The Bulls’ chief nemesis is out of the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James is leaving the Cavaliers for Hollywood and the Lakers. But that doesn’t mean the East is somehow there for the taking — at least for anyone but the Celtics.
A league source close to the situation told the Sun-Times on Tuesday that Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving and former Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler — who’s been playing with the Timberwolves since a draft-night trade in 2017 — are still trying to figure out a way to play together. The Celtics could try to acquire Butler this summer, or the two former Team USA teammates could simply opt out of their player options after next season and join forces then. Their intent is to build an elite backcourt, whether that’s in Boston or somewhere else in the East.
Last summer, a month before Irving told the Cavs’ front office he was looking to get out of Cleveland, with the Bulls on his wish list, he let Butler and several other former Team USA teammates know first. A source said Butler, still with the Bulls, told general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball John Paxson that Irving wanted out, but the two knew they didn’t have the assets to trade for him, even if they got a third team involved. Instead, the Bulls blew up their roster and sent Butler to Minnesota.
The situation remains fluid. Irving has already said he won’t be signing a contract extension with the Celtics this summer. A league source said Butler, who has been frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates — specifically Karl-Anthony Towns — does not intend to sign an extension with the Timberwolves.
“I just don’t think there have been many people that have understood how important winning is to me, man,’’ Butler told the Sun-Times in late April. “I just had a conversation about that very thing with somebody — not important who — but I put so much into this game, and I only play to win.”
It’s possible Butler could change his mind if the Timberwolves were to trade Towns — a move ownership is said to be highly against — or if Towns proved to Butler he isn’t “Amish-like,’’ as Towns described himself during a losing first-round playoff series against the Rockets.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has a strong relationship with Butler, but Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor didn’t help things in April, telling a Minneapolis radio show that Butler would be a key in recruiting players this summer. That led to Butler’s agent, Bernie Lee, firing back, “That’s not Jimmy’s role.”