Very rarely do trades involving good players have such murky results, but the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls met at the intersection of desperation and stubborn in the 2017 draft night trade of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, with no clear winner yet to be declared.
Now, Butler has long wanted out of Minnesota, but the Timberwolves have been just as steadfast in their refusal to grant his wish, knowing a return to the lottery will accompany most deals.
Butler’s trademark stubbornness has turned him from benchwarmer to All-Star to borderline superstar, and although he’s produced some signature moments in the season’s infancy, he’s unmoved by anything the Timberwolves have to say.
His belief that the Timberwolves’ young and talented cornerstones don’t take things seriously enough is reinforced every time he exerts a power move. And even if you question his methods — the orchestrated and emotional — you probably won’t disagree with the conclusion he’s drawn: That this franchise has more questions than answers, starting with the players they’ve invested so much into.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins aren’t the type of players who’ll respond well to Butler’s leadership, which is based on hard work as an example and harder truths.
“They’ll take tough love. They had Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller as examples,” one league executive told Yahoo Sports. “Jimmy isn’t too dissimilar from K.G., but it just doesn’t mix.”
And that’s where Timberwolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau made a severe miscalculation in his own stubbornness and desperation to play meaningful basketball in the spring, perhaps another indictment of the coach-as-president model the NBA seems to be trending away from.
But the damage from the initial trade and the likely subsequent departure of Butler will have long-lasting ramifications.
Famously playing through pain over the years has given way to a new strategy for Butler, who “rested” Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz. He’s going to be very conservative regarding when he plays, not willing to take any risks if he has any chance of injury.
A third of the teams in the league have made overtures for Butler, a league source told Yahoo Sports, but the Timberwolves haven’t taken anyone seriously by setting a high price. One team that hasn’t been involved, of course, are the Bulls.
They received quite a return for trading a star and it has unexpectedly grown under their watch. Yet while Zach LaVine has fully recovered from his ACL injury and Lauri Markkanen looks to be everything the Bulls believed he would be on draft night in 2017, the franchise doesn’t look to be any closer to making its way out of lottery land.
The Bulls felt they couldn’t build around Butler at this stage of his career, with his personality and the salary he would command, so they desperately shipped him off to a team just as thirsty for a change in fortunes.
The Bulls can crown themselves as winners of the deal on paper by acquiring two talented players who can be All-Stars and a third in Kris Dunn who’s been solid. But from a team-building standpoint, there’s much room to grow — and reason to doubt it can get done.
You can’t do much celebrating about a trade when the Golden State Warriors are playing “NBA Jam” on your home floor with Klay Thompson making history.
The Bulls are as injury-riddled as any team in the league, with Markkanen, Dunn, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine out with injuries. But only Dunn is defensively inclined, which is where the Bulls struggle.
This is the fourth different team under head coach Fred Hoiberg, and questions remain about his long-term future. In the beginning, Butler was the elephant in the room, as his growth as a player clashed with Hoiberg’s on-floor preferences and demeanor.
But Butler was sent away by a franchise not wanting to pay the cost of having a superstar without the roster to complement him, giving Hoiberg and the Bulls a new lease on life.
The Bulls’ front office has been vague about expectations, although signing Jabari Parker to a $20 million deal (albeit one year) seems to signal it hoped to take a step toward relevance.
The early results indicate the Bulls are in a similar position as the Timberwolves before the Butler deal, with plenty of talented, young players but not enough direction to get to the doorstep of the playoffs.
It’s easy to place everything at Butler’s feet, to criticize his methods, to wonder if he’s worth all the drama that’s swirled around him at two franchises.
But it’s also fair to wonder if the two franchises know what it takes in a league that’s changing by the minute and, perhaps, running away from them.
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