (17 percent) and Bucks (18 percent), while still well behind the Warriors (67 percent) and Raptors (41 percent).

Figuring out Butler’s exact fit will take time for Brett Brown and his team. Ben Simmons is already one of the NBA’s best passers and one of the most physically imposing guards. Yet it could be a challenge to ask Simmons — all but allergic to attempting jumpers so far — to play without the ball more than he already does, while sharing the floor with fellow non-shooter Markelle Fultz. Butler is far better than Simmons at making an impact away from the ball, but he, too, is most comfortable when he has the ball in his hands. He was usually Minnesota’s best passer and de-facto point guard, while also calling his own number several times a game; especially in clutch scenarios.

Without Covington and Saric, the team loses two of its outside shooters, which figures to shrink the floor even more around Joel Embiid and Simmons. This could create problems for the turnover-prone club, especially in postseason, where the lack of spacing hurt the Sixers against the Celtics. (Also, while the addition of Butler could help take pressure off Embiid, there is a chance the shift could throw Embiid out of the incredible rhythm he’s been in lately.)

There are some ways that Philadelphia could circumvent the problem. Finding more time for JJ Redick, one of the league’s most reliable marksmen, is likely one solution. Whenever the Sixers use him in on- and off-ball screens, defenses have to account for his presence as a shooter. But most offensive adjustments with this new core will likely threaten playing time for Fultz — not ideal for the No. 1 overall pick from a year ago, who needs more true lead ball-handling opportunities in order to develop his game.

The bigger risks at play here for Philly are rooted in how they value Butler long-term, given that he’s a free agent after this season. He presumably wants a max contract worth $190 million over five years — a steep commitment for a player with so much mileage on his tires already.

If things were to fail spectacularly for some reason, the Sixers could simply let Butler walk this summer (a step that would be jarring, since they just gave up two good players). But it will be worth watching how Butler functions with cornerstones like Embiid and Simmons, since he’s had run-ins with younger teammates at his last two stops. Assuming the trio jells just fine, Philadelphia will again be an interesting team to watch in free agency, as they could create up to $19 million in cap space after signing Butler to a max deal.

As for the Timberwolves, our projection system feels they came out of this trade well, too. They went from a 35-percent probability of making the postseason before to 44 percent now. Just as losing Covington and Saric hurt Philly’s spacing, they should help Minnesota’s. The Timberwolves ranked just 22nd in 3-point attempt rate heading into Saturday’s game. (Our previous projections also accounted for the uncertainty around Butler’s situation, so having two solid players locked in for the rest of the season helps their rating as well.)

While this deal won’t fix the Wolves’ god-forsaken defense2, both players are under solid-value contracts, and leave Minnesota with far more flexibility than they would’ve had with Butler. The biggest challenge now rests with Thibodeau, who seemingly dragged his feet in pulling the trigger on a Butler trade in hopes of squeezing every win out of this situation he could, even as it became brutally clear that he needed to be dealt (Separately: While we know it likely wouldn’t have benefitted Thibodeau, can we definitively say that this offer is better than four future first-rounders from Houston?). Thibodeau could be on the hot seat, and the reality of relying mostly on youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — each on max deals of their own — may not have given him the utmost confidence in returning to the playoffs.

The best-case scenario for Thibodeau and his young duo is that they do find a way to reach the playoffs with Towns dominating in a new role, as the team’s No. 1 option on offense without Butler.

But at the end of the day, we figure to be talking about this trade well into April and May — and possibly even June — because of what it could mean for the Sixers. If anything, this deal for Butler gives them at least a portion of the star power they sought this past summer.

Neil Paine contributed to this article.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

2018-19 NBA Predictions

How this works: These forecasts are based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season. Elo ratings — which power the pure Elo forecast — are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent. Our CARMELO forecast doesn’t account for wins and losses; it is based entirely on our CARMELO player projections, which estimate each player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. Read more »

Design and development by Jay Boice, Rachael Dottle, Ella Koeze and Gus Wezerek. Statistical model by Nate Silver. Additional contributions by Neil Paine. Illustration by Elias Stein.