Heading into training camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves have fallen into complete disarray. That should come as no surprise to anyone who paid attention in recent months.
Dating back to the spring (if not longer), rumors were circulating about behind-the-scenes discord in the Timberwolves organization. In May, ESPN 1500’s Darren Wolfson said (via NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman): “To suggest it’s a cohesive bunch, that organization, to think that they’re holding hands singing ‘Kumbaya’ is laughable. There is a lot of disconnect. … I’m telling you, there is so much angst, and I’m telling you, disconnect behind the scenes.”
That angst bubbled to the surface when All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler met with head coach/team president Tom Thibodeau last week and requested a trade, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Butler informed Thibodeau that he does not plan to sign a long-term extension with the franchise next summer when he becomes a free agent, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, which puts the T-Wolves in a no-win situation.
Regardless how the coming weeks play out, it’s likely to spell the end of Thibodeau’s tenure in Minnesota as well.
As both the coach and team president, Thibodeau must balance competing interests when deciding how to resolve the Butler situation. The coach side seems to have no interest in trading him, as doing so would likely send the Timberwolves plummeting down the Western Conference standings. According to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, rival executives are currently “getting their inquires rebuffed” with regard to Butler, as “Minnesota executives are telling teams that Butler’s an elite player and that the franchise intends to keep him.”
Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported Tom Thibodeau “has zero interest in taking a step back with Minnesota, even, according to sources, if it means he ultimately parts ways with the team.” If Thibodeau remains with in Minnesota, rival executives expect the T-Wolves “to make a deal for a comparable veteran, even if the player is on a pricey contract or in a market that Butler has not listed among his favorites,” per Deveney.
In other words, this Butler dilemma is living proof of why the dual coach-president role often ends poorly.
The executive side of Thibodeau should be focused on the Timberwolves’ long-term future rather than solely the 2018-19 season. If Butler is poised to leave Minnesota next summer, the T-Wolves cannot afford to keep him on their roster beyond the trade deadline. Losing him for nothing as a free agent after giving up Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick for him last June would be a disastrous setback, far more so than missing the playoffs this year.
Instead, it appears as though Thibs isn’t thinking beyond this upcoming season.
“If Tom Thibodeau is destined to get fired at season’s end, those familiar with his thinking say he’d rather do so reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive year with the benefit of Butler on the roster,” Wojarnowski reported. “The idea of missing the postseason in the aftermath of a trade that leaves the Timberwolves devoid of a short-term, comparable talent to Butler, a four-time All-NBA forward, is fully unappealing to Thibodeau.”
Team owner Glen Taylor reportedly isn’t on the same page. During the NBA’s board of governors meetings last week, Taylor told fellow owners to contact him “should they struggle to make progress” with Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden on trade discussions, according to Woj.
Given Butler’s determination to leave Minnesota next summer (if not sooner), Taylor would be wise to overrule Thibodeau and Layden if they refuse to trade him. The owner isn’t blameless in this situation, though.
By empowering Tom Thibodeau with full control of basketball operations—something he has “privately second-guessed,” according to Wojnarowski—Taylor set the stage for Thibs having to choose between the lesser of two evils. If Thibs the president trades Butler for 60 cents on the dollar and the T-Wolves miss the playoffs, Thibs the coach looks worse. If Thibs the coach doesn’t trade Butler, Minnesota makes the playoffs and then Butler leaves in July, Thibs the president has egg on his face for not looking ahead further.
If Taylor is usurping Thibodeau’s authority with regard to a Butler trade, removing him as team president is the next logical step. The T-Wolves could still allow him to weigh in on personnel decisions—see: Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers’ new “collaborative” front office—but he should no longer have final say on such matters. This Butler debacle has laid bare the calamitous consequences of having him in both roles.
Stripping Thibs of the president role may infuriate him to the point he resigns, but that’s a risk Taylor should feel comfortable taking. Thibodeau deserves credit for helping the Timberwolves snap their 13-year playoff drought, but his flaws as a coach are impossible to ignore.
No team relied more heavily upon its starters or less upon its reserves than the Timberwolves last season, as all three of Butler, Wiggins and Towns ranked among the top 15 leaguewide in minutes played per game. That’s been Thibs’ bugaboo dating back to his time in Chicago, and he’s shown no signs of changing in Minnesota. Moving Derrick Rose ahead of Tyus Jones in the point guard rotation may be a fireable offense in and of itself.
No matter what happens with Butler and Thibodeau, the Timberwolves still have Towns, who’s one of the league’s most promising building blocks. In last year’s edition of NBA.com’s annual general manager survey, 29 percent of GMs picked Towns when asked, “If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?” He just signed a five-year extension with the franchise Saturday, ensuring the T-Wolves will still have a centerpiece to build around regardless of what happens with Butler.
Devolving into a snakepit of dysfunction on the eve of training camp isn’t an ideal way for the Timberwolves to start the 2018-19 season, but all hope is not lost. So long as Taylor acts decisively with both Butler and Tom Thibodeau in the coming weeks, the franchise’s long-term outlook could be far worse.