Last month, Minnesota Timberwolves star guard/forward Jimmy Butler requested a trade from the team, preferably to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, or Miami Heat. Butler’s request came during a two-year stretch of remarkable star movement; of the 24 players to make the 2017 All-Star game, exactly half are now on different teams.
As a result, Butler’s demand in itself isn’t that remarkable. He isn’t even the best player to request a trade this summer (that honor belongs to Kawhi Leonard, who has already shredded the Celtics as a new member of the Raptors and looks completely healthy). Yet Butler’s request stands out for two reasons; the ferocity in which he’s attacked the Timberwolves organization, and the inability of Minnesota’s front office to find a deal for Butler.
The main source of Butler’s unhappiness has been his anger with two of his teammates, center Karl-Anthony Towns and forward Andrew Wiggins. Towns and Wiggins are polar opposites to Butler. While Butler was drafted with the 30th overall pick out of Marquette and had to fight for playing time in the NBA, Wiggins and Towns were both taken with the first pick and had their NBA careers laid out for them. Butler has made a name for himself as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders. Meanwhile, Towns and Wiggins have put very little work into the defensive side of the ball and haven’t really improved since their rookie seasons, even under defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau.
Butler has struggled with issues from young players before. It’s one of the reasons why he was dealt from the Chicago Bulls to Minnesota on draft night last year. Yet Towns and Wiggins seem like natural foils for Butler. A premier offensive big man with no defensive game and an inefficient scorer who is absolutely lost while guarding another player versus a hard-nosed, gritty, self-made star. The seeds were ripe for conflict, and the three feuded to the point that Butler, who only has one year left on his contract, requested a trade.
Social media and the NBA were made for each other. Once every few months, there comes a Twitter explosion that paralyzes the entire league. This time was no different: just a few weeks ago, a story came out through Twitter that Butler, after missing much of training camp, surprisingly showed up at practice. He subbed himself into a scrimmage alongside four third-string players before defeating a team of starters, including Towns and Wiggins. Butler went on to scream “you f****** need me” at the T-Wolves’ general manager, then later that night calmly sat down with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols for an interview about the day’s occurrences.
To many, this was the reason why so many NBA teams have been desperate to deal disgruntled talent before training camp began. When Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard requested trades in the summers of 2017 and 2018, respectively, there was always a clock ticking down to training camp that ultimately forced Cleveland and San Antonio to trade these players well before they would have liked to.
The Timberwolves have gone a different route; they stuck with Butler throughout the preseason, and as of now, Butler is still a Minnesota Timberwolf (after receiving boos during his introduction at Minnesota’s home opener, Butler scored 33 points on 10-12 shooting and was showered with MVP chants by the end of the game). However, keeping Butler on the team isn’t necessarily the outcome of an unorthodox player management strategy, but rather the result of an incredibly dysfunctional Minnesota front office.
After Butler made his trade demand, coach/general manager Tom Thibodeau, who had previously coached Butler in Chicago, made it clear that the T-Wolves wouldn’t be shopping their star player. Soon after, owner Glen Taylor explained at the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting that Butler is in fact available, and teams could contact him directly if they wanted to make a trade. With two conflicting forces in the front office, it’s no wonder that the only serious public offer the Wolves have received fell through after Minnesota pushed Miami to include a last-minute “sweetener” to an already generous package that included promising swingman Josh Richardson.
It might appear that the situation is beyond repair between Butler and Minnesota. Butler genuinely dislikes Towns and Wiggins, both of whom are locked into long-term deals and won’t be leaving Minnesota anytime soon. With the owner supporting a Butler trade, and the appearance that the front office is actively resisting their owner’s mandate, it seems that Thibodeau’s firing is more of a “when” at this point and less of an “if”. The most interesting story now is whether an unexpected run of success by the Wolves changes Butler’s mind. Winning solves all locker room issues. What if Towns and Wiggins improve and Minnesota emerges as a legitimate contender in the West? Does Butler hate his teammates enough to leave a successful team? Or will Butler be traded and leave the Timberwolves as a fascinating failed experiment, a warning to teams that try to expedite the growth of their young talent by adding star veterans too early? Time will tell if the Timberwolves will be able to break out of their decades-long cycle of futility.
Drew Kushnir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.