NBA offseason hype is slowly creeping up with the draft lottery being determined (congratulations Suns, Kings and Hawks), the combine underway and trade rumors cropping up, including one directly involving the Wolves.

    Given this is the player spotlight series we’re not going to focus on that too much, but the player we’re looking at today and the player mentioned in the latest rumor mill are closely tied together, so it’s impossible not to touch on it a little bit.

    That being said, these rumors are based on the off-hand comments from two outsiders, who even mentioned the likelihood that things would be taken out of context and blown up. This was only brought up to stir up some controversy, and hey, it worked!

    It’s no secret that Karl-Anthony Towns and Tom Thibodeau aren’t on good terms, which is where the topic stemmed from. This has been circulating around the Wolves for some time, though, dating all the way back to the beginning of the season.

    It’s not just Towns either. Andrew Wiggins was not pleased with his role in Thibs’ offense, Jamal Crawford believed he was promised more than he received, Jeff Teague openly opposed the gameplan in the middle of a playoff series and Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica had plenty to be frustrated about after getting buried on the bench for extended periods of time.

    To say Thibs is disconnected from all of his players outside of Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson is an understatement. This isn’t anything new as there has been tension all season, and it’s seemingly drawn a dotted line in the sand. It’s not to the point where it’s one side versus the other. People can still crossover and make amends, but there are clearly two sides who don’t see eye-to-eye.

    This is nothing new, though, which is important to understand. Teams deal with this type of strife all the time and handle it internally. The Wolves aren’t about to trade Towns this summer, contrary to the rumors. The rumors are just there to stir the pot and fill up a quota. For years the Pelicans had to deal with this talk centered around Anthony Davis, and before him the Kings had to deal with talk surrounding DeMarcus Cousins and before him it was Kevin Love, and many more before him.

    It’s seemingly Karl’s turn to take the mantle, but that doesn’t mean a trade is imminent. When a rumor crops up, check the sources, understand the person who’s reporting it and do your homework. Often the truth is in there somewhere with a little bit of research.

    The truth here is that there’s some friction between Thibs and Towns, but not to a level where the organization is on the verge of collapsing under civil war. The Wolves aren’t going to let Towns get away, Thibodeau is smart enough to avoid the George Karl route (just ask Aaron Bruski about the Karl fiasco) and Towns could be leaving anywhere from $37 million dollars to $70 million dollars on the table if he leaves Minnesota.

    It’s in everyone’s best interests to keep Towns right where he is, and hold on to him for the long term.

    So how does Butler fit into this equation, as alluded to above? Well he’s very clearly on Thibs’ side no matter what. It would be a tall task finding another player as committed to his coach in this league, the two are that tight. The fact of the matter is their style and personalities match perfectly and they have a mutual respect for one another.

    There’s no question what side Butler would take in a Thibs/Towns showdown. Even earlier in this season Butler has been openly frustrated with the effort and commitment of the young players on the Wolves, mainly Towns and Wiggins. Does this mean Butler is a bad teammate and wants to trade them? Not necessarily, he just expects the same effort and commitment that he gives on the court every day.

    It does raise the question of Butler’s future with the Wolves. If at some point it comes down to Thibs or Towns, the Wolves will almost certainly side with Towns. Everything about the Wolves’ future revolves around Towns, he’s the guy you build the roster around.

    If Thibs is shown the door, does Butler follow suit? Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the Wolves? Minnesota was a 31-win team last year, then Butler was brought in and they turned into a 47-win team. Then again Butler played just 59 games due to a knee injury and has missed significant stretches in four out of five seasons. Perhaps hedging your bets around Butler, and Thibs by association, while risking alienating Towns, isn’t the best approach. Maybe it’s the only approach with the money tied up.

    2017/18 Stats: 59 G | 59 GS | 36.7 MP | 22.2 PTS | 5.3 REB | 4.9 AST | 2.0 STL | 0.4 BLK | 1.8 TOV | 47.7 FG% | 35.0 3P% | 85.4 FT% | 51.2 eFG% 24.9 USG% 113 ORate | 105 DRate

    Statistically Butler was right in line with his last three seasons, the most dramatic change coming from his efficiency. He shot at or near career bests at the rim, in the paint and from the mid-range, while slightly cutting down his turnovers.

    His shot chart suggests that when Butler was operating in the middle of the floor, or going to his right, he was at his best (courtesy of NBA.com/stats)

    For the most part Butler was as advertised, which was good news for the Wolves last season because they paid a high price to acquire him. They parted with fan-favorite and promising wing Zach LaVine, the 2016 No. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 draft, which turned out to be Lauri Markkanen.

    The trio hardly played together thanks to various injuries, roster moves (an astounding 21 players suited up for the Bulls last season) and general tanking maneuvers, but it was clear by the end of the season that those three were the best players on the roster and the keys to the future.

