There’s something kind of perfect about this being where, and how, Tom Thibodeau stands as he gets ready to enter his third season as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He was brought to the Twin Cities — following a year away from the bench after a firing that ended a prolonged trench-warfare power struggle in Chicago, which sure seems relevant right about now — to erase a culture of relative on-court temerity that had resulted in more than a decade of postseason-free basketball, and to replace it with the sort of unbridled tenacity that defined the performance of his Bulls teams. He was hired to develop talented youngsters into bona fide All-Stars, as he had with Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, and to overhaul a toothless defense that had sat in the NBA’s basement in the years before his arrival.
He was hired to train puppies how to snarl, how to dig in, how to sink their teeth into what they wanted and refuse to let go.
Let it never be said that Thibs doesn’t lead by example.
Butler — his former, current and likely soon-to-be former again on-court paragon of effort and relentlessness — wants to leave town, for one reason or another, barely a season after Thibodeau moved three lottery picks to get him, and a little over nine months before he can enter unrestricted free agency. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, seeing the writing on the wall and preferring not to watch an All-Star swingman walk away for nothing, is eager to grant Butler’s wishes as soon as possible, netting whatever return Minnesota can get and putting this embarrassing debacle behind him.
And yet: Thibodeau holds fast. Digs in. Won’t let go.
“We’re not going to make a bad deal,” Thibodeau told reporters at the Wolves’ Monday media day session. “If it’s a good deal, we’re interested. […] If not, we’re ready to move forward the other way.”
“The other way,” in this case, being to enter the 2018-19 NBA season — which tips off in just three weeks — with Jimmy Butler on the roster, expected to slot into Minnesota’s starting lineup alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Given all that’s transpired in the past week — and, reportedly, in the months that preceded it — that seems absolutely insane. And yet: Thibodeau continues to dig in, to try to find a way through the impasse, to bang his head against the rock in the persistent belief that, even the effort leaves him bloodied, it’ll break before he does.
Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau met with All-Star forward Jimmy Butler on Monday to try to convince him to rejoin the team in the preseason, league sources told ESPN.
Butler declined, sources said.
And, because shooters shoot, Thibodeau walked away from this particular brick undeterred, according to Woj:
Taylor excused Butler from the team media responsibilities on Monday, and the private conversation with Thibodeau ended with Butler reiterating that he has no plans to play for the Timberwolves again, league sources said.
Still, one league source told ESPN on Monday night that Thibodeau “isn’t giving up.”
As many as a dozen teams have reportedly expressed at least some level of interest in trading for Butler, in spite of all those hard-driven Thibodeau miles, in spite of the fact that he’s missed at least 15 games in four of the last five seasons, in spite of the February meniscus surgery and the fact he’s going to turn 30 before opening day next season, and in spite of the fact they’ll need to either pony up a five-year, $190 million maximum-salaried contract extension or watch him walk in free agency next summer. That’s no surprise; top-10 or -15-caliber two-way difference-makers don’t hit the market all that often, and when they do, you rarely get the opportunity to get them at a discount. (Well, before next summer’s contract, anyway.)
That’s the rub, though. Nobody knows better than Thibodeau just how good Butler really is, and just what kind of impact he can make on a team; there’s a reason Thibs’ stock answer to questions about what Butler meant to last year’s Wolves, the franchise’s first playoff team in 14 years, was to say that “he means everything.”
And that’s why Thibodeau — as obsessed and obsessive a coach as the sport has when it comes to possession-by-possession, night-by-night victory, not to mention an executive who very well could be (and, at this point, almost certainly is) coaching and managing for his job this season — has no interest in sending out what he likely feels is his best player for anything that will reduce Minnesota’s likelihood of being playoff-competitive this year and beyond.
“Glen, [Thibs-directed general manager] Scott [Layden], myself, I think we’ve made that clear to everyone,” Thibodeau said Monday. “I think Jimmy understands and the team understands. But you have to take the team first.”
Hence Woj’s report that Layden’s “asking for stars, starters, draft picks and salary-cap relief for the chance to acquire Butler.” (Not some of the above, but all.) And hence what Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania of The Athletic characterize as mounting frustration for multiple parties involved, including Butler, whom they report had been clear about his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Minnesota long before he lodged his formal trade request last week:
[Monday’s] meeting [about rejoining the team] made Butler skeptical of Thibodeau’s efforts to find a suitable deal and he sought out owner Glen Taylor to receive assurances that good faith efforts were continuing, sources told The Athletic. […]
While Thibodeau said on Monday that last week was the first time Butler made a trade request, the warning signs of discontent were there much earlier. After the Rockets eliminated the Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs in May, Butler did not fly with the team back to Minnesota, sources said. He took a flight to Los Angeles shortly after the game was over and refused to do the standard medical exam all players go through as part of their exit interviews.
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.
All the while, Thibodeau showed reluctance in wanting to move his star player.
He remains so, which — in combination with Taylor’s ill-advised bigfooting — has turned what might otherwise be garden-variety intrasquad unease into full-blown nationally covered chaos. There’s no brave face to put on this, no good way to spin it, no matter what Thibodeau, Layden or anyone else says.
“When I talk to Thibs he always tells me this is nothing and we’ve been through worse situations than this in Chicago,” former Bull, current Wolf, and Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson told reporters on Monday. “I kind of glanced at him with a smile. It’s weird. It’s really hard to explain. It’s a weird feeling right before training camp.”
And until something drastic changes, it’s only going to get weirder. The latest word is that prospective suitors aren’t even sure who they should be talking to or what they should be pitching to try to get into the Butler conversation, and that putting together a package that might satisfy Minnesota might necessitate the involvement of the Sacramento Kings, the lone team with significant cap space to rent out expiring contracts to provide cap relief, and also one led by the decision-making tandem of general manager Vlade Divac and owner Vivek Ranadivé; this does not exactly scream, “Everything’s about to get way calmer and more measured here.” (In fairness, the prospective role laid out for Sacramento in ESPN’s reporting — using their $11 million in remaining cap space for this season to take on other teams’ unwanted salaries in exchange for future assets — would be a very smart play by the Kings. We’ll just need to see it play out that way first.)
The Timberwolves are on fire, and Tom Thibodeau is the dog sitting in front of his coffee cup, smiling and insisting that everything’s fine. It might not seem like a particularly sustainable position, but when you believe what Thibodeau believes — that what matters, and what cures everything, is winning, and that Minnesota’s best chance to win comes with Jimmy Butler in a Wolves uniform — it seems a hell of a lot better than the alternative. Even if the guy signing your paychecks disagrees.
“The biggest thing for me was alignment,” Thibodeau told our Chris Mannix back in 2016, talking about why he chose to take the job in Minnesota, and why the idea of being both coach and president of basketball operations appealed to him. “Not that you have to agree on everything. When you put competitive people together, there are going to be disagreements. But once a decision is made, you have to be aligned. There has to be a belief system […] And I have that here.”
He doesn’t have it anymore. But he does have the job, and the power, and the courage of his convictions. If the Wolves are going to get into alignment on the Jimmy Butler saga sometime soon, it’s going to have to come from Glen Taylor making a move, one way or the other. Tom Thibodeau’s not going to budge. Not now, and maybe not ever.
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