MILWAUKEE – As the Minnesota Timberwolves/Jimmy Butler Reality TV Hostage Tour ground through Day 19 Friday, the collateral damage mounted.
Butler and the Wolves once again were in different cities – the team was getting drubbed in its final preseason game on the road against the Bucks while its malcontent All-Star and (*cough*) leader was back in the Twin Cities working on his conditioning, according to coach Tom Thibodeau.
No national TV crew coincidentally happened to be there with him to confirm that claim, though, so media and fans had to take the coach’s word for it.
Still, considering what transpired the previous two days when they all were in the same city, out of sight, out of mind wasn’t necessarily a bad strategy. Butler by all accounts had commandeered practice on Wednesday, arriving late, exiting early, punking teammates and cursing his bosses in between. On Thursday, he did (or maybe didn’t, depending on which Twitter account you believed) convene a players-only meeting after Thibodeau canceled a scheduled workout.
What is increasingly clear is that Butler’s antics and posturing initially intended solely to serve and impact him was having some unpleasant ripple effects on a team that’s about as poorly prepared as any in the league for the start of the regular season next week. The longer it drags on, the more this is certain: No one is going to get out of this untouched. When you’re sitting near a food fight, you’re inevitably going to get splattered.
Here, in no particular order, are people and things that have taken hits thanks to Butler’s craving for attention, his bizarro approach to leadership and his ill-advised way of fulfilling a contract:
Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has been Butler’s heavy bag before and during this regrettable episode, in the past with criticism of his defense and most recently in remarks by Butler about the big fellow’s work habits and candor. The 22-year-old – who may just be targeted by Butler out of jealousy over the five-year, $190 million contract extension Towns signed last month – has tried to stay out of the fray, only to be yanked in by Butler’s comments to ESPN on Wednesday. Normally an affable, enthusiastic interviewee, Towns went Stepford guy at Friday’s shootaround, repeating a couple of answers regardless of the questions.
Finally, asked if he was tired of the same Butler-driven topics, a glum, dead-eyed Towns said, “Are you tired of hearing me say ‘We’re playing basketball today here in Milwaukee?’” He didn’t smile.
Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau isn’t blameless in this, but there’s been a piling-on from Minnesota and national media that simply isn’t fair. He did not invite or anticipate Butler’s unprofessional reaction to the Wolves’ grown-up business decision not to dismantle their roster to pay him bigger, sooner, rather than later. Thibodeau arrived with a mandate to end a 13-year playoff drought and did just that after properly identifying Butler as a star through determination and sweat, a veteran who could help the Wolves at both ends of the court and in their locker room.
Thibodeau vouched for Butler to his team owner, Glen Taylor, and to the other players when he acquired the 6-foot-8 swingman from Chicago. He rightfully didn’t throw other helpful players overboard to tear up Butler’s contract this summer, instead offering “only” a four-year, $110 million extension available without shedding some of his teammates.
We all should have the opportunity to go haywire over such an offer.
Now Thibodeau’s great sin is staying loyal both to Butler (given their history with the Bulls) and to the plan that brought the coach to Minnesota. It might wind up costing him his coaching job, his role as Wolves’ chief basketball officer or both.
Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Anthony Tolliver. And any other Wolves player who bought into or signed onto the idea that this was a team on the rise, with key pieces in place for a sustained run of high-seed playoff appearances.
Timberwolves fans. These folks, who either show up diligently at Target Center or keep their powder dry for when they can buy tickets to see a real contender, can’t seem to catch a break. It’s been one bout of dysfunction after another, their team and, by association, themselves cast as laughingstocks in flyover NBA land.
Truth. For a guy who talks a lot about being honest and valuing that in others, Butler sure has been mendacious. He says he wants to win, then designates mediocre or worse franchises as preferred trade destinations. He claims to be a leader, yet can’t cope with Towns or Wiggins and their allegedly oh-so-frustrating natures. Oh, and ESPN just happened to be in the hinterlands – lights, camera, action! – the day Butler hijacks practice.
Right. These theatrics are about money and attention. And maybe a little spite.
Spine. If Thibodeau and Taylor are serious about doing what’s right for their team – rather than what pleases Miami’s Pat Riley, no matter how profane he allegedly gets – they should be looking seriously at the options they have for enforcing their deal with Butler. A fine, a suspension and maybe even a breach-of-contract showdown should be on the table, given his conduct already detrimental to the team. But there is no sense the Wolves are ready to play hardball, or even contemplating it.
It’s disquieting, too, that none of Butler’s teammates has called him on his selfishness. When Kevin Garnett dominated Wolves practices with his game and his mouth, it was fuel and energy for the future Hall of Famer and his teammates. When Butler did that this week, it was all about Jimmy.
Andrew Wiggins. Wait, scratch that. Wiggins can’t be collateral damage. He’s Teflon, or rather, Kevlar, as far as anything touching or rattling him from his eerily unmoved, unmotivated, unaffected centeredness. He wasn’t in Milwaukee Friday either, keeping vigil for the birth of his first child. With that, his dog, his video-game console and his five-year, $147 million contract, life is good with or without Butler.
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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