September 19, 2018, 6:48 pm
You could feel this one coming. Last week it was reported that Jimmy Butler requested a meeting with Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden, the two decision makers on the operations side, to discuss the player’s future. For those who may not have followed the Timberwolves too closely this past year, that may have come as a moderate surprise. For the rest of us, those who have picked up every comment, seen every argument and felt the tension brewing, this is almost liberating.
Constant whispers of a bad locker room and chemistry issues have been present since last December and they have continued throughout the year. The center of it has always been a two-sided battle, Butler and Thibs versus Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The tension never quite got out of hand, but nor did it subside. It apparently just continued to simmer throughout the season. The playoff appearance and short run may have even made the situation worse because it seemed like the two sides just seemed content with the outcome, while refusing to communicate and work things out. Had the Wolves missed the playoffs, perhaps this situation blows up sooner.
Yet here we are one week before training camp begins and now the tensions are beginning to boil.
When Butler asked to meet, it was a sign that this may finally play out and the two sides can reach an inevitable conclusion. For better or worse, that decision was made. Butler wants out and the sooner the better. The writing was on the wall and now this is the only way things could play out. It was either going to be Butler or Towns and Wiggins. For Butler, he doesn’t care about the money, he cares about getting a ring and feeling wanted.
His path to a ring in Minnesota was unclear. If he locked himself into a long-term contract, the team would have no flexibility to bring on another star veteran player over the life of his contract. He would be ‘stuck’ with Towns and Wiggins, a prospect that clearly didn’t sit well in his mind. So he’s looking for greener pastures and a team that can meet his needs.
What about feeling wanted, though? It certainly seems like Butler was a welcome addition to this franchise the moment he arrived, and he had the biggest backer possible in Thibodeau. He was going to be taken care of on the court by Coach Thibs and taken care of off the court by President Thibs. He was also the focal point for a fanbase that hadn’t seen a playoff chase in 13 years. Why didn’t he feel wanted? Perhaps things weren’t as tight between Butler and Thibs as we initially thought.
Last February, Butler and David Aldridge of NBA.com had a conversation that ranged many things from the current state of the team, their playoff chase and his upcoming summer. Aldridge asked Butler specifically about a potential extension and if he didn’t want that to be a problem going into 2019. Here is Butler’s response:
“Oh, I’m not worried about it. I mean, in the most humble way possible, if they don’t take care of me this summer, I think the summer after that, I’m’a end up playing somewhere. Let’s not worry about that. Look, money’s never the issue for me. If you win, that takes care of everything. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. When that presents itself, we’ll think about it and talk about it.”
On the surface, nothing is quite alarming there. Thibs was going to take care of Butler, end of story. Yet here we are in September, and now were talking about it. So where did they fail? The Wolves offered Butler the max extension the CBA allowed them to in July, four-years, $110 million. Butler declined, which wasn’t surprising because he could earn up to $189 million and another year if he waited until 2019.
However the Wolves could have offered him more if they cleared out salary and flew under the cap line (specifically they could renegotiate the contract under the CBA terms). It would have taken a trade of someone like… Andrew Wiggins.
So it appears as if the Wolves’ lack of action, and indirectly taking the side of Wiggins, was enough for Butler to feel unwanted and look elsewhere. Instead of supporting him by trading Wiggins, and perhaps Gorgui Dieng, renegotiating his salary and then signing him to a larger extension, they stood pat and tried to work things out for one more season. That sheds a bit more light on why Butler took so much time this offseason instead of requesting a trade back in July, at the very least. Butler gave them time to take care of him, but the clock hit zero.
So now here we are past the point of no return. Butler is gone one way or another, whether he’s traded before February or walks in July. So what’s next?
Thibs likely follows Butler out the door, no matter which impossibly tough decision he makes. It’s a lose-lose for him. Trade Jimmy for picks and young players only to miss the playoffs and get fired? Trade Jimmy for veterans and try to sneak into the eighth-seed again only to get fired when the team decides to go in a different direction? Keep Jimmy and lose him for nothing? Thibs is backed into a corner. Butler provided a list of three teams he prefers, three big markets that have the ability to sign him to the max extension next July, but for now Thibodeau is hesitant.
As Minnesota's Jimmy Butler prefers a deal to destinations including the Clippers, Knicks and Nets, Tom Thibodeau has no interest in trading him — for now. ESPN story: https://t.co/krC560ZX6d
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 19, 2018
There’s also the added layer of complexity at this point in the offseason because many teams are tied up financially until December. Butler clearly did his homework here. The three teams he lists, Clippers, Knicks and Nets, can all outright trade for him immediately. Other teams that may be interesting, like the Lakers, can’t make a trade that will work financially until December (when free agents signed this offseason are eligible to be traded). Then other teams like the Heat won’t be able to sign him to the money he seeks in July.
The list of three teams work for Butler to be traded to right now, which is clearly his intention. To get any deal done so soon will be tough, and may require a third team. You keep adding layers and layers to the trade, though, and the longer it drags out. Despite finally getting some resolution to the elephant in the room, a cloud of uncertainly still surrounds Thibodeau and what his next move will be.
One thing is certain, no one comes out of this situation ahead. Butler’s reputation takes a hit and he possibly loses some money in the process. Thibodeau will probably lose his job, likely never control basketball operations ever again and may very well have a long hiatus from coaching anywhere in the NBA. The franchise will have lost a young core of Towns, Wiggins, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen for 64 games of Butler and a young big man with two broken feet.
This is a no-win scenario for everyone involved in what initially looked like a slam-dunk just 15 months ago. Now we wait to see how quick this unfolds.