A year ago, Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves made a bet. They bet that despite having the league’s longest playoff drought, despite being one of the less attractive NBA markets for young millionaires due to weather and proximity to cultural centers, and despite having a young, raw roster, they could convince Jimmy Butler to stick around through his prime by quickly building a good, maybe great, team.
This theory, that Butler could be swayed by speedy team success, was wrong.
Butler has reportedly requested a trade, prioritizing the Clippers, Knicks, and Nets. All of those teams are currently worse than the Timberwolves, and (with all apologies to 3-6-Latvia) Karl-Anthony Towns is better than anyone on any of their rosters. But those teams are in LA and New York, not Minnesota.
The good news is that Butler graciously revealed his true priorities and preferences one year before hitting the market, giving Thibodeau and Minnesota plenty of time to correct their mistake. The question is whether Thibodeau will concede to the reality staring him in the face or stubbornly refuse to believe he can’t change Butler’s mind with another year of basketball.
Clearly, Thibodeau should concede. Swinging hard for Butler was a masterstroke, Thibodeau’s best move as personnel boss with the Timberwolves, but it didn’t work out. The Wolves remain a little too dysfunctional despite making the playoffs and earning both Butler and Towns All-NBA honors. There’s ongoing drama between Butler and the talented and maligned Andrew Wiggins, and persistent reports that Butler and Towns have basically no functional relationship. The on-court chemistry was quite bad last season despite the team improving massively. It’s like a less impressive, most concentrated dose of late Westbrook-Durant.
Moving Butler and risking the brief moment of Timberwolves success isn’t easy. Minnesota has been through so much mediocrity and failure; a one-season respite, should the Wolves fall back into the lottery after moving Butler, is cruel. Thibodeau also likely feels pressure from above despite ending the playoff drought and working for a franchise owner who typically gives his front office executives long leashes.
Thibs is one of the last NBA head coaches with ultimate front office power. That era is ending, and Thibodeau surely sees that. The problem is that it’s easier just to fire your coach-GM than to strip front office power and keep them on the bench. Ask Stan Van Gundy. (It worked for the Clippers with Doc Rivers, and they are apparently Butler’s top target. The NBA is full of contrasts.)
Still, despite the risk the Wolves fall backward into the pit of mediocrity after trading Butler, or the risk that Thibodeau finds himself back out of the NBA, there’s no other choice. Minnesota traded real assets for Butler hoping they could convince him the Gopher State is a great place to spend his basketball prime, and have now learned that they could not successfully make that case.
Oh well. Good try. Time to move on.
The upside is that if Butler is truly focused on the Clippers as a destination (and assuming the Clippers front office is willing to play ball instead of waiting until next summer), Thibodeau’s staff can likely find a trade package that could keep Minnesota in the playoff mix. Some combination of Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, a pick, and Tobias Harris — basically, an edited version of what LA got for Blake Griffin — could do the trick. Thibodeau needs defense and shooting around Towns, Wiggins, and Jeff Teague. Butler offered that and more, but those skills can be found elsewhere if Butler won’t commit to sticking around.
It’s never an easy choice to trade a top-15 player in his prime. When they tell you they don’t want to be there, and when they have an opportunity to leave quite soon with your team getting nothing in return, it becomes easier. Butler has stated his intentions. Thibodeau has to believe him and do what’s right for the Timberwolves, even if it stings and even if it eventually costs him his job.
Just like Paul George in Indiana, Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Butler did Minnesota a favor by being honest about his future and giving enough lead time for the team to figure it out. The Timberwolves don’t exactly need to thank him and certainly shouldn’t trade him only to teams he’s targeted. (None of the Pacers, Spurs, or Celtics did that.) But the Wolves should believe him and act accordingly.
That means trading him, probably soon. You’re on the clock, Wolves.