One Year is All it Takes
It feels like a lifetime ago when Jimmy Butler first came to Minnesota and there was hope for the Timberwolves for the first time in more than a decade. Somehow it only took one season, but despite finally making it back to the playoffs, the franchise synonymous with dysfunction has already turned that hope back into the all-too-familiar feeling of despair. Jimmy Butler’s relationship with the team has soured so much that he publicly stated he would not resign with the Timberwolves after this season, and eventually requested a trade. By announcing his intentions publicly, Butler attempted to force Minnesota’s hand. He was excused from team activities for the preseason, skipping games and practicing apart from the team while management looked for a trade.
Coach, President, and de facto General Manager Tom Thibodeau is in a tough spot. If the Timberwolves miss the playoffs this season, he would likely be fired. Trading Butler might be in the best interest of the franchise, but it also means almost assuredly missing the playoffs. This has led some to speculate that Thibodeau is actively trying to thwart any potential trades the Wolves may have by repeatedly raising the asking price. It seems like Thibodeau thinks he can salvage the relationship.
The Infamous Practice
After weeks of mixed reporting on potential trade offers and confusion around who is calling the shots in Minnesota, with less than a week left before the start of the season, there appears to be little traction in actually trading Butler. So on Wednesday, Butler returned to the team for practice, a signal that suggests he will start the season playing for the Timberwolves. This would normally be a good sign for the team, but as the details emerged, they painted a pretty bleak picture. Jimmy Butler, fed up with the lack of intensity and effort shown by the young Timberwolves, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, took the 3rd stringers and scrimmaged against the rest of the starters… And reportedly dominated them, repeatedly calling out teammates and trash talking. During the practice Butler also shouted “you fucking need me, you can’t win without me!” to General Manager Scott Layden. For a franchise that hasn’t seen a cohesive group grow together for over 15 years, this report was as typical as it was disheartening.
To make matters worse, Butler followed up on his performance with an interview on ESPN with Rachel Nichols Wednesday night, airing his grievances and bashing the team on national TV. His main point seemed to be that the other players, especially those who he considers more talented than himself, are hurting the team because they don’t care about winning or put in enough effort. Butler reiterated that he “cares about winning more than anything else.” Certainly his on-the-court attitude speaks to his will to win, but it seems like an odd position for Butler to state when his trade request was specific to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, or Los Angeles Clippers, three franchises that missed the playoffs and are objectively worse than the Timberwolves. What do those teams have in common? They are all conveniently in big markets and have the cap space to give him a supermax contract. Butler eventually expanded his list to include the Miami Heat, but it seems clear that regardless of how hard he plays, his first priority is not winning. This sentiment was echoed by Butler himself during the interview, when he confirmed he was unhappy with the extension the Timberwolves offered, and would have been happy if the team gave up assets to free money to restructure his deal and pay him more. This is despite Butler still being under contract this season and the Timberwolves willingness to give him a new contract when the season ends. In the interview, Butler also said, “everybody’s so scared to be honest with one another” while describing Wednesday’s practice and being brutally honest with the team. That message rings hollow as Butler continues to claim “it’s not about the money.”
That being said, Butler raises a legitimate argument. The young Timberwolves don’t seem to be passionate about winning. Wiggins especially has looked apathetic on the court at times; he regressing heavily last season, and seemingly checked out games when he wasn’t getting enough touches. Towns has been dominant on offense, but he rarely demands to take over a game like we want to see. Butler reinforced this position saying that Towns boasted in practice, “Anybody can get this work!” and Butler replied, “Every time I get switched out onto you, you pass it.” This is not a great look for a supposed franchise cornerstone. Additionally, the biggest concern for the Timberwolves has been their awful defense, where the biggest factor is effort. Wiggins and Towns continue to struggle defensively, despite both having the physical tools to succeed. There is no question Butler is correct about the young players having plenty of areas for improvement, but he doesn’t acknowledge his responsibility, either. Part of being a veteran leader is helping to the develop the younger players. Sitting out for weeks, returning only to talk trash to everyone, and following it up with an interview on ESPN isn’t helping.
