Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau formed a successful pairing with the Chicago Bulls because both were obstinate individuals who were focused on doing whatever it took to win basketball games.
But the stubborn nature of the Wolves’ president of basketball operations and head coach could become an issue following Butler’s request this week to be traded by Minnesota. Butler wants out — he would prefer a trade to the Clippers, Knicks or Nets — but Thibodeau reportedly is reluctant to deal him.
Thibodeau is within his rights to hang onto Butler but such a move would come with significant risk and could cost Thibodeau his job sooner rather than later.
There are a few reasons Thibodeau might fail to grant Butler’s trade request.
The two were together for four seasons with the Bulls and Thibodeau’s crowning moment as the Wolves’ chief basketball executive came on the night he acquired the All-Star in 2017. Thibodeau might think he has a chance to change Butler’s mind and he knows he has a far better opportunity to get back to the playoffs for a second consecutive season with Butler in a Wolves uniform. (This is why having your chief basketball executive also be your head coach is a terrible idea. The coaching side of the brain always thinks short term.)
Thibodeau also could be banking on the fact that Butler would be eligible to sign a $190 million, five-year max deal with the Wolves next summer, as opposed to the four-year, $141 million deal he could get elsewhere as a free agent.
Butler appears unlikely to be swayed by any case Thibodeau might make for why he should remain in Minnesota. Thibodeau, meanwhile, might figure that if he trades Butler, it will be only a matter of time before owner Glen Taylor shows him the door.
But should Taylor dismiss Thibodeau immediately if he refuses to trade Butler in the short term? There could be a case to be made for that. Remember, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported last weekend that Taylor has significant concern with the broader franchise culture under Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden — so much so that Taylor considered changes in the offseason.
The case for making a change in the Wolves’ power structure is rather simple. If Butler wants out, and that wish isn’t granted, how detrimental of presence could he be in the Wolves’ locker room? Butler has made it clear he isn’t a big fan of young players such as Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins.
Butler caused issues during his last season with the Bulls and he is doing it again in Minnesota. This is far from the positive veteran presence the Wolves likely thought they were getting when Butler was acquired.
There is nothing as important as keeping Towns happy and right now that’s not the case.
Towns has made that clear by failing to sign the max deal the Wolves have offered him. He has until Oct. 15 to sign that contract, which could be worth up to $188 million over five years. If he doesn’t, he will become a restricted free agent next offseason. One reason Towns is dragging his feet on signing a contract that will pay him life-changing money is believed to be because of his feelings toward Butler.
Butler remains a star player who has an unquestioned work ethic on the floor, but he turned 29 last week and has played in all 82 regular-season games only once in seven seasons. Butler isn’t going to get any younger and the wear-and-tear on his body is only going to increase.
Towns isn’t a finished product, as evidenced by his struggles early in the Wolves’ first-round playoff loss to Houston last spring, but he has superstar-type talent and the Wolves want to keep him around for the long term. Alienating him would be a massive mistake.
Is Towns as tough as Butler and as much of a Thibodeau-guy as Jimmy? No. But this is 2018, not 1982, and keeping 22-year-old future stars like Towns happy is important, even if it makes the old guard cringe.
It will make Towns happy to see Butler leave town. It will make Butler happy to get out of town. That means Thibodeau needs to be working on accommodating Butler’s request. This is no time to be stubborn and if Thibodeau decides otherwise there soon could be someone else in charge at Target Center.