Minnesota's future could hinge on Jimmy Butler's contract situation

Jimmy Butler can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2018-19 season. Photo by Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves' season is coming along the way Tom Thibodeau always envisioned when he started assembling his revamped roster over the summer.

Jimmy Butler has played some of the best all-around basketball of his career recently and could garner some MVP votes if he maintains the same high level of play in the second half.

Taj Gibson is providing the stability and veteran leadership that made him one of Thibodeau's favorites during their time together with the Chicago Bulls.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins continue to show flashes of being the type of game-changing offensive talents who can help the franchise for years to come.

After 13 years without a playoff appearance, the Timberwolves appear well on their way to finally tasting late-April basketball.

But a closer look into the salary-cap numbers reveals a financial reality that may curb some of the excitement surrounding one of the Timberwolves' best starts in franchise history. Minnesota's potential cap issues are staggering, and Thibodeau, who serves as both head coach and president of basketball operations, is going to have some difficult decisions in the near future.

According to ESPN NBA front-office expert Bobby Marks, the Timberwolves currently have $117 million in salaries locked into place for the 2018-19 season. Marks also points out that the luxury tax is projected to be at $123 million, which would mean that if the current roster stays intact, the Timberwolves would be only $6 million below the tax line with four roster spots left to fill.

The Timberwolves also have to factor in Oklahoma City's lottery-protected first-round pick, assuming the Thunder don't have a disastrous finish and fall out of the playoff picture. Veterans Jamal Crawford and Shabazz Muhammad might decide to opt out of their deals, thus giving the organization a little more flexibility, but Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden would still need to find replacements at the right price.

The odds are that the Timberwolves will have only the $8.6 million full midlevel exception -- or part of it based on the tax -- and a $3.4 million biannual exception to work with ahead of the 2018-19 season.

And the 2019-20 season is where things will hurt even more for the young group if Thibodeau decides to keep the core together. With Wiggins' rookie max extension already in place, and Towns' rookie max extension likely forthcoming at a starting salary of $27 million per year, the Timberwolves would have $132 million in guaranteed contracts -- that's without Gibson -- locked into place and would be over the projected tax line of $131 million if Thibodeau decides to offer Butler a max extension and Butler decides to take it.

Much of the Timberwolves' future hinges on those two gigantic "ifs."

For his part, Butler, who was dealt by Chicago to Minnesota along with the draft rights to Justin Patton in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft rights to rookie Lauri Markkanen, has asserted himself as the Timberwolves' top dog over the past month. He averaged 26.5 points per game in December and 17.9 field goal attempts, while registering a 28.9 Player Efficiency Rating.

That is a stark contrast to October and November, when the All-Star swingman was trying to find his way on his new team, averaging just 17.5 points and 14.2 field goal attempts per game while registering a slightly above-average 17.8 PER.

Butler's recent numbers are even more impressive while judged against the marks he put up during his final year in Chicago, where he averaged 23.9 points, 16.5 field goal attempts and a 25.8 PER on a team that didn't have nearly the same offensive talent the Timberwolves have now.

"He's a three-time All-Star, an Olympian, he's an elite player, an All-NBA player, so I think that that's been recognized," Thibodeau said recently of Butler. "I think probably the biggest growth is probably the overall leadership and his ability to bring out the best in others. And the example he sets every day by how he prepares and how hard he plays. He doesn't take any possessions off. He understands how important defense is, plays both sides of the ball, guards multiple positions, makes plays.

"Whatever the game needs ... makes big free throws late, makes big shots late, makes big passes late. [He] knows how to read the game."

Butler has praised the Timberwolves' youngsters several times for the way they prepare and the practice time they put in, traits Butler felt the Bulls' young core may have been lacking. But Butler also isn't afraid to let Towns, Wiggins or any other young player hear it if they aren't doing something right.

When the game is on the line, the person Butler trusts most is himself. But at this stage of his career, Butler is also smart enough to realize that he alone can't win a title, in the new era of superteams, without other elite-level players around him.

So will he trust that Towns, who is ranked 41st out of a possible 74 centers in the league with a 0.85 Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and Wiggins, who is ranked 82nd out of a possible 89 small forwards with a minus-1.27 Defensive RPM, will continue to improve on the defensive end as their careers progress?

Even if Butler believes in the potential of both players, would the appeal of playing in a new market, especially one he spends much of his offseason in like Los Angeles, prove too enticing to stay away from if the Lakers or Clippers come calling when he becomes a free agent again in the summer of 2019?

As much as Thibodeau respects Butler, the basketball lifer also has to ask himself some hard questions as he ponders how to approach Butler's impending free agency.

Does Thibodeau believe Butler, who will be 30 years old at the start of the 2019-20 season, will still be able to play at the same high level as he gets older? Butler is currently second to only Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in minutes per game, averaging 37.4 per night this season. In fact, Butler has been in the top five in the league in minutes played in each of the past five seasons.

If Thibodeau is confident that Butler can maintain at the same pace, then the major advantage the Timberwolves have going for them is that they can offer a full max extension to Butler worth $188 million over five years. Another potential suitor would be able to offer only $139 million over four years (both deals would have a starting salary of $32.4 million).

Butler would be leaving almost $50 million guaranteed on the table if he was offered the max deal but opted to go elsewhere.

As Marks points out, Butler will be extension-eligible this summer, but the Timberwolves can give him only a 120 percent pay increase off his 2018-19 salary.

In the event Minnesota decides to offer the full max deal and Butler decides to accept, that means the Timberwolves' 2020-21 season is even more jammed cap-wise. Butler and Towns would be entering the second year of their max extensions, and the Timberwolves would have $122 million locked into guaranteed deals, accounting for Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Patton, the Thunder's 2018 first-rounder and the Timberwolves' own 2019 and 2020 first-rounders.

The league has shown time and again that anything can happen as it pertains to a team's future, and 2020 seems a long way off for a team that hasn't tasted playoff success in almost a decade and a half. But the Timberwolves better soak up all the good vibes they possibly can now, because an uncertain future awaits.

Thibodeau's plan may be coming together, but the financial numbers reveal an ugly truth that could be waiting for the Timberwolves: This may be the best it gets for a long-suffering organization that has pushed in its chips to win now.