The San Antonio Spurs gave off the impression that Kawhi Leonard willfully sat out games while the team faced the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Leonard’s admonishment of the Spurs and subsequent trade to the Toronto Raptors supported that notion, but he did not make his desire to leave San Antonio public until June, and all the while there was the shroud of uncertainty surrounding his mysterious hamstring injury to mask his absence for all but nine games last season.
For the first two weeks of the preseason, Butler has hid behind the minor hand surgery he elected in late July, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Leonard’s fellow All-Star wing and 2019 free agent is unwilling to fulfill his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in his desire to play elsewhere now.
According to reports from both The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarwoski, Butler has been training in Minneapolis, where he has also been seen playing pickup at local health clubs. He traveled to Los Angeles, where he dined with teammates during their trip to play the Clippers. And he returned to Minnesota, where he continues to train and keep in close contact with his teammates.
Butler has also reportedly reiterated his trade request in a recent meeting with Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau, while making no clear effort to rejoin the team before that request is fulfilled. The four-time All-Star has missed the entire preseason, with one game left on the slate, and Minnesota is scheduled to open the regular season in San Antonio on Oct. 17.
The Timberwolves granted Butler permission to miss the first week of training camp, citing his hand injury as the official reason, but everyone understood that both sides were merely biding their time while the team weighed offers for the 29-year-old’s services. Even as owner Glen Taylor pushed for his front office to find a trade partner in short order, Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden have made clear their preference not to rush into a deal that would leave them on the losing end, so much so that opposing teams reportedly wonder if the Wolves are actually interested in trading Butler.
While Thibodeau has been holding out hope that he can convince his star to return to the team if the right deal isn’t struck, Butler remains convinced a playoff loss to Houston was his final game playing with current sparring partners and erstwhile teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Except, the Wolves can’t find any deal that comes close to matching the equivalent of three lottery picks that they gave up to get Butler a year ago, and the team has to hold the player’s willingness to go public with his trade request partially responsible. According to longtime Minnesota beat reporter Darren Wolfson, Minnesota is “upset” that Butler leaked his trade request — and for good reason.
Not only did Butler make his desire to leave Minnesota known, but we learned the list of teams he would consider signing with next summer, severely limiting his trade market to a handful of teams or anyone willing to take a flyer on a one-year rental. That list includes the Miami Heat, who came closest to reaching a deal for Butler’s services over the weekend before the Wolves understandably demanded more than just Josh Richardson in return, and the entire trade fell apart, per Wojnarowski.
Likewise, the Clippers are unwilling to even part with Tobias Harris in trade discussions with the Wolves, according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. Harris and Richardson are nice players, but neither approaches Butler’s All-NBA level of talent, and the host of other teams that initially reached out have reportedly faded since Miami made the most noise, so you can understand how frustrated the Timberwolves are about their star player dropping all of this on them a week before training camp.
Listen, I get that players want to play where they want to play. We may not always agree with their decisions, but if leaving one city for another translates to happiness for LeBron James, Kevin Durant or anybody else, godspeed. In recent years, Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Chris Paul have all made clear early in the offseason their intentions to leave the teams that drafted them, and those teams all granted those requests prior to the start of the regular season, probably to avoid the very awkwardness that is currently taking place in Minnesota. Teams can trade them at any given moment, as Isaiah Thomas and DeMar DeRozan learned, so players have every right to flex their own leverage.
Irving reportedly threatened to undergo knee surgery and miss the entirety of last season if the Cavaliers didn’t trade him, which would have been a dramatic way of avoiding the fulfillment of the final two years of his max rookie extension, but it never came to that. It may well come to that with Butler, who is a week away from sitting out the start of the final year on his $92 million contract, because Thibodeau has the stubborn old-school mentality that refuses to admit when he’s lost.
We have heard Butler say that he is not a problem in the locker room and just wants to play with a team full of competitors who want to win as badly as he does. And we have now seen him quarrel with teammates; demand a trade from a should-be-improving playoff team a week before the start of the season; list the Nets, Clippers and Knicks among his preferred destinations; and grow frustrated when his wish wasn’t granted immediately. It’s hard to come to grips with those two sides of this coin.
Butler doesn’t want to play for the Timberwolves anymore and is reportedly upset that his trade request hasn’t been fulfilled yet. The Wolves are reportedly upset that his trade request went public and are still seemingly willing to grant his request, but they are not under any obligation to do so, especially if they’re not convinced they will get anything close to equal value in return. This may extend into the season. Far be it from me to come down on the side of a billionaire owner opposite a millionaire player, but it sure seems like the team is being the more reasonable side in all of this.
The value of a soon-to-be 30-year-old wing who has missed 15-plus games in four of the last five years, is coming off knee surgery last season and can be signed on the open market next summer isn’t what Butler or the Wolves would like right now, and it’s a tough business lesson for both of them.
Butler wants his cake and to eat it, too. He also made his bed and might have to sleep in it. Butler and the Wolves are testing the limits of power in the player empowerment era, and if we expect stars to continue orchestrating their futures, the financial implications of Butler’s apparent unwillingness to play for Minnesota in the absence of a desirable trade may well test the NBA and its players’ union.
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