Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler in difficult place as their fractured union continues

Fog hangs over franchise as star's trade request continues to go unmet

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler played against the LA Clippers last night when instead he should’ve played for the Clippers.

It’s November 6, Election Day, and the All-Star swingman lost the popular vote in Minnesota months ago. Not only with a segment of the weary fan base, but you wonder if the mood in the Timberwolves’ locker room drops faster than mercury in a Minneapolis winter when Butler walks in. Just the body language alone among some teammates is telling. Poor Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t been caught smiling since signing his super-max extension worth a reported $190 million, and only then, just barely.

Yes, the joy and most likely the Wolves’ performance will stay sapped as long as Butler is in uniform and the atmosphere caused by his uncertain status continues. There are two basketball crimes being committed here: one by Butler (who’s pouting and playing transparent politics until his trade demands are met) and one by Tom Thibodeau (the Minnesota GM/coach who so far seems powerless to solve it).

Which means, of course, the joke once again is on a franchise that until lately tried to convince skeptical folks that decades of flogging itself were over.

The Wolves’ image has been overtaken by a singular and embarrassing episode. It’s astonishing to think that it’s now three weeks into the 2018-19 season and Butler is … still … around. How is this productive for a team that finally reached the playoffs last spring after a 14-year absence and is seeking traction in the tough Western Conference?

This isn’t an issue of Butler’s talent, to a degree. Butler is a scrappy, self-made impact player who impressively rose from obscurity in high school to grind his way into the league. He trains hard, plays hard, doesn’t shrink from the big moment and only knows one speed. If he had a consistent 3-pointer (he’s a career 34 percent 3-point shooter) he’d be top-shelf.

Surrounded by players who lack his composure and drive, Butler brings a necessary grit. Even now, when he plays, he’s usually fire: his averages are 22 points, five rebounds and he leads the league in steals. In Monday’s 120-109 loss to the Clippers, he scored 16 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.

And as he reportedly said in practice last month when he returned from his awkward (and self-imposed) training camp exile: “You can’t win without me.”

But they can’t win with him, either, not while they’re caught in this fog, where nobody’s quite sure where Butler’s head, heart and allegiances lie on any given night. It’s not a good look, not the right culture, not an environment to build any sort of momentum for the club.

He has missed three of the Wolves’ first 11 games, two for “rest”, and may not play Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Citing his past injury history, Butler isn’t big on playing both games of back-to-backs, even this early in the season, because of “general soreness” from missing camp. And he’s made it clear that he — and not the Wolves — will decide when he plays.

Of course, Butler was in the lineup against the Clippers. He has a home in LA and the Clippers are reportedly on his trade wish-list. He sat the previous game in Portland and the Wolves lost by 30. He sat against the Utah Jazz at home and the Wolves needed a 50-point performance by Derrick Rose to barely win.

Rose is a battered former Kia MVP trying to breathe life into whatever time he has left in the NBA. Butler made All-NBA the last two seasons (he was All-NBA third team in 2017-18) and just turned 29. He’s in position to make reasonably large money, yet is trying to force the Wolves’ hand a year before hitting free agency (a disturbing trend in the NBA now).

It’s hard to imagine the Wolves giving Butler max money after investing in Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who represent the team’s future. Besides, this isn’t the way for Butler to go about getting a rich extension from the Wolves.

Butler’s leadership style is tough-love, believing the young players need a constant buzz in their ear and an occasional foot in the behind. That technique failed spectacularly in Butler’s final season in Chicago and the Bulls were anxious to ship him out of town. Thibodeau, a tough guy himself, felt Butler needed to rub off on Towns and especially Wiggins, who doesn’t exactly breathe fire. But is this a repeat of