When the Minnesota Timberwolves first landed Jimmy Butler to team up with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and, eventually, Jeff Teague, there was talk that the NBA had a new future superteam to deal with.
And Minnesota showed enormous promise in the 2017-18 season, Butler’s first and only with the Wolves. Minnesota finished with 47 wins, but almost assuredly would have hit 50 and won the No. 3 seed in the West had Butler not been injured in late February. Though there were warning signs of unstable chemistry and stalled Andrew Wiggins development, the Towns-Butler partnership looked like a powerhouse that would change the West.
Butler requested a trade this summer, and after nearly three months of needless but entertaining drama, the Wolves shipped him and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a future second round pick. It’s hard to know confidently whether that was the best the Wolves could do — we all heard about the Rockets’ purported offer of four first-round picks for Butler — but it is what the Wolves did.
Two months later, Tom Thibodeau, the dual coach/president that dragged his feet during the Butler saga, was fired. Now the Wolves and the rest of us have to figure out what success looks like.
That was easy with Butler and Thibodeau in town: success would be playoff berths, playoff wins, perhaps title contention. The Wolves’ slow march to respectability behind Towns was accelerated dramatically by Butler’s arrival: Minnesota went from 31 wins to 47 in a single year.
Without Butler and Thibodeau, where’s the target? Is it closer to 31 than 47? Is that even possible without major roster or front office repercussions?
When they traded Butler, the Wolves were 4-9, in 14th place in the 15-team Western Conference. Luckily for them, it was early and they were only three games out of No. 8. Butler had been really good most nights he’s played, but his presence was erratic and there’s no question he has been an immense drain on the psyche of the team. This season, Minnesota was 3-7 when he plays and 1-2 when he sat: bad all the way around. Last year, the Wolves were 37-22 (.627) when he played and 10-13 (.435) when he didn’t. Clearly, he’s a net positive on the talent level of the club.
Losing him didn’t immediately drop the projected win total. Minnesota initially thrived, as Saric rebounded from a rough start to the season, and Covington proved be a perfect Thibodeau wing due to grit and high-skill defense.
But those good vibes faded because they don’t make up for Jimmy, so we can’t expect these additions to get these Wolves where they were last season. Asking for a win total in the high 40s is asking too much, unless Wiggins breaks out or there’s another trade.
The high 40s became even more untenable with Minnesota at 19-21 (15-12 after the Butler trade), when they fired Thibodeau on Jan. 6.
If asking for a win total in the high 40s is too much, asking for a playoff bid may be too much as well. Denver missed the playoffs with 46 wins last season, and the West somehow looks even more competitive this year because the Grizzlies, Lakers, Mavericks, and Kings are all in the mix, with no one but the Wolves falling out.
Where can Minnesota land in the standings this season without immense doom setting in? I don’t know that there’s a satisfying answer. They’ll fight, and maybe with everyone — from Towns to Saric to new interim head man Ryan Saunders — having something to prove, they’ll surprise us.
If not, the Wolves need to take real stock of the roster and consider much bigger questions.
By the end of his contract, Towns will have been under Minnesota control for nine years (a four-year rookie deal and five-year max extension with no player option). We are in Year 4 right now, and it’s shaping up to be a disaster of some kind.
The goal should not be to make the playoffs at all costs in Year 4 or Year 5, but to have a real excellent team — a contender — by Year 7 or Year 8. That gives time to flip or develop this roster into something more while still ensuring that the Wolves are something special well before Towns has the chance to ask for a trade in 2022 or 2023.
Of course, if it’s possible to make the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 without sacrificing that higher-aim future, by all means, go for it. But the goal shouldn’t be to build a passable, good team in the wake of Butler’s ugly exit. It should be to build something amazing. That may mean sacrifice in the short term.
Unfortunately, the NBA isn’t built so much like that. Thibodeau certainly wasn’t built like that, so this is now a matter for the next brain trust. Thibodeau’s future lasted 27 more games, with his firing coming on Jan. 6.
But the right approach is a comprehensive one, something that considers what success looks like for the Timberwolves not tomorrow or this season or even next season, but in the Karl-Anthony Towns era.
The Butler gambit was a nice try, but egos and personality conflicts destroyed it. That doesn’t have to destroy the future, though.