To say that Minnesota Timberwolves team president/head coach Tom Thibodeau’s handling of the Jimmy Butler trade saga has been perplexing is a definite understatement.
It’s been 24 days since Butler met with Thibodeau and other Wolves top brass and asked to be traded and in that time two things have become apparent. One is that Minnesota does not have much of a market but Butler and the other is the behavior of the Wolves front office is the reason for that.
Throughout the saga one team has remained a constant as a serious suitor for Butler, the Miami Heat. Thanks to the team’s cap situation trading for Butler would be the only way for the Heat to acquire him.
Trade packages have floated around between the Wolves and other teams like the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Los Angeles Clippers but nothing substantive have come from them.
The only players mentioned in those were the Wolves asking for Kris Middleton from Milwaukee and Ben Simmons from Philadelphia.
When it comes to Miami, the negotiations have gone back and forth and have twice, as recently as October 7, come close to trade being completed only for Minnesota to ask for more in the 11th hour and have talks broken down. The supposed sticking point for the Wolves has been the Heat’s young core of Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo, and Justise Winslow–who just agreed to a three year, $39 million extension—being included in the deal along with Miami taking the contract of Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota.
Ten years ago, Heat president Pat Riley would’ve agreed to the deal the Wolves wanted, but that was a Riley that still had a decade left to build a contender in Miami.
Today, Riley is likely eyeing his exit from the Heat front office and looking towards retirement. For him, this is remarkable restraint but a necessary one as the regime that is likely to take over (head coach Erik Spoestra, vice president Alonzo Mourning, general manager Andy Elisburg, and CEO Nick Arison) have shown a preference to developing young players and keeping them.
Adding draft picks would be the easier path for Riley if it means keeping Adebayo and possibly Richardson out of the deal. This seems moot now though.
At this point one fact has become clear to rival teams throughout the league and media covering all involved parties.
Simply put, Thibodeau does not want to trade Butler at all. It doesn’t matter what team comes along, what trade package is offered, or what keeping him will do to an already listless Wolves locker room, Thibodeaou’s mind is made up.
He has already and will continue to sabotage trade talks to buy time for the regular season to start. Then he hopes to force Butler back to Minnesota thanks to NBA rules stating that players can’t hold out for more than 30 days in a row after the start of the season.
In Butler’s case doing so would forfeit his free agency in 2019. In Thibodeau’s eyes getting Butler back on the floor with the Wolves can help him sell the idea of staying long term with the team.
There are obvious ways this plan can fall apart.
First, Butler can opt to have elective surgery on his injured wrist. It would stop the 30 day countdown, keep him away from the locker room, and would lessen his value in any potential trade that Minnesota might seek during the season.
Second, there is how Karl-Anthony Towns takes this. On the same day that reports came out about Butler’s trade request he signed a five-year $190 million super max extension with the Wolves on the premise that Butler would be gone from the team.
Instead, Towns sees that not only is Butler is on the Minnesota roster but that Thibodeau wants to keep it that way. Due to issues inside and allegedly outside the basketball court the relationship between Towns and Butler is at this point irreparable. Should this stalemate continue it can deteriorate to the point that Towns becomes the player demanding a trade.
Third, Butler can come back to the team but do it in the way he in October 10. On that day not only did he show up late to practice but also subbed himself into the scrimmage game with the Wolves third stringers and made it a point to beat the starters.
Butler also loudly berated Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Wolves general manager Scott Layden, and Thibodeau during the scrimmage and immediately left once it was over. Later that day, he gave a television interview to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols about the situation.
It turned out that the day’s events were orchestrated by Butler’s team in advance including the Nichols interview as they called to schedule it days before the scrimmage.
While Thibodeau may think he has accomplished his goal as far as getting Butler back on the team it’s apparent that he isn’t fully committed as he was not with the Wolves for their last preseason game Friday against the Bucks.
It’s also apparent that Minnesota knows that should Butler fully come back he will do so while being a disruptive force. The team took the precaution of cancelling practice on October 11 to prevent a repeat performance of the day before.
Instead, that day was dominated by reports of Butler holding a players only meeting addressing his issues with management which depending which player is asked may or may not have happened.
Thibodeau has a volatile situation on his hands of his own making. On one side he has a disgruntled player in Butler who is determined to make a point about how he wants out of Minnesota, something that he has stated to have expressed to Thibodeau as early as four after the Wolves were eliminated from the playoffs by the Rockets. On another side is Towns and Wiggins, both of whom are the target of Butler’s ire but who have also signed max extensions with Minnesota making then franchise cornerstones.
The last side though is with the most important person in this mess, Wolves owner Glen Taylor. When Butler’s trade request became public he ordered Minnesota’s front office to find a quick resolution only to have Thibodeau openly defy him.
Taylor has allowed the situation to become what it is now and in the process has turned the Wolves into the laughingstock of the NBA.
Normally, one would expect a firing to have already taken place after this has transpired but Taylor’s reluctance to want to pay Thibodeau the remaining $24 million on his contract is playing a factor.
There are only two ways this can end. Either Thibodeau is allowed to continue his plan and as a consequence further erode what chemistry the Wolves have left as a team or Taylor puts his foot down, fires Thibodeau, and gets whatever salvageable package he can for Butler because at this stage no team is going to offer equal value for him. Whichever path Minnesota picks it has to be decided soon.
The Wolves open the 2018-19 season on October 17 against the San Antonio Spurs.