Jimmy Butler earned his basketball bravado playing for the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately when he joined the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was mostly just full of bull.
Oh, there’s no doubt Butler is a baller. But sometimes there’s addition by subtraction. When the disgruntled dribbler was finally traded to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, along with injured rookie Justin Patton, the Wolves got two starters from a team that won 52 games last season, in Robert Covington and Dario Saric. But more importantly, a dire dose of dysfunction was mercifully lifted from a franchise with a long history of ineptitude.
The Wolves have played two games since Butler’s departure and won them both. Still struggling with a 6-9 record, Minnesota has a big hill to climb. But the team and its coach look like they can finally breathe again.
It’s early. “Cautiously optimistic” seems the appropriate phrase after only one look at the new faces.
Regardless of Butler’s many contributions last year, the team played with far more emotion and noticeable joy, now that he’s gone. In Wednesday’s win over a good New Orleans team, young stars Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins made key shots and appeared liberated. Veteran Jeff Teague orchestrated the offense beautifully. Covington showed great defensive instincts and a potent long-range jumper. And Saric, although not that athletically gifted, looked like a likable lunch-pail guy who will win over the fans with his passing and shooting.
To me, the two biggest potential improvements lie in the Wolves’ greater depth and ability to shoot the three. On paper, it should make aging players like Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver more effective with fewer minutes. And the outside range should even open more floor space for bench players like Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones to contribute. For those who say the Sixers got the better of this deal, I’m inclined to suggest they wait and see.
First, let’s look at the mess “Jimmy Buckets” had created before he left:
Brought onboard by his old coach, Tom Thibodeau, to provide leadership, durability and toughness, he ultimately proved to be far more self-serving, missing a large chunk of last season due to a knee injury and then sitting out several games this season for ridiculous explanations like “general soreness” and “precautionary measures.” The real reason was, Jimmy wanted to stick it to the club for not trading him fast enough. Even though he gave up on the team mighty fast and his demands for a five-year contract were, to most NBA experts, unreasonable.
Butler told everyone he had let Thibs know many months ago that he wasn’t satisfied. To what degree and when has never really been clarified. He said it wasn’t about the money. But then by his actions it appeared it was.
He said he loved his teammates and everything was “cool.” Yet he berated them in practice and then happened to have a national reporter available to tell his side of the story.
He said he just “hated to lose,” but at one point preferred to go to places like Brooklyn or the Clippers.
While it now seems easy to make Butler the scapegoat, at least for this year’s dysfunction, there are no longer any excuses for KAT and Wiggins. In fact, it’s now “Put up or shut up” time for a number of key figures in the organization.
Will KAT emerge as the face of the franchise and play to his expectations?
We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Wiggins before, only to have him disappear a couple of nights later. Can he sustain it, now that Butler is gone?
Maybe more importantly, can we trust Thibs to find the appropriate balance with this offense? Will his rotations make sense or will he revert back to heavy minutes for his veterans, leaving others to gradually lose playing time and confidence?
Owner Glen Taylor has already said he will give his embattled coach a chance to make something of this new roster. But there are now no guarantees he’ll return next year. Is Taylor willing to start over again if Thibs can’t coach a Butler-less bunch?
Thibodeau was hired, ostensibly, to provide a much-needed boost to the team’s defense. The respect for Thibs in this area from league experts has been well-chronicled. Butler was expected to spearhead that defense and the four-time All-Star did give Minnesota a huge boost last year. In fact, he led them to their first playoff berth in 14 years. Yet here we are in Year Three, and Minnesota continues to field one of the worst defenses in the NBA. That has to change.
After years of draft misery, Minnesota finally has two No. 1 picks, both seemingly “cornerstones” toward a very bright future. Both have already received financial assurances from the front office. But so far under Thibs, their stock is plummeting, and the word “soft” is a common label for both of them.
Finally, earning a playoff spot after years of futility, albeit by the thinnest of margins last season, one would think the club is headed in the right direction. Yet, this fall things seemed so out of whack that Wolves’ fans could make reasonably good arguments to dump its’ owner, coach AND best player.
Minnesota’s attendance is still near the bottom of the league but showing signs of life with the Butler saga over and Covington and Saric looking like sincere contributors who will embrace their new home and energize a fan base that deserves something in return for nearly 30 years of bad basketball. But it’s hard not to be skeptical.
I can still remember 1989. I was a television sportscaster and the newly founded T-wolves were in Fargo for a preseason game. Growing up in the Twin Cities as a huge basketball fan, the knowledge that my home town was getting a professional NBA team again was a significant development. I recall standing on a chair to do my interviews with 7-footer Brad Lohaus and star player Tony Campbell.
Not much was expected of the expansion club that year. Despite setting attendance records by playing their first season in the cavernous Metrodome, Bill Musselman’s team lost far more frequently than they won.
Twenty-nine years later, the Wolves are still trying to figure things out. With the exception of a brief run of modest success during the turn of the century, this is an organization that’s never quite figured things out.
Bad draft decisions. Questionable hires. Endless off-the-court drama.
In fact, this organization has been so uninspiring, there are those convinced the Wolves are somehow cursed.
If the Wolves entered the NBA lottery in a year when there were two great players available, they’d draw the No. 3 seed. If they were fortunate to land a good player, he’d get hurt. Steph Marbury couldn’t stand to see Kevin Garnett be the star. Christian Laettner called most of his teammates “losers.”
Then there was the Joe Smith saga. Somehow the team signed an illegal deal with a player who never made an NBA All-Star team in his 16 years with 13 different teams. That boneheaded move set the team back for years.
So excuse fans for not being surprised when their latest superstar found a way to embarrass an already red-faced and humbled organization.
Yes, Butler’s bull has blissfully gone bye-bye. There are subtle signs the Wolves may be watchable again. Then again, with this franchise, I might change my mind over the weekend.