The Timberwolves still have a few options on how to proceed with Jimmy Butler. None of them are ideal, but they also aren’t as bad as they may seem.
Option 1 – Keep Butler for another year.
The downside of not trading Butler is obvious. He will probably leave after the season and the Timberwolves get nothing in return. This would be a disastrous outcome for a team who gave up Lauri Markkanen just a season ago to acquire Butler. Additionally, based on the past week, it’s entirely possible that Butler actively ruins the development and chemistry of the rest of the roster. The Timberwolves have young talent ready to take a larger role, and with Thibodeau’s habit of rarely playing his bench, having Butler on the team means the Timberwolves two rookies, Keita Bates-Diop and Josh Okogie, will see fewer minutes. If the relationship with Butler can’t be mended, not trading him could end terribly.
If Butler is retained for the entire season, it may not be as bad as it seems. For starters, this is the most likely scenario in which the Wolves could make the playoffs. He is better than any other player or players the Timberwolves could trade him for. That’s not nothing! After another year with the team, there’s also the chance that the Timberwolves look better, grow as a team, and Butler decides to take another contract in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have Butler’s bird rights, meaning they can offer him a bigger contract than any other team in free agency. Even if it seems doubtful Butler would stay in Minnesota, there is good reason to retain him if there are no good trade offers on the table; it is a show of strength in an organization. If the offers for Butler are insufficient, refusing to trade him for a pu pu platter sends the message that you won’t be leveraged into making bad trades in the future. There’s value to that message, but it’s a small consolation to losing your best player for nothing.
Option 2 – Trade Butler Immediately
Teams know Butler wants out and it’s becoming clear that he’s toxic to the locker room, so they won’t give up full value in a trade, especially when they know they could just sign him as free agent next season. But teams should still be willing to give a lot. Jimmy Butler is a top-15 player in the league coming off arguably his best season in the NBA. Only about 10 teams can easily get enough cap space next summer to sign Butler to the max contract he wants. So the other 19 teams would have to trade Minnesota in order to have Butler past this season – this includes the Heat, with whom the Timberwolves have been engaged in talks with. Additionally, any team that trades for Butler also gets his bird rights, and can offer him more money than any other team to re-sign. Remember, the Timberwolves have the asset everyone wants, so they have the leverage. This sordid ordeal over the past month doesn’t change that. If a team wants Butler, they have to go through Minnesota. If Minnesota desperately tries to force a trade, they won’t get nearly the value if they could if they waited…
Option 3 – Wait for the approach of the Trade Deadline (February 7th, 2019)
Despite also being the most frustrating of the options, this might also be the best option the Timberwolves have. The Timberwolves should start the season with Jimmy Butler, and do whatever they can to appease him in the short term. As the season rolls along, teams will invariably be better or worse than their initial expectations, and will become more willing to trade. Teams always look to upgrade their roster as they race toward the playoffs. The Timberwolves should keep their options open and trade Butler in the middle of the season, after months of his play reminding everyone how good he is and how much he could help their team. While everyone in Minnesota seems ready to end the Jimmy Butler saga, the Timberwolves should remain patient and wait for the right deal. It may be a rough few months, but it’s the correct move for the franchise.
There has been quite the backlash from Minnesota fans about Butler over the past week. The sentiment seems to be that he’s arrogant, toxic to a locker room, lacks leadership, and needs to be shipped out as soon as possible. I’ve even seen suggestions that the Timberwolves should make him play in the G League for a year as a type of punishment. Organizations that want to attract future stars don’t treat their current stars like that on their way out. Fans should remember what it was like in Minnesota for the 13 seasons before Butler arrived, and be grateful that he took the team to the playoffs. He may have mishandled this situation and failed as a leader, but he’s worked his ass off while playing. Which in the end, as unsatisfying as it is, should be enough.