It seemed ridiculous that Jimmy Butler was already “extremely frustrated” with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ inability to grant his trade request within a week, and yet there we were on Friday, with ESPN’s Stefano Fusaro reporting just that. Now we are learning why the All-Star wing is so peeved that the organization with which he spent just one season hasn’t found him a new home before the start of the preseason: Butler reportedly believes he made his desire to play elsewhere clear in early August.
Shortly after Butler underwent a minor elective surgery on his right hand in late July, the 29-year-old reportedly met with Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, Butler and Thibodeau left the encounter misunderstanding each other:
Butler, who takes great pride in his willingness to be brutally honest even when the truth might hurt, believed he had made it clear that he wanted out. But Thibodeau, whose stubbornness is nothing short of legendary, swears he didn’t see it that way and continued hoping that the situation could be rectified.
Jimmy Butler’s unhappiness was in the tea leaves
Amick’s Athletic colleague, Jon Krawczynski, alluded to as much in a dispatch from media day last week. Krawczynski reported that Butler’s decision after their playoff series loss to the Houston Rockets not to board a team flight back to Minnesota, undergo a season-ending medical exam and partake in exit interviews was the first in a line of “I want out” bread crumbs dropped this summer:
A few days later, he started conveying his concern for the franchise and casting doubts on his willingness to stay long-term. Butler can become a free agent after this season, and his representatives talked with Thibodeau in July about his unwillingness to re-sign in Minnesota, sources said. Butler conveyed the same message directly to Thibodeau in August when the coach came to California to visit him after he had hand surgery, sources said.
When Butler rejected a max contract extension in July, the outside NBA world viewed it as nothing more than a financially prudent decision, since he stood to make some $80 million more guaranteed from Minnesota in free agency next summer (or $30 million more from a rival suitor). From the sound of things, Thibodeau and the Timberwolves were under the same impression — that Butler’s long-term commitment to a team that had already invested heavily in him would just have to wait until July 2019.
Did Tom Thibodeau ignore the warning signs?
However, if Thibodeau willfully ignored clear indications from Butler and his reps in both late July and early August that the two-way phenom intended to leave Minnesota in free agency, then what has transpired over the last two months is front-office malpractice. By waiting until Butler went public with his exit plan before training camp, the Wolves ensured themselves of the worst possible trade.
If the Wolves had silently shopped Butler starting in early August, they would have had a 60-day head start on canvassing the league for the best possible deal, with the possibility of finding a trade partner convinced that, with a full season in their system, Butler might stay. Now, not only must teams integrate Butler with less than two weeks before the regular season starts, we also know his list of preferred trade destinations: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angles Clippers, Miami Heat or New York Knicks.
The Nets, Clippers and Knicks aren’t going to offer the moon, because they can sign Butler into cap space next summer without giving up building blocks. Other teams won’t send equal value in return, because they know Butler intends to sign elsewhere. And the Heat will not meet Minnesota’s asking price, because they know they’re not bidding against anyone. Which is probably why, according to the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson, Miami isn’t even willing to offer Josh Richardson in a deal for Butler.
Yet, Thibodeau and Timberwolves general manager Scott Layden continue to make outrageous demands in the face of this new reality. For example, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Minnesota’s counteroffer to a Philadelphia 76ers inquiry was, “We need Ben Simmons in a deal.” Per ESPN, the Wolves are demanding “quality veterans, top prospects, future assets and salary-cap relief,” which just isn’t happening. All of this lends credence to reports that Thibodeau has no real intention of trading Butler, which would also make Butler’s increasing frustration all the more understandable.
The recent report from veteran NBA reporter Chris Sheridan, whose source said Thibodeau is actively trying to get fired, would also begin to make sense, because ignoring clear signs of unhappiness from Butler and then essentially rejecting Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s pleas to get a deal done quickly is a good way to lose your titles as coach and president of basketball operations. Maybe, with Butler on his way out and a less-enticing package coming back in return, Thibodeau sees the writing on the wall.
As The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps wrote, this is yet another reason why nobody should be given both titles again. A team president is supposed to have a team’s future in their best interest, but when that team president is also a coach who is maniacally driven to win now, the future gets mortgaged.
Just how badly did Butler want to leave?
There’s also the real possibility that Butler didn’t make his intention to leave Minnesota clear until late September, which in turn makes his frustration misplaced and explains Thibodeau’s inaction.
According to Krawczynski, Butler sought “a renegotiation and extension of his contract this summer,” which would have bumped his 2018-19 salary from $19 million to $30 million and added another $145 million through 2023. That doesn’t sound like a man who was convinced he wanted out of Minnesota.
There’s also the fact that Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, who both played for years with Butler for the Chicago Bulls and again last year on the Wolves, were blindsided by his trade request. They made that very clear to ESPN’s Nick Friedell over the weekend, and Gibson in particular said he worked out with Butler regularly this summer without hearing a hint of discontent. If even Butler’s closest friends on the team had no clue this was coming, it stands to reason that Thibodeau would be in the dark, too.
So, we’re back to square one. The most logical explanation for all of this is that Butler thought he made his desire to leave clear in early August, when in fact Thibodeau misread all the signals before the breakup (or at least didn’t want them to be true). It’s like any failed relationship, and the ones who will be hurt the most are the Minnesotans who are left wondering if it was somehow their fault.
Monday marks the deadline the Timberwolves gave Butler to rehab his surgically repaired right hand and rejoin the team, if no deal had been reached. Butler has shown no intention of reporting to camp, and the Wolves can begin fining him for each missed practice. Meanwhile, Minnesota is choosing from a list of less-than-desirable trade options. Things could get far worse before they get any better.
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