    The Wolves were ready to accelerate the rebuilding process and mortgaged a chunk of their future to win now, and it worked. Butler led the Wolves to a playoff appearance and 47 wins. His renowned defense, while not quite as resonating as in the past, was certainly present. The team’s defensive rating with him off the floor was a putrid 112, compared to 105 when he was on the floor, and his on court leadership was a factor the Wolves haven’t had in years.

    When Butler was active, the team went 37-22, which is a .627 winning percentage. For what it’s worth, that winning percentage would have been the third best in the West over a full season, and in fact the Wolves were in third at the time of his injury.

    Unfortunately the injuries are starting to pile up on him, and it becomes more of a concern every year. Butler has logged huge minutes basically since part-way through the 2012-13 season when Butler finally earned Thibodeau’s trust. Last season Butler dealt with a serious knee injury and then a wrist injury. The knee injury occurred right after the All-Star break and required surgery.

    Upon his return in the last week of the season he looked nearly himself, but noticeably less explosive, which was likely tied to conditioning. The wrist injury wasn’t serious, but noticeably affected him as well.

    The scary part about all of this is that Butler had been feeling the knee injury for a little while, which was a reason he sat out the All-Star game. He said had no regrets about toughening it out through the initial discomfort and he wouldn’t do it over despite the injury.

    Having that mentality is all well and good, but Butler has now missed significant time in recent seasons, and the Wolves surely could have used Butler for a few more games down the stretch to avoid the Rockets in the first round. And now looking ahead is that a player you want to invest significant resources into? The on-court performance is still clearly productive, but how long will that hold up?

    Moving Forward

    Butler’s fit, despite the obvious on-court production, is still questionable as the team is currently constructed. We touched on it before how Wiggins isn’t a perfect pairing next to Butler, and Teague needs the ball in his hands to be effective, just like Butler. It’s useful to have multiple playmakers on the court at once (in fact it’s necessary, looking at the final-four teams left), but each player has some deficiencies that clash with one another.

    Butler, Wiggins and Teague are all isolation players with average at best jump shots, and Wiggins isn’t really a high level playmaker with the ball. At this point the Wolves get away with it because all three players are supremely talented and basically trade off who has the ball in their hands. What happens when millage and injuries begin to slow Butler down?

    There’s a case to be made that one of them has to go to make things fit a little better. Wiggins is nearly impossible to trade, but there is almost no way Thibs trades Butler away given their relationship.

    Then there’s the contract extension to consider. For those who subscribe to The Athletic there’s a great breakdown from Jon Krawczynski and Danny Leroux that dives deep into Butler’s options. I’ll scratch the surface a little bit here. If Butler signs an extension this summer, he could add four years and $110 million dollars to his contract. If he waits it out and declines his 2019/2020 option, he could sign for five years and $188 million dollars with the Wolves (or four years, $139 million elsewhere).

    Financially, much like Towns, Butler has millions of reasons to stick it out in Minneapolis. If Butler stays around long term, Towns signs an extension and Wiggins isn’t moved, the Wolves are almost guaranteed to pay into the luxury tax for as long as that core is intact. That raises a couple of questions on both sides.

    Are the Wolves ready to put all of their chips into that core? With all the concerns surrounding Butler, and then Wiggins seemingly floundering in his development, is that a core that can top the Warriors and Rockets, and eventually the Celtics and Sixers? It’s not a great bet.

    On the other side, is Butler ready to put all of his chips into that core? Butler wants to win a championship incredibly bad and he might be skeptical of the core for the same reasons the Wolves may be. He understands this could be his last shot to be ‘the guy’ on a title team. He’s openly criticized his teammates before and might not want to get locked in. Add in the potential for Thibs getting the axe down the line, Butler may not want to be around with another coach he doesn’t pick. He didn’t mesh with Fred Hoiberg’s style at all.

    Despite the Wolves’ .627 winning percentage with a healthy Butler, it’s fair to consider the Wolves are better off long-term by playing out Butler’s current contract and moving on. Even better, if the Wolves can find a viable trade for Wiggins, they can go “all-in” for the next two years with prime Butler. In the end, the Wolves let him walk and run a soft re-tool around Towns, who would still be under 25 years old.

    Using the trade from Kevin O’Conner of the Ringer as an example, say the Wolves trade Wiggins and Teague for Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam. For next season the Wolves put all of their chips into the table. Lowry and Miles are better fits next to Butler than Teague and Wiggins, and Siakam gives the Wolves a defensive option.

    If they somehow got out of Dieng’s contract (probably by trading the No. 20 overall pick this year) the Wolves would effectively shed all of their salary major as of the 2020 NBA season, with only Towns left and plenty of options moving forward. That’s obviously an extremely hypothetical situation, but the point here is that tough decisions lie ahead for the Wolves regarding the future of Jimmy Butler.

    Most likely the Wolves stay course, pointing to the 37-22 record at full strength. Butler re-ups for the long haul and the Wolves push their problems down the line a few years. The situation bares watching closely as the chess pieces move around the table. Butler’s camp, Towns’ camp and Thibs’ camp are all carefully proceeding along.

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