Jimmy Butler: From leader to leaving

NBA.com Global on Sep 26, 2018 04:43 AM
Jimmy Butler: From leader to leaving
FILE - PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 23: Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes to the basket against the Phoenix Suns on December 23, 2017 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- In an afternoon filled with questions and answers by members of the Minnesota Timberwolves, one significant query went unasked and, obviously, unanswered:

What does Jimmy Butler, self-styled team leader, think about Jimmy Butler, star so suddenly headed out the door?

Butler, who dropped a trade request last week on Wolves coach/president of player operations Tom Thibodeau, wasn’t on hand Monday to field that one. The team had pre-empted as much clamor and controversy as it could by excusing the All-Star wing from the usual gauntlet of Media Day activities.

Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden, with owner Glen Taylor’s blessing and/or urging, also agreed that Butler would not be participating in Minnesota’s practices Tuesday and Wednesday – or, presumably, at any point in the future.

They continued to talk with teams, sifting through what’s real and what’s not real in search of the best offer they can get for a season’s worth of Butler before he hits free agency. The rent-a-player market isn’t the most vibrant when the player has his eye on only a handful of eventual destinations 10 months from now.

“If it make sense for the team, then we’ll do it,” Thibodeau said. “Conflict in the NBA, it’s not unusual. Every team has it. So you navigate through it. You put the team first, you put winning first.”

The winning – which figures to get a lot more difficult without Butler – will have to wait while Minnesota’s navigation system recalibrates.

“At first it was weird. I was in shock,” forward Taj Gibson said, of learning that his teammate both in Chicago and Minnesota wanted out. “It really is [distracting]. You look at the strides we took last year just to get to the playoffs. And to get hit with a right hook right before training camp, it’s weird.”

“I still have a lot of love for him. I look at the good times. I can’t look at the negatives. … I understand the NBA is a business. You have to just do what’s right for yourself. But at times it’s tough.”

No kidding. Minnesota was poised for an onward-and-upward season, built off a 2017-18 performance that brought 47 victories and the end of the franchise’s playoff drought after 13 mostly miserable years. Butler led the way, averaging 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists, throwing down the squad’s grittiest defense and happily shouldering most late-game heroics.

In and around his on-court work, Butler seized the Wolves’ locker room, not unlike his grab at the Bulls’ reigns in his last two seasons in Chicago. That didn’t go over so well back then, with Butler managing to offend veterans such as Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol one year, then rankle young players when he and stopover teammate Dwyane Wade piled on some criticism the next.

Thibodeau, though, brought Butler to the Twin Cities with a mandate to show and tell young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins how to work, how to win. There was chafing, sure. Wiggins and Towns felt picked on at times, while Butler grew frustrated when lessons needed repeating.

Still, the results made the heavy price Thibodeau paid – trading young players Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen for Butler and rookie Justin Patton – worth it. Another year together, mentor and mentees, figured in an ever tougher Western Conference to get Minnesota closer to the top-four seed it played like before Butler got hurt a couple times after January.

And then? Money. Money on top of money.

The Wolves hoped to sign Butler to a contract extension this summer, but weren’t willing tear up their bench or trade Wiggins in a way that would enable Butler to score his fattest payday now. Instead, they offered him a four-year, $110 million extension, the most possible given their current constraints. Predictably – because in free agency next summer he could get a five-year offer from the Wolves worth $188 million or a four-year, $139 million deal from another team – Butler declined.

And then he decided not to wait until next summer, either because he didn’t trust Minnesota to pony up that max contract (he’ll turn 30 next September with some knee injuries in his past and Thibs-driven heavy miles on his clock) or because dragging Towns and Wiggins grew too annoying. Or maybe both.

So Butler greeted Thibodeau last week when the coach flew out to L.A. to meet with him with the decision that he wanted out.

Or as Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said Monday on NBA TV, the leader wanted to leave.

“This is definitely not a good look on Jimmy Butler,” Thomas said on the training camp tip-off show. “You were brought here to be the leader. You were brought here to take this team to the playoffs and get some experience, and that is exactly what they did. You’re supposed to go back, have a good summer, and everybody is supposed to come back rejuvenated, and then the future looked really bright with this team.

“But the leader in terms of Jimmy Butler has said – and you’ve got to call it what it is – ‘I want the money. I’m looking for the money, I looking for myself, I’m not necessarily looking out for what’s best here for the team.’ Because this is a good, young group that you’re leaving.”

This is not what Taylor signed up for when he agreed to the Butler trade. This is not what Thibodeau vouched for in assuring his boss about the plan and the player. This is not what Towns, Wiggins and the rest of the Wolves needed dropped on them on the brink of a season or, frankly, at all.

This is not what a leader does, that’s for sure, not now, with the job at most half done. Next summer, if Butler had waited, he could have exercised his freedom of movement after another step forward for this franchise, by which time the Wolves’ two young stars would be more ready to shed their training wheels.

Butler could have indulged his desire for brighter lights and a bigger city – the Clippers, the Knicks, whomever – at a natural and honorable transition point in his career (uh, the end of a contract). Instead he joins the likes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard among recent franchise faces who edged toward the “Exit” door with work undone.

It’s not a good look, leader turned diva. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Butler had adopted a Costanza-like approach: do everything the exact opposite of what a real leader should do. Chew on teammates until everyone’s raw, neglect the carrot in favor of the stick and then, abruptly, bail.

Thibodeau will be left holding the bag after whatever return he, Taylor and Layden can extract sans leverage from a suitor. This episode will be another referendum on the one-boss, two-hats model abandoned lately by Detroit (Stan Van Gundy), Atlanta (Mike Budenholzer) and the Clippers (Doc Rivers).

Not that Thibodeau, of all people, was going to let go of his proverbial rope on Butler or Minnesota’s mission.

“You look more at the actions,” the coach/POBO said. “There’s many people in this league who say all the right things but never do any of the right things. Sometimes a player may say something and it may not be in the right tone, but it is the right message.

So when I look at, what is the impact? It was huge.”

Thibodeau said trading for Butler was worth both the cost and the risk, because of what they got back (“a top-10 player”) and what the Wolves considered the likelihood of retaining him beyond this season. Losing Butler now wasn’t calculated into that risk, of course.

For the stars left behind, the limbo of the team’s predicament and the fact that no one had broken a sweat yet, never mind lost a game, enabled them to react with little more than a shrug.

“This is the NBA,” Wiggins said.

“You don’t just have one leader,” said Towns, whose new five-year, $190 million extension certainly looked synchronized to Butler’s decision to leave, though the talented young big man said it was not.

Towns added: “I only worry about what I can control.”

Again, Gibson was the one who pulled back the curtain, slowed the spin and said what the rest of the NBA surely is thinking.

“It’s a lot of pressure [on this team],” the veteran said. “I can’t sugar-coat it.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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