Jimmy Butler leading the young Timberwolves the only way he knows how

The voices of Tom Thibodeau’s players boomed outside a gymnasium in California as the final segment of a three-plus-hour training-camp practice concluded, with Jimmy Butler imploring his teammates after a drill: do it again.

Thibodeau set a framework for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new culture a season ago, and then the acquisition of Butler in June amplified everything.

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“If you’re tired, do this [expletive] right,” Butler explained to The Vertical about how he drives the Timberwolves. “Do it again. If you do this [expletive] right, you won’t be as tired because we only have to do it one time. We need to do it 16 times if we don’t talk, if we don’t get it right. These three-hour practices, I don’t have a problem with them. Hell, stay in this [expletive] until 8 p.m. You tired? [Expletive] that.

“Do it right. That’s the only way we’re going to win. When we spend time together, that’s what our time together is for. To get all of the terrible [expletive] habits out of the way. We have to be ready for what’s really coming.”

What’s coming for Butler is a fresh opportunity to lead, a new home where familiarity comes with former coaches and teammates from Chicago. What’s coming for Minnesota is an opportunity to contend for a postseason berth this season. Ask Butler’s basketball trainer, Chris Johnson, and strength and conditioning trainer Travelle Gaines, and they have stories of Butler becoming livid over losses in dominos or card games. For some he could wear them out emotionally and demotivate, but this is him.

The Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, right, drives past the Warriors’ Klay Thompson during a preseason game. (AP)
The Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, right, drives past the Warriors’ Klay Thompson during a preseason game. (AP)

So when Thibodeau called on draft night to inform Butler that Minnesota had acquired him, they discussed how the organization needed Butler’s culture-impacting traits. His old head coach welcomed Butler’s ways, and then one word ended the phone call: championship. Minnesota capitalized on the Butler trade in July, signing Jeff Teague to start at point guard, Taj Gibson to start at power forward and Jamal Crawford to play his sixth-man extraordinaire role. Now Butler goes to work, making Thibodeau’s message clearer.

“I hate to lose and I don’t like to put myself in positions to lose – a scrimmage, a game, dominos,” Butler told The Vertical. “I’ll never accept losing and any team that accepts losing. We have to get that mentality here. It’s never OK to lose a possession. It’s never OK to lose a game, to lose any type of competition. When you accept losing, you’re OK with failure. I’m never OK with that, and that should never be OK with anybody associated with me or this organization.

“Nobody cares about how young you are in this league. The culture that Thibs wants is not difficult: He wants you to play hard, he wants you to talk, and he wants you to guard. That’s all effort, the will to want to do it. If you want to do it, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. And it won’t fly, and you won’t play.”

Butler pauses, formulates more thoughts and continues. When Chicago had an inconsistent season in 2016-17, Butler’s mindset – his moods – closely resembled Thibodeau’s. He knows he needed improvement as a leader, a voice around the team. Now, the roster is balanced and the page is the same with his coaches.

“You can’t abuse leadership,” Butler told The Vertical. “Know that everybody is always watching you. All eyes, all fingers, everything is going to be on you. It’s healthy. As much as you don’t want to mess up, we are going to make mistakes at times. And it’s OK because everybody makes mistakes. But you cannot continue to make the same mistake over and over and over again.

“These young guys do listen, but it’s going to be a process. I’m new, and Andrew [Wiggins], KAT [Karl-Anthony Towns] have been here. I can understand when someone else is coming in, and the culture is really going to change. I expect the same thing that Thibs expects, and we both do not expect to lose on any night, in anything. I’m another version of Thibs – I’m going to get his point across, the same way he’s getting it across, except I won’t be using as much cuss words and I won’t be yelling.

“Everybody looks at me. If I’m going 100 miles per hour, if I’m locking up on defense, if I’m sprinting back in transition. You got to use me as an example, because if I’m not doing it, everybody is going to look at it and say: ‘Jimmy isn’t doing it, why do I have to do it?’

“But you can’t ever say I’m not giving it my all. Every day.”

It’s a new era in Minnesota with, from left, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. (AP)
It’s a new era in Minnesota with, from left, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. (AP)

The Timberwolves infused accomplished veterans to surround their two young stars in Wiggins and Towns, and appear to have one of the deepest teams in the league. Butler played a role in free-agency recruitment over the summer, and his acquisition attracted Crawford and Gibson and later Shabazz Muhammad to re-sign. When Crawford, still a prolific bench scorer in his 17th season, had his choice of contenders or waiting out a possible lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, he committed to Minnesota.

“Jimmy’s form of leadership is a different style because he shows you by example, and the good thing for us is he has the history with Coach Thibs,” Crawford told The Vertical. “That has helped us know what it takes and how we can succeed in this system.

“I’ve been on a lot of great teams, but this team might have the best blend of veteran guys, like myself, Jimmy, Taj and Jeff, to go with Andrew and KAT and the younger talent that we have. We have a chance to be strong one through nine and beyond.”

Butler rose from the No. 30 overall pick in 2011 to become an All-Star and a maximum-salary player, and it started with the regimen he established in his formative seasons. He’s a success story born out of absorbing lessons and wisdom from veterans such as Luol Deng and assistant coaches such as Adrian Griffin, and later from USA Basketball teammates and Dwyane Wade last year. He was never highly targeted out of high school or college, but as his peers received praise early in the NBA, Butler called his trainers and went to a nearby gym. All these years later, those runs to the gym include basketball training, of course, but also football.

“Now I can come mess around and pretend to be an NFL player,” Butler laughs. “But seriously, it was important for me to establish a consistent routine. My routine is the same. As long as I’m working like it’s my first day in the league, I’ll be in this league for a very, very long time. When I stop working, that’s when it’s over.

“That’s the groundwork that has been started with me and my trainers. That’s the foundation I have laid down.”

Butler is helping these Wolves create a new identity and their own foundation. Minnesota is coming for the league, and the message between Butler and Thibodeau on draft night still resonates.

“What does it take to win a championship? That’s what I bring to this team,” Butler told The Vertical. “Like, Yo, man, you got to catch the ball with two hands. It’s the little things that are going to turn into the biggest problems. For us, it’s not about how many points, how many rebounds you have. Winning is what always will take care of everything.”

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