Jimmy Butler Drama Continuing to Take a Toll on Lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2018

Minnesota Timberwolves' Jimmy Butler plays against the Houston Rockets in the first half during Game 3 of an NBA basketball first round playoff series Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Jimmy Butler may not be on the court much as his trade-demand saga plays out, but he's present. Sort of.

The four-time All-Star didn't suit up for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night in Portland. It was the second of the Wolves' past three games that Butler missed because of what has been termed "precautionary rest." Before and after the game, he held court with teammates in the visitors' locker room as though nothing was going on, with no hints at his position at the center of what is currently the NBA's biggest soap opera.

This has been Butler's strategy as he waits for coach and president Tom Thibodeau to finally grant his trade request, which may or may not happen because of Thibodeau's stubbornness and the untenable position Butler has put his teammates and the organization in.

All the while, his teammates are attempting to salvage a season that has left everyone broken and lost. The weight of all this was obvious when the Trail Blazers romped to a 111-81 win.

Publicly, the party line that players and coaches are toeing while Butler holds the organization hostage is that all of this is part of the NBA, that every team deals with distractions like this, that they'll be fine once Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague get healthy and Butler is ready to start playing in back-to-backs.

"We're in a good space," veteran big man Taj Gibson told Bleacher Report at Sunday morning shootaround. "We've just got some injuries. But we wake up, we joke around, we compete. So we're in a good space. Everything else will take care of itself, but as far as the basketball, we're together."

The team that took the floor, however, was anything but. The Wolves shot 31.2 percent from the field and 23.3 percent from three-point range while being outrebounded 66-38. Karl-Anthony Towns' 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting couldn't have been more meaningless as the Timberwolves gave up following a second-quarter Blazers run.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau (left) and Jimmy Butler (with basketball).
Head coach Tom Thibodeau (left) and Jimmy Butler (with basketball).Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Maybe Butler saw his teammates fall apart without him, or maybe he didn't. Just as he did during Wednesday's victory over the Utah Jazz, Butler stayed in the locker room rather than joining the team on the bench. Thibodeau said his absence during the game was to receive treatment from the team's trainers to address the "general soreness" that's had him in and out of the lineup.

"We'll see how he feels," Thibodeau said of Butler's status going forward. "He missed training camp, so three [games] in four [nights] is a lot."

What Thibodeau didn't mention was that it was he who allowed Butler to miss the start of camp while he and general manager Scott Layden made a halfhearted attempt to trade him. It was he who then allowed Butler to return to practice Oct. 11, show up the rest of the team in a heated scrimmage and give a defiant television interview to ESPN's Rachel Nichols without any pushback or consequence.

After the Wolves' Friday night loss to the Golden State Warriors, Butler told reporters that it was he, not Thibodeau or the training staff, who would dictate whether he plays on a given night. He played in that game, which was broadcast on ESPN. One can only assume he'll also play Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers in another nationally televised affair.

Beyond that, it's impossible to say. Thibodeau seems to have no interest in controlling the situation or in holding the All-Star he's coached since Butler's rookie year in 2011 in Chicago to the same standard he would anybody else.

Thibodeau could have avoided this whole mess by trading Butler before or during training camp as he requested. Letting the situation drag out this long has done nothing to help Butler's trade value. If anything, interested teams now know exactly how toxic it has become and how tied Thibodeau's hands will be if Butler is still on the team come February's trade deadline.

All of this to possibly pick up a few more wins in the short term to put off what looks to be Thibodeau's inevitable firing at the end of the season if the Wolves miss the playoffs.

The current state of the Timberwolves benefits no one. Not Butler, not Thibodeau and certainly not the other players.

Butler is playing when he feels like it and, lately, not even bothering to join his teammates on the bench during games, which undermines the winning-obsessed image he's built over his eight-year career.

Thibodeau's tunnel-vision approach to the season, acting like nothing is wrong while his team becomes the laughingstock of the league, is naive at best and negligent at worst. And the rest of the Timberwolves have no choice but to show up to work every day, waiting for all of this to be over while putting on a good public face and saying all the right things.

Andrew Wiggins (left) and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Andrew Wiggins (left) and Karl-Anthony Towns.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"Injuries are a part of the game," Gibson said after the loss to the Blazers. "Distractions are a part of the game. This is the NBA. You're always going to have distractions. You're always going to have injuries. You've got to just pull together. The tough teams find a way to win. Other teams right now are in the same position, going through the same things we're going through."

In reality, no other team in the league—except maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers—is in this much self-inflicted disarray.

Every day that Butler is still on the Timberwolves roster makes all of this a greater embarrassment for the organization. All the goodwill Butler and Thibodeau built by breaking the franchise's 13-year playoff drought last season is gone, and then some.

It may take years to recover from all the damage this has done. By then, Butler and Thibodeau will be long gone, and this will fall on Towns, whose brand-new, $190 million extension comes with franchise-savior responsibility.

In the meantime, as the Timberwolves continue to look lifeless without their best player, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and has written for The Athletic, USA Today and NBC Sports, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter, @highkin.