Before he was finally traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick, Jimmy Butler was ruining the Minnesota Timberwolves’ season.
You might say that it’s hard to blame Butler for the Wolves’ 30-point loss to the Blazers on Sunday since Butler didn’t play. But that’s precisely an example of how Butler was ruining the Wolves. He didn’t play a second because he was trying to ruin the Wolves to force them into trading him, as much as he wants to deny it. And the Wolves — or coach-president Tom Thibodeau, at least — were playing along.
Butler was held out Sunday for what the team termed “precautionary rest.” Butler is, by all indications, healthy and has played one game in six days. Minnesota doesn’t have a back-to-back on the schedule until after Thanksgiving. He then played 43 minutes in a close loss to the Lakers on Wednesday, then 41 on Friday as the trade with Philly was being finalized.
There was a dispute as to whether Butler was deciding when he’ll play or whether he was making that call in concert with the franchise. If the team was deciding when to play him, it made bad choices.
Butler played against the Warriors on Oct. 31, a game Minnesota was destined to lose because Golden State is unbeatable right now. Sandwiched around that 35-minute performance from Butler, he sat out games against the rival Jazz (a narrow Minnesota win) and the rival Blazers (an embarrassing loss). Then, he played 43 and 41 minutes in the next two games.
If you’re really trying to strategically rest a top player, you play him in the winnable critical games and sit him against teams likely to run you out of the gym. Though these days, many teams are clearly able to run the Wolves out of the gym.
The fact the Timberwolves only announced Butler’s plans after a reporter who frequently seems to get scoops out of Butler’s camp scoops them was a big indicator as to who is captain of this ship. It’s the disgruntled star who orchestrated a training camp rupture, a practice floor ambush, and a thorough embarrassing of the franchise’s leadership. Among everyone involved, Butler had the least invested in the future of the franchise and he’s the one that still called all the shots.
This was absolute lunacy. It was one of the weirdest episodes in recent NBA power dynamic history.
In the moment, some critics claimed Carmelo Anthony held the Nuggets hostage in 2010 and early 2011 by limiting the number of teams he’d commit to signing an extension with prior to 2011 free agency. The truth was that Melo had been honest about his preferences — the Nuggets were totally free to ignore them if another team would be willing to be competitive in the trade market.
But Melo actually played through the drama, and pretty well. He didn’t jerk Denver around when it came to availability or rest. He fulfilled his contract.
Butler didn’t. That said, it’s impossible to say he held the Wolves hostage. They held themselves hostage by letting Butler take the wheel.
Trading a star rental — especially one as idiosyncratic as Butler has turned out to be — isn’t easy, but the lack of urgency from Thibodeau and the Wolves was shocking. They made the playoffs by one game last season. They were two wins from the No. 3 seed. Every game matters, and the Wolves were out here spitting away games on Butler’s whims. They have the No. 14 point differential out of 15 West teams, the only saving grace being a fairly tough schedule so far.
What’s worse is that Karl-Anthony Towns regressed amid the drama. It’s impossible to say whether the Butler fiasco weighed so heavily on Towns that he underperformed, but regardless, it wasn’t not helping. He’s been less consistent on both ends this season.
If Butler and Thibodeau thought this whole vortex of discontent would help Towns thrive — well, it didn’t. As I’ve written, Towns is the most important person involved. Every second the Wolves spent antagonizing him instead of helping him reach his fullest potential was a moment wasted.
Waiting this long was wrong: the Wolves needed to trade Butler or excuse him from the team until a trade was found. You can’t easily force him to play when healthy — a doctor can always find an injury — but it would have bene better for a certain absence than an uncertain presence at this point. Butler was too disruptive.
Thibodeau was guilty of malpractice for allowing this to happen. He’s the don of the team — he controls the coaching staff and the front office. There’s nowhere else to pass blame. Even though he eventually found religion and traded him, he should be on the next train out of town. This is as sloppy as anything Phil Jackson did in New York. This might actually prevent Thibodeau from ever being a head coach in the NBA again.
Did he realize this? Does he realize how badly the Butler fiasco has ruined his reputation?
This was ugly. The one way to start the clean-up process was to get Butler out of there, one way or another.