The Minnesota Timberwolves have started their 30th season amid more drama and dysfunction, an all-too-familiar feeling.
Jimmy Butler, the four-time All-Star shooting guard whose heralded arrival from Chicago sparked a 16-win improvement and an end to a 13-year absence from the playoffs, told president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau last week he wants to be traded and won’t re-sign with the team.
Talk about bad timing, even by Timberwolves standards.
”It’s not the first time a player has made that type of request, nor will it be the last, and our job is to seek out the best opportunity for us.” Thibodeau said. ”If something’s good for us, then we’re interested in doing it. If not, then we’re ready to move forward the other way.”
While most players dismissed the notion of a major distraction during their media sessions on Monday at the commencement of training camp, power forward Taj Gibson bluntly declared Butler’s decision a significant setback to the progress made last season.
”You look at the talent and the strides we took last year just to get to the playoffs, so many up and downs, and you get hit with a right hook before training camp,” Gibson said. ”It’s weird.”
Butler had a minor procedure done on his right hand in July after meniscus surgery on his right knee in February, an injury that kept him out for 21 games. He reported to the team as contractually required for his physical exam, Thibodeau said, but he won’t be on the court for the first practice on Tuesday.
Thibodeau said that is because Butler needs another week for conditioning and rehabilitation to be ready for action – but even if he were fully healthy the awkward situation would be reason enough for him to stay away.
”I just wish him nothing but happiness,” said backup guard Derrick Rose, who like Butler and Gibson played for Thibodeau with the Bulls. ”He’s the only person in his shoes and dealing with what he’s dealing with, and he’s betting on himself, so I feel like there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Center Karl-Anthony Towns signed his five-year, $190 million contract extension on Sunday. The summer-long delay, Towns said, was unrelated to any rumored rift with Butler and rather a deliberate series of discussions with owner Glen Taylor about the mutual commitment.
”We finally found common ground at a very awkward time, and the story is very awkward how that happened, but it worked out and I’m truly excited to have a future here,” said Towns, who later added he was surprised by Butler’s demand.
The Butler saga not-so-subtly played out last week on social media for all to view.
Nick Wiggins, the older brother of Andrew Wiggins, wrote a simple ”Hallelujah” on Twitter on Wednesday in commenting on The Athletic’s post of its article about Butler’s request. That tweet was soon deleted.
Butler then fired back with a ”Hallelujah” of his own stamped on an Instagram video of him going through hill workouts, approaching the camera at the end with this barb presumably lobbed at Andrew Wiggins for a perceived lack of intensity on the court: ”Keep that same energy.” Andrew Wiggins later engaged in a round of Instagram trash talk with NBA analyst and former player Stephen Jackson, who decided to jump in and defend Butler.
Former Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio even chimed in on Twitter with a simple emoji depicting an exasperated man with his face buried in his hand.
Butler is the in-your-face, alpha-male overachiever that Thibodeau has long admired and trusted, embodying the type of toughness he sought to instill in Towns and Wiggins, who have more laid-back personalities.
”Conflict in the NBA, it’s not unusual. Every team has it, so you navigate through it,” Thibodeau said, adding: ”Sometimes a player may say something and it may not be in the right tone, but it is the right message.”
Neither Towns nor Wiggins acknowledged any hint of tension with Butler.
”It was good energy,” Wiggins said, before realizing his allusion to the social-media spat. ”I didn’t mean it like that.”
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