When he first met with the media near midnight on Thursday after the 2017 NBA draft, Tom Thibodeau summoned his vaunted discipline in the service of diplomacy.
As the President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thibs had just executed the first bold, franchise-defining move of his 14-month tenure. Up until then, he and Wolves general manager Scott Layden had kept their powder dry: taking the consensus “best player available” a year ago with the 5th pick in the 2016 draft; meting out relatively paltry dollar amounts for a trio of journeymen during what was the most profligate free agent spending spree in NBA history in the summer of ’16; and then spending the entire 2016-17 season evaluating their roster while force-feeding playing time to their promising stockpile of young talent.
As he sat down to face the media late at night on Thursday, Thibs had one last act of restraint left to execute: Describe the process and ramifications of his blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bulls earlier that evening without getting up and tap-dancing on the table.
He began by praising the players headed to Chicago, saying that he “hated to part ways” with high-flying guard Zach LaVine and hard-scrabble defender Kris Dunn. “Not only are they good players, they are good people,” he said.
Including the seventh overall pick in that night’s draft as part of the trade also “wasn’t an easy decision” Thibs claimed, “because there are a lot of good players out there.”
Uh huh. But those three assets fetched Jimmy Butler, merely the best player the Timberwolves have ever acquired via a trade in the 28-year history of the franchise and an absolutely perfect fit for the team under their current circumstances.
For the most part, however, Thibs remained steadfast in his diplomacy. When asked if the deal would have fallen apart if the Bulls hadn’t also thrown in their own first-round pick — the 16th overall, just nine spots below the Wolves slotted choice — he kept a straight face, claiming that because LaVine is “terrific” and the Wolves were “giving up a lot…we knew we had to get back multiple assets ourselves. We thought it was a fair deal.”
Then someone asked if Thibs had spoken to Butler yet, and for a blazing second, the stoicism slipped. “Ah, yeah, I did talk to him,” he replied. “I think any time a player gets traded there are mixed emotions. Obviously he is leaving a lot of memories and friends behind; teammates and things like that.”
Then, in the midst of the final sentence of his answer, the feelings of pure joy and exultation won the war for control over the features of Thibs’ face: “But he is looking forward to coming here, I can tell you that.”
Blood, sweat and peers
The notion of “blood brothers” is recognized as a profound aspect of some human relations. Less common is the concept of a “blood father” and “blood son,” but it translates well to what exists between Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler.
There is an unspoken oath of loyalty, as enduring as any family ties, borne by a shared ethos for what constitutes success, dignity and honor, and what is required to survive and thrive within that value system.
Down to their respective marrows, Thibs and Butler understand the compensations of sweat equity. Thibs clawed his way up the assistant coaching ladder for 20 years before finally getting the head coaching job with the Bulls in 2010. The next season, Chicago selected Jimmy Butler with the 30th and final pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA draft.
“I think back to the opportunity I had to first be coaching him,” Thibs recalled about Butler Thursday night. “It was the lockout year”—NBA owners shut down the 2011-12 season until Christmas Day to exact concessions from the players union —“so we had like three or four days and then we went into the lockout. For a rookie that’s tough.
“So he missed summer league, he missed being in the gym all summer, and fall practice, and then when the season began it was a condensed schedule so you didn’t have a lot of practice time.
“But once we got back I will always remember that he and Luol Deng would come in every night. And I would look down from my office and they’d be working out together. And at that time he was a little shy. Luol would come up and tell me how good he was and said he should be playing, and he was his advocate. But I just watched the way he worked. And then the first opportunity he had to play was in Madison Square Garden against [star forward] Carmelo [Anthony]. We had injuries and he was a rookie, so I didn’t know what would happen. And he played great. So that told me a lot about him.”
Butler ranked 13th on the team in minutes-played per game that rookie season. The next year he was up to 5th. He led his team — and ranked second and then first in the entire NBA — in minutes per game the next two seasons. He got better and better in nearly every aspect of the game, while Thibodeau relentlessly fostered and milked the improvements.
In their fourth and final season together in Chicago, Butler was given the NBA Most Improved Player award. Over a six-week period during the ensuing off-season, the Bulls management fired Thibs and awarded Butler a 5-year, $95-million contract.
As Thibodeau licked his wounds and went on a season-long sabbatical, picking the brains of other successful NBA franchises while receiving the paychecks still owed him by Chicago, Butler retained his pattern of continued improvement during the 2015-16 season. He had clearly usurped the status of team leader from erstwhile all-stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, and less than two months into his first NBA experience without Thibs on the sidelines, he blatantly criticized Thibodeau’s successor, Fred Hoiberg, for a lack of intensity.
Specifically, Butler said: “I believe in the guys in this locker room, but I also believe we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times. I’m sorry, I know Fred is a laid-back guy and I really respect him for that, but when guys aren’t doing what they are supposed to do, you have to get on guys — myself included.”
It is remarkable — pinch-me I’m dreaming incredible, actually — how well the acquisition of Butler addresses the myriad flaws and question marks that plagued the Timberwolves last season and cast a shadow on the ability of Thibs to recreate the purposeful synergy he unfurled both as an assistant in Boston and as the head man in Chicago.
