November 15, 2018, 9:51 pm
Saying that the 2018-19 season got off to a rough start for the Minnesota Timberwolves would be an egregious understatement. Between a trade request, stubbornness on all sides and a poor showing on the court, it looked like the team was destined for another losing year, their 13th out of their last 14 seasons; but a recent turn of events has infused the players some life, and perhaps there’s still a chance for the franchise to salvage something out of what initially appeared to be a lost cause.
It felt like the season was already over before training camp even began when Jimmy Butler expressed his frustrations and vehemently requested a trade away from the franchise. A quiet offseason with personnel moves turned into a blazing hotbed of rumors and dialog all centered around the disgruntled star, with none of the attention focused on the actual basketball product.
Instead of going into the year looking to build off a playoff appearance, their first since 2004, the team was focused on damage control and recovering from the fallout of Butler’s bombshell reports to ESPN.
“You f—ing need me, Scott (Layden, Wolves GM). You can’t win without me” Butler said after returning to practice for the first time, nearly three weeks after requesting a trade and well into the training camp season. It was a rough time in Minneapolis, and it didn’t look to be getting any better.
Tom Thibodeau, bless his heart, still believed relationships could be repaired and he could get Butler to come around. Winning would be his answer. If the Wolves started of strong, Butler would calm down and everyone could move on. Butler instead went to the very top, owner Glen Taylor, and made sure his stance was perfectly clear that he was in no way interested continuing this relationship.
Predictably the Wolves got off to a slow start, winning just four games in their first 13 tries. Further strain developed between Thibs and Butler, with the player growing frustrated with the amount of playing time he was getting and the continued lack of action on the trade market. It was halfway through that 13th game, an eventual loss to Sacramento, that Butler had made his final decision to not play in any further game for the Wolves, according to The Athletic’s sources.
Thibs and Layden knew, then, they would have no other opportunity. They took their best available offer and finally moved on.
The time-frame in the big picture here is short, especially in a trade that involves such a marquee player like Butler, but it felt like an eternity has gone by since the initial trade request and subsequent drama. When the trade was announced (a swap of Butler and the incumbent throw-in Justin Patton for Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a second round pick) the feeling was more of relief than excitement. The Wolves can finally move on from the drama and the worry of paying the deteriorating Butler well into his 30s and get back to the young, up-and-coming vision they had 18 months ago.
The trade represents a dramatic shift is the playstyle that fits the personnel. Now confidently led by Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves have an interesting collection of offensive talent surrounding him. Defense will remain the team’s weakest point, but a change in philosophy can get this offense humming at an entertaining, and highly effective, rate.
That brings us back to Thibodeau and his fit with this team long-term. It’s clear that the Wolves are still looking to compete with this trade (other offers included worse players, but better draft picks… Except the Heat trade, but I digress) and Glen Taylor likely isn’t thrilled with the idea of continuing to pay Thibs’ salary this year and another new coaches. That probably means that Thibs will finish out the year in Minnesota, but he is clearly not the right man for this group going forward.
With both of Thibodeau’s ‘guys’ heading into free agency next summer, the remaining core players that the team seeks to build around could be better served with a more flexible coach, someone who will cater to their strengths as opposed to a coach who tries to force a circular peg down a triangular hole. Towns and Andrew Wiggins (particularly Wiggins) have seen their growth stagnated since Thibs’ arrival. Wiggins consistently seems lost on offense and unsure of his role. Towns can dominate for a stretch and then go missing. Thibs is blessed with two of the most gifted players in the league, but lacks the creativity to fully unleash them.
The additions of Saric and Covington certainly help, two guys that are familiar with running next to two high-volume players. The space both guys provide may help more than anything, along with their willingness to keep the ball moving. The Wolves get to benefit from 76ers head coach Brett Brown’s hard work turning these players into team-first guys. The hope is that Thibodeau doesn’t undo that progress.
So far the results are encouraging. In the debuts of Saric and Covington, both players played big roles in the 107-100 win over the Pelicans. The team made 14 3-pointers and had 29 assists on 37 baskets. Towns was also the leading scorer, although Wiggins took the most shots. It definitely had a different feel than the last 14 games, which were devoid of emotion. Even Thibodeau looked completely beaten down by the circumstances. Last night there was excitement and some long-term hope for the future, which had waned in recent months.
KAT was the leading scorer with 25 points, adding 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks to his line. Wiggins finished 22 points (but on 23 shots). He showed off his patented athleticism more often tonight, and hit four 3-pointers. So far this season he’s shooting 41.7 percent from beyond the arc on 5.5 attempts. With Butler now out of the picture, Thibodeau needs to unlock Wiggins once more.
Andrew Wiggins hasn't disrespected somebody like this on a dunk since…? pic.twitter.com/sTwfJgjqkg
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) November 15, 2018
It’s been just one game in the new era, but the team looks poised for a more relaxed run. A soft upcoming schedule for the Wolves gives the team a chance to build some confidence. Most of the attention and distractions are gone away with Butler along with them. Whether all that translates to wins is no guarantee, but at least now the players can get back to business as usual.