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Clippings: What if the Clippers had signed Jimmy Butler last offseason?

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Butler was a prime target to pair with Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2019.

Los Angeles Clippers v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler just put together one of the defining performances of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. With the Miami Heat down two of their top three players due to injury, Butler dropped a 40-point triple-double to lead the Heat to a Game 3 victory and give Miami its first win of the series.

It was a truly iconic effort. Butler became just the third player in NBA Finals history to score 40 points and have a triple-double — and the first in a winning effort — and was the very first player to ever outscore, out-rebound, and out-assist LeBron James in a Finals game. It’s fair to say that not many people thought that Butler was capable of being the no. 1 offensive option on a conference champion team before this season. The Bulls traded him away in 2017 because they arrived at that very conclusion. But Butler is worthy of being the alpha, and he is demonstrating that on the game’s biggest stage.

It wasn’t that long ago that Butler was a disgruntled star demanding a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, and listing the Clippers among his preferred destinations. He ultimately landed in Philadelphia, but there was a great deal of buzz in free agency connecting the Clippers to Butler as a second star to play with Kawhi Leonard. We learned later that Leonard even reached out to Butler to come with him to Los Angeles, a pitch Leonard also made to Kevin Durant.

Obviously, Butler chose to go to Miami, and the fit has been marvelous for both player and team. But it’s hard not to think about what the Clippers could have looked like had Butler been second in command instead of Paul George. As a free agent, the Clippers wouldn’t have had to surrender Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a decade’s worth of draft capital to acquire Butler, though Danilo Gallinari would have to go to make the math work. There would be no Moe Harkless because that was part of the Butler sign-and-trade, and Patrick Beverley may have sought extra money elsewhere as the Clippers used their remaining salary cap space to address their need at power forward.

That would have been some team, though. Gilgeous-Alexander, Butler, Leonard, and Zubac would have started, ideally next to a floor-spacing four (Marcus Morris Sr. was on the team’s radar as early as last summer) or maybe even Landry Shamet. Perhaps that money could have earmarked for JaMychal Green, and he could have been the fifth starter. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell would still be coming off the bench, and the Clippers would have filled out the rest of their roster with minimums as they did this year. They’d also have a ton of picks to upgrade their team at the trade deadline so they could have acquired a big name like Jrue Holiday.

Butler has been a killer in the playoffs. Leonard obviously saw something in him when the two played against each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, as Butler’s 76ers almost took down Leonard’s Raptors. Those two would have been menacing together.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. However much he plays it off, Butler clearly likes being the main guy in Miami, and that wouldn’t have been his status in Los Angeles. He made the right choice for himself and definitely validated Leonard’s decision to reach out to him, even if he didn’t take up the future Clipper’s offer.

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