If you could order up a special elixir to cure the Wolves longstanding ills while maximizing their current assets, you’d get a veteran leader celebrated enough to ascend to the top of a pecking order that includes burgeoning stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, young enough to sustain his luster and influence as KAT and Wigs blossom, and dedicated and selfless enough not to impede their growth if and when they surpass his capabilities.
That leader would have a deep experience and appreciation for the unyielding mania that is the Thibodeau coaching method, and be able to project, by word and deed, on the court and in the locker room, what elements of that mania to bank, what elements to discount, and how to beneficially ride out the experience over the course of a long season. He wouldn’t be afraid to call it as he sees it and feels it, whether the calling is directed at Thibs, KAT, Wigs or any other member of the team. As the greatest individual success story of Thibodeau’s career in coaching, the leader would have the wisdom from a player’s perspective of knowing when to apply and when to relieve the pressure wrought Thibodeau on his fellow teammates.
Jimmy Butler is all of those things. And more.
At the end of last season two pertinent questions about the future course of the Wolves stood out. One was, Can Thibodeau ever instill the type of discipline, dedication and comprehension necessary to get this young crew to play quality defense? The other was: Can the Wolves ever leverage the often redundant virtues and vices that Wiggins and LaVine share in a manner that wrings maximum value out of both players?
For question one, Butler is one of four elite prototypes that can best demonstrate how to capably perform within Thibodeau’s defensive schemes (and the others, Deng, Noah, and Kevin Garnett, are all past their primes). For question two, at 6-7 in height and 220 pounds, Butler is a great fit at small forward. Wiggins and LaVine both demonstrated that their best positon was shooting guard, and attempts to play LaVine at the point or Wiggins at forward always stunted their growth. Now LaVine is gone and Wiggins can slide into the backcourt slot that gives him a height advantage and reduces the pounding on his thin frame.
Last season, the Wolves were soft. The only players on the roster with a real edge to their attitude were rookie Kris Dunn and otherwise hapless forward Adreian Payne. Butler’s presence and prominence injects a vital toughness into the team’s identity that neither the ostentatiously modest Towns nor the gnomically stoic Wiggins can muster. As Thibs told Sports Illustrated two years ago, “If they don’t bite as puppies, they usually don’t bite. Jimmy was biting right from the start.”
Then there is the matter of salary. Figuring out how to add a proven veteran leader to a roster that was already staring at a pair of sure-fire maximum contracts for Wiggins this autumn and Towns in the fall of 2018, plus a deal in the neighborhood of $15-$20 million to retain LaVine (provided he fully recovers from his ACL tear last season), seemed like a daunting task that would financially hamstring other repairs and reinforcements necessary for a championship contender.
Fortunately, Butler signed his five-year deal before the latest media deal blew an inflationary bubble into the NBA’s revenue-sharing salary cap structure. Thus, Butler is on the books for the relatively bargain price of about $20 million per season over the next two years. That’s about what Portland bench player Allen Crabbe will earn.
The playoffs are now a reasonable expectation
So, is the Jimmy Butler trade perfection? Nah. But if you survey the big picture situation and weight the Wolves’ needs it addresses according to importance and alternative solutions, it is probably 70 percent perfect.
Butler improved the accuracy and frequency of his three-point shooting last season over his career norms, but there is no question that the loss of LaVine makes the trade a net-deficit for long-range missives for a franchise that ranked last in three-point attempts and makes last season. The deal also diminishes team depth if you consider that LaVine, Dunn, and the No. 7 pick all likely would have been rotation players for the Wolves by the end of the upcoming season. It is unlikely that the No. 16 pick Justin Patton will be that far along by early 2018.
But let’s not mince words here: This is a fabulous turn of events for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It clarifies the pecking order and crystallizes the mission and identity of the team. It removes the pressure of leadership from a couple of kid-stars who were not ready to lead, and adds the pressure of becoming a winner to their plate at precisely the time when they need to put up or shut up regarding their value as team-enhancing performers.
“As many of you know, Jimmy is just going into the prime of his career,” Thibs said of the 27-year old Butler. “The thing that you can’t overlook with him is his playmaking. You are getting a two way player. You are getting a guy who can score in a lot of different ways, defend multiple positions — he can actually guard four positions well. He makes big shots late, plays the right way, is tough, practices hard, smart.”
Have there been bigger trades in the history of the franchise? Yes, you would have to say that dealing Kevin Garnett to Boston qualifies, and perhaps the swap that put Kevin Love in Cleveland and brought Wiggins to Minnesota three years ago qualifies.
But the crucial difference in those examples is that the Wolves were dealing from a position of weakness. The Garnett trade occurred in the exhausted aftermath of three straight trips out of the playoffs after eight straight postseason appearances. Dealing Love was prompted by his announcement that he would exercise his option and declare for free agency.
This time out it was the Wolves trading partner that was enervated and on the decline. This time out one of the top 10-15 players in the NBA (according to analytics and eye test; you could bump it higher if you consider the value additions of Butler’s age, salary, two-way prowess and overall leadership and fit) is coming to Minnesota.
For the first time in their history, the Wolves have been able to pounce on the availability of an existing star.
For the first time in a dozen years, the playoffs are a reasonable expectation — and a first step into a tantalizing future.