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Less than a week before the start of training camp, during a much-publicized high-stakes meeting with head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau intended to clear the air after a summer filled with reports of acrimony and discontent, All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler requested that the Minnesota Timberwolves trade him, according to Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.
Charania reports that Butler — whom the Wolves acquired at the 2017 NBA draft in a blockbuster deal that sent guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, along with a draft pick that became forward Lauri Markkanen, to Chicago — has “given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he’s open to signing [an] extension.” Those teams, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, all play in the NBA’s biggest markets:
Minnesota's Jimmy Butler has three preferred destinations for a trade, league sources tell ESPN: The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks. Those three teams have max cap space to sign Butler as a free agent in July.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 19, 2018
This, as you might expect, generated some responses from folks around the league! Like, for example, Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley:
And New York Knicks center Enes Kanter:
In the absence of a no-trade clause, a player’s preference for where he’d like to be dealt doesn’t necessarily matter all that much, of course. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both reportedly only had eyes for Los Angeles, and Kyrie Irving didn’t namecheck the Boston Celtics last August. George wound up landing in Oklahoma City and liking it so much that he decided to stay put; the Raptors and Celtics have wagered that Leonard and Irving will make the same choice next summer, when they, like Butler, could enter the unrestricted free-agent market. (For what it’s worth, the oddsmakers at Bovada still think the Wolves are the team most likely to employ Butler come opening night, with Brooklyn, the Clips and the Knicks following closely, ahead of several other longer shots, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and, at a whopping plus-3300, the two-time-defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.)
Butler reportedly rejected an offer of a maximum-salaried extension from the Wolves in July. It was presumed at the time that he did so because such a deal would pay him $110 million over the next four years, while he could secure more lucrative contracts — a five-year, $188 million max contract from the Wolves (or whichever team retains the right to offer him a Designated Player mega-max) or a four-year, $139 million offer from another suitor — should he enter free agency after the 2019-20 season. Now, though, you’ve got to wonder if it’s at least in part because he wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around at all.
According to Krawczynski, Thibodeau has thus far been resistant to moving the 29-year-old wing, who averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals in 36.7 minutes per game over 59 appearances in his first year in the Twin Cities, helping lead the Wolves to a 47-35 record (the franchise’s first above-.500 campaign since 2004-05) and a playoff berth (Minnesota’s first since ’03-04). But while the Wolves succeeded on the court, they reportedly played out quite a little drama behind the scenes, with Butler allegedly “all but fed up” with the “nonchalant attitude” of ascendant All-NBA center Karl-Anthony Towns, and a reported “general state of unhappiness” on a team seemingly divided between the hard-charging nature of Butler, a veteran new arrival imported by his former coach Thibodeau to instill a defense- and effort-first culture, and holdover No. 1 overall picks Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who have both displayed prodigious talent — Towns, especially — but whose defensive effort and offensive activity have come under fire at times during their brief pro careers.
It’s possible that this has less to do with internecine squabbles than with Butler wanting assurances, financial and otherwise, that he’ll be the man in Minnesota moving forward:
I'm told Jimmy Butler's decision had very little if anything to do with Towns and Wiggins. More to do with contractual matters.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) September 19, 2018
Jimmy Butler to @MichaelVPina one year ago: "I'm gonna go or I'm gonna be or I'm gonna stay wherever I'm wanted, man. Because that's all anybody ever wants," he says. "To be appreciated." https://t.co/GHWrLrgjuu
— VICE Sports (@VICESports) September 19, 2018
Wolves, obviously, can try and convince @JimmyButler to stay. But here’s what he told me in February: "I mean, in the most humble way possible, if they don’t take care of me this summer, I think the summer after that, I’m’a end up playing somewhere." The "else" was left unsaid.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) September 19, 2018
Then again … well, here was the first-blush (and since-deleted) take from Nick Wiggins, Andrew’s brother:
That doesn’t sound good. None of this does for Minnesota, frankly.
Towns is a 22-year-old offensive phenomenon with the chance to be a game-changing defender, if he’d put all those tools to their most effective use, and the kind of cornerstone potential to be the leader of the Timberwolves’ pack for the next decade. Trading him to resolve the issue seems impossible for Minnesota to fathom.
Wiggins largely stagnated in his fourth season, seeming not to fare well in life as a third option and failing to take the hoped-for steps forward as a perimeter defender and complementary rebounder spurred on by Thibodeau’s coaching and Butler’s example. He’s also just starting the five-year, $147.7 million max extension that he signed 11 months ago, making the likelihood of trading him to ease the tension exceedingly remote.
And Butler … well, that’s tough.
He’s a legitimate star, one of the best two-way players in the sport, the kind of difference-maker on the wing that every team with serious postseason aspirations needs. He’s also averaged 37.6 minutes per game over the last five seasons, has missed 15 or more games in four of the past five years, underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in February, and will turn 30 before opening night of the 2019-20 season.
Any team interested in trading for Butler will likely need to give up premium assets to get him — seriously, the timing of this news just couldn’t be more hilarious, if you’re a Knicks fan — and be willing to pony up max money and max years for the early-to-mid-30s of a player who has logged Thibodeau miles throughout his prime. The track record of success there isn’t great, which, combined with reports that he’s only interested in going to a team he’ll seriously consider re-signing with, could have a chilling effect on the kinds of offers the Wolves might receive.
In a vacuum, that might lead to Thibodeau and owner Glen Taylor deciding to dig in their heels, hold the line on Butler, and double down on their efforts to work out whatever issues might be at the heart of this division. After all, it’s not as if the Wolves can feel confident that they’ll still be a postseason contender if they don’t have Butler; Minnesota went 37-22 in Butler’s 59 games last year and 10-13 in the ones he missed, producing the point differential of a 61-win team with him on the court and a disastrous 29-win outfit when he was off it, according to Ben Falk’s stats at Cleaning the Glass. The Wolves’ best chance of being at least as good as they were last year rests with continuing to run Butler out there as their focal point on both ends of the floor. This, it seems, is not something Butler’s particularly interested in doing.
On the court, Butler came as advertised, proving to be exactly what the Timberwolves needed to end their horrific playoff drought and return to actual league-wide relevance for the first time since Kevin Garnett left town. But the off-court stuff matters, too — in some cases, just as much, if not more — and now, less than a week before the Wolves open camp, he wants out. How this shakes out remains to be seen, but things in Minnesota sure seem like they’re likely to get a lot worse before they get any better.
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