The long-reported tension between Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns comes to a head when the former sits down with coach and team president Tom Thibodeau to discuss his future with the franchise. The success or failure of that meeting, first reported by The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, could force the Wolves to choose between their two stars.
Towns is delaying a decision on a maximum contract extension offer from Minnesota “until this Jimmy Butler situation resolves itself,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania told Stadium in a video interview.
— Stadium (@WatchStadium) September 17, 2018
Butler confirmed the meeting on Twitter Monday, clarifying that it was scheduled to take place on Tuesday.
If making the Wolves the best possible version of themselves was the primary goal of both players, one would think that Towns wants to make sure Butler remains in Minnesota before signing a deal that would keep him on the team that drafted him first overall through 2024. Their partnership is vital to the Wolves improving upon a first-round exit in the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 14 years.
But since Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reported in July that Butler “has no intention of signing an extension with Minnesota” because he is “all but fed up” with Towns’ “nonchalant attitude,” we must wonder if Towns prefers to let Butler finalize an exit strategy before re-signing with the Wolves.
What does this mean for Jimmy Butler?
Butler did reject his own max contract extension offer in July, but that does not mean he has no interest in staying in Minnesota when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Third Team All-NBA wing can guarantee himself some $78 million more by waiting until 2019 to re-sign.
Thibodeau called re-signing Butler the team’s top priority this summer, and the two have a strong relationship dating back to their Chicago Bulls days. Minnesota has fostered that bond, surrounding them with ex-Bulls Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. The expectation is that Thibodeau will make every effort to appease Butler’s reported concerns about the franchise’s championship viability.
But what if appeasing Butler means parting ways with Towns? That’s where things get real shaky.
What does this mean for Karl-Anthony Towns?
There are reports of a general “state of unhappiness” inside the Timberwolves, including tension between Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden in addition to the Butler-Towns situation. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Wolves owner Glen Taylor has “second-guessed” making Thibodeau both coach and president, and he has considered making changes to the team’s current power structure.
Towns is a 22-year-old coming off his first All-NBA appearance and still on his rookie contract. He is considered among the league’s handful of under-25 franchise cornerstones, and most teams would be smart to walk away from a coach well before it meant giving up on a potential generational talent.
But what if walking away from Thibodeau means parting ways with Butler? This is the conundrum.
What does this mean for the Timberwolves?
If Butler won’t re-sign so long as Towns is in the picture and Towns won’t re-sign if Butler stays — both big ifs, since we don’t know whether the tension is strong enough for either to walk away from tens of millions of dollars to break it — then the Wolves could be forced to choose between Butler and Towns.
That’s a heck of a choice. The Wolves traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the lottery pick that became Lauri Markkanen to acquire Butler in hopes that Butler’s talent and intensity could reinvigorate a young core that hadn’t yet learned how to win. The result was a 16-win turnaround, an eighth seed in the West and a five-game loss to the Houston Rockets that seemed like something to build upon.
Butler is one of the league’s 10 best players when healthy, and trading him between now and February essentially assures the Wolves of getting minimal return, considering he will enter 2019 free agency. The return for Towns would be far greater, but he is seven years younger than Butler with a world of possibility ahead of him — the sort of player whose departure could loom over an organization for another 14 years. Failing to maximize the return for Towns creates a doomsday scenario where Butler still isn’t convinced the Wolves can win a title with what they get back, and then he opts to leave, too.
The reality is everything hinges on Thibodeau’s ability to convince Butler and Towns they can make this work beyond the 2018-19 season. Regardless of the outcome from Monday’s meeting, nobody knows whether that’s possible until next summer, which only winds tensions in Minnesota tighter.
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