Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski. Now, it’s time to hash out who’s to blame for a wild Wolves experiment gone terribly wrong.
One year after Minnesota sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen to the Bulls, Butler’s relationship with both head coach and president Tom Thibodeau and young star Karl-Anthony Towns fractured beyond belief.
Butler requested to meet with Thibodeau, putting Minnesota in a precarious position: appease their new star forward, trade him or lose him for nothing in his pending 2019 free agency. But the All-Star forward made the decision for the Wolves, requesting a trade on Wednesday.
The Timberwolves hadn’t sniffed the postseason until Butler showed up, and it was his presence that snapped a playoff drought dating back to Kevin Garnett’s prime time in town. Now, the All-Star is destined to head elsewhere. One question we must consider is who’s to blame for this going south in the first place?
Tom Thibodeau: 33 percent
Not only is Thibs head coach, but he’s also president of basketball operations. He’s fully in control of the result on the floor, from identifying and acquiring players he likes to ensuring everything meshes well on the court. Give Thibodeau full control and what does he do? Try to rebuild his old Chicago Bulls team, even if some guys can’t really play anymore.
Of course Butler to the Wolves sounded good, and in some respect, yes, it was. (And still is!) Trading for the All-Star paved Minnesota’s way to the playoffs, and it cost them what most perceived to be merely pennies on the dollar, depending on Markkanen’s career arc. If everything goes south, the Wolves should still be able to recoup some semblance of assets and talent in a potential deal.
But it was Thibodeau’s idea to put a no-nonsense personality like Butler in the same locker room, on the same floor as Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is a young star in the making who needs a push to take his game to the next level. Butler wants everyone to work as hard as he does and is legitimately offended by those who don’t. He has also had communication issues for much of his career: Remember, in Chicago, it was his way or Fred Hoiberg’s way. The Bulls chose the latter. The Wolves may soon have to make a similar decision.
It was Thibodeau’s decision from the start to trade for Butler, and it’s understandable why he did it. The Wolves needed a leader, someone capable of guiding this young team to success. Thibbs just didn’t take into consideration that Butler’s leadership style wouldn’t mesh best with Towns and Andrew Wiggins’ personalities. He also must have glossed over the fact that Butler only had two years remaining on his deal.
This is more Thibodeau’s fault than anyone else’s.
Jimmy Butler: 22 percent
When things don’t work one place, sometimes it’s best to look inside oneself. Sure, Chicago didn’t entrust Butler with the keys to the franchise. They didn’t make him the face of the Bulls, despite numbers that proved he was ready for the title. But why not?
While part of that answer lies within Chicago management, the other is showing its face in Minnesota. Butler is a walking definition of “my way or the highway,” unapologetically himself no matter the cost. You can argue it’s what Butler shares with the greats: the work ethic, the desire to be better, the drive for a championship. But not everyone had Butler’s path to success.
Remember, this is a guy who had to scrap at JUCO before playing D-1 college ball at Marquette. This is a guy who was drafted with the last first-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, played 8.5 minutes per game as a rookie and didn’t become a reliable scorer until his fourth year in the league. This is a guy who eats, sleeps and breathes hard work because it’s what got him to this point all his life. He wasn’t a decorated, talented player right out of Marquette. He wasn’t a college phenomenon like Towns and Wiggins. Butler built this with sweat, and he expects everyone to put the same amount of work into this craft as he does.
As a result, there’s a tangible disconnect between he and the younger players on the roster, so much so that Thibbs is going for old players Butler used to play with in Chicago. That’s not going to work; it never was.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 15 percent
Young stars often need a push, and Towns is no different. It’s not uncommon; these are 18-year-old kids diving headfirst into an NBA that chews and spits out the finest college players, year-in and year-out.
Towns has taken a step offensively: he shot 42 percent from three last season. Historically, offense hasn’t been his problem. In a league where offense is nobody’s problem, it’s defense that glares out as KAT’s biggest weakness. He needs to be quicker on his feet. He needs to accept criticism and work accordingly. Entering his fourth year, he needs to be the leader the Wolves need him to be — whether Butler is around or not.
Towns reportedly won’t even sign his rookie max extension — five years between $158 and $190 million if he makes All-NBA or wins Defensive Player of the Year — until Minnesota hashes out its business with Butler. The Timberwolves weren’t a playoff team until they traded for the All-Star forward. If Towns doesn’t take leadership of his team, they’ll be right back outside the picture.
Andrew Wiggins: 15 percent
The talent and potential was always there with Wiggins. The question has only been whether he’d hone that potential and become a special player. He’s had the physical tools to be an All-Star in this league. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
Wiggins had a living, breathing example of the work needed to take leap after leap in this game, but he regressed with Butler in town. The physical tools many touted as qualities of a great defender? They never translated. It’s become less of a question of whether he has the skill, and more a question of whether he actually wants to be great.
The Wolves needed a third player to step up, and at times, Wiggins showed bright spots. But four years in the league entering season number five is too far along for bright spots: it’s time for consistent play at a high level, or it’s time for a change of scenery.
Glen Taylor: 15 percent
Former head coach Flip Saunders passing put owner Glen Taylor in a compromising position. Saunders’ loss was abrupt and unexpected. Taylor did the best he could: he hired the biggest, best, brightest name on the market.
What he may not have accounted for, in hindsight, is how Thibodeau’s personality would mesh with his younger stars. Thibodeau and Butler are mirror images of another, likely why each welcomed the idea of a reunion. But some stars need to be coddled, others lit on fire. Butler and Thibbs are raging flames. Towns and Wiggins, not so much.
Thibodeau constructed and developed this team, Butler dragged them to the playoffs — by hook or by crook — but it was Taylor who set this all in motion. He cannot be absolved of blame in this situation, even if he’s uninvolved in day-to-day basketball operations.
It was also Taylor’s decision that sent Kevin Garnett packing.
KG never wanted to leave Minnesota. He wanted to stay, develop those young players and eventually become part of ownership. How good of a leader was KG? He was the heart and soul of the 2008 championship Celtics team, and he was a Minnesota legend that got through to Towns and Wiggins.
But in an interview with the Associated Press, Garnett said he and Wolves brass weren’t on the same page. He’d leave the franchise, again, shortly after.
“I love those young guys,” Garnett said about working with Wiggins, Towns and LaVine in 2017. “I told [head coach Tom Thibodeau] I want to work with him, but obviously me and [Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor] don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and that’s how it’s going to be.”
Garnett trained rookies Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. over the summer and worked with Bucks young big man Thon Maker the summer before. We’ll see his work with them shine through. If only Taylor could have kept his franchise’s greatest in town.
There’s enough blame to go around for why things didn’t work out for Butler in Minnesota Minnesota, and the brunt of it falls on his and Thibodeau’s shoulders. The Wolves will have options — this is an All-Star in the prime of his career.
Hopefully, they don’t make the same mistake again.