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The Jimmy Butler deal almost gave Toronto an edge in keeping Kawhi — until it didn’t

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The Jimmy Buckets saga briefly looked like it would disadvantage one of the Raptors main competitors, then the Clippers front office proved why they’re a real threat.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

NBA free agency is a wonderful, crazy time for NBA junkies.

For Raptors fans, the recent championship has amped up the off-season to “a six-year old on pixie sticks” level of intensity. As we stare at our phones the pressure (hopes) of a potential title defense colour every move. We can now zone out over certain transactions. The Knicks sign Julius Randle for $63-million? It literally means nothing to Toronto this year.

Other moves take on nightmarish significance that seem out of proportion to the players involved. Wesley Matthews taking less money to play in Milwaukee? Shit. Close your eyes and you can imagine a world where he hits four threes in a Game 6 clincher that ends the Raptors season.

In general, it’s pretty easy to decide whether a deal was “good” or “bad” as far as the Raptors are concerned. Sometimes though, you forget that everything you’re hearing are just reports. Sometimes, the reports are wrong, and the truth ends up taking something you liked into something to be feared.

Case in point: the Jimmy Butler deal. The original reports had Butler, the (likely) former Sixer who seemingly loves to bully his teammates with the same reckless abandon he bullies smaller opposition wings, as going to Miami in a deal that would see Goran Dragic go to Dallas.

Then it wasn’t happening. The Mavs had thought they were getting Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr (though some reported that that deal wouldn’t work), and then the Mavs were out entirely, with Hassan Whiteside heading to Portland, while Mo Harkless is apparently becoming a Los Angeles Clipper.

The Clippers, in the scenario, are going to recoup a 1st round pick from Miami as a tax for taking on the $11.5 million Harkless is owed this upcoming season.

And just like that, a flip. The intensity ratchets up.

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(NOTE: All of this is moot if you’ve come around on the Lakers exceptionalism way of thinking. While I’m much more nervous of the Lakers then I was previously, I’m not that nervous. Kawhi allegedly asked a guy who no longer works for the Lakers about their front-office dysfunction? Kawhi wants to know if the Lakers wanted him before? Or if he’ll get some special privileges? Stop the presses, it sounds like a job interview. So, yeah. I’m still in the “the LA Clippers are as big a threat as anyone to spike the Rap’s chances of running back last year’s magical team” camp.)

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When the deal was first made, a reasonable reaction from Raptors fans was: “alright!” One of the team’s biggest rivals had lost an All-Star level talent, a long-time Raptor Killer (TM), and their key ball handler.

Yes, the Sixers were getting Josh Richardson back, who is very good, but that seemed like a deal you’d take as a Raptors fan (when the Sixers added Al Horford into the space Butler, and JJ Reddick’s departure had created, things got a whole lot less clear — but that’s a whole other column).

The added bonus to the original Butler deal, the prize at the bottom of the cereal box for Raps fans, was in how the deal hurt the LA Clippers, one of Toronto’s two main California based competitors for free-agent forward Kawhi Leonard.

To recap: the Clippers have the Heat’s completely unprotected 2021 first round pick. Given the Heat just finished outside the playoffs, that their cap sheet is filled with overpays, and that none of their players seem to have the cache needed to get a marquee free-agent to come into the cap-space the Heat could create next year, it was possible to believe that Miami could inadvertently crash into a top 5-10 pick in 2021.

That asset of course would be a great sales tool for the Clippers. Not only do the Clips have the potential to be very good now, they had at least one potential silver bullet asset to give Kawhi another major running mate already in hand. One definite thing the Raps don’t have.

Butler heading to Miami potentially changed all that. While it vaporizes a lot of the cap room Miami expected to have, it also makes them far more likely to make the playoffs.

Suddenly all those overpays turn into soon-to-be-expiring deals — just the sort that might make sense in a trade for a disgruntled star (Bradley Beal?). Between South Beach, Pat Riley, a proven alpha in Butler, and no state income tax, the Heat could become a destination again. Suddenly, it looked like that 2021 pick might be, at best, a late teens pick, and at worst could come in the back half of the 20’s.

Still a nice asset, but nothing to crow about. Was it a death blow to the Clippers? Of course not, but the Leonard free agency battle may very well be won on the margins, and every edge the Raptors gained was one to be savoured.

Then the rework.

If you want to argue that Mo Harkless hurts the Clippers chances to sign Kawhi, I’m not sure I believe it. Yes, he can’t shoot threes, and yes, with Kawhi, he’s probably a back-up, but so what? With the way the market played out, the Clippers didn’t have another star to throw their money at anyway, so the fact Harkless makes it harder for them to free up a second max slot doesn’t matter. As an expiring deal, he’s easy to move if needed, and he still is a decent all around player who can help a contender in the right role.

All of that is beside the point. It’s the first-round pick the Clippers got that makes the difference here. It’s lottery protected through to 2026 when it becomes completely unprotected. While I’d bet on it conveying in 2023 when Butler should still be one of the most influential on-court presences in the league — which means something mid-teens and higher - it is still another first round pick.

And while I doubt many GM’s would trade two later round firsts for the chance at a top-8 pick, the Butler deal doesn’t sting the Clips nearly as much as it did for a few hours. Jerry West and Co. did a masterful job of getting into the Heat deal, basically hedging on the value of that Heat pick by getting another one.

Raptors fans have witnessed the painful roller-coaster of free-agency before. Now though, with what seems like the fate of a title defense at stake, the intensity of the ride just keeps ticking up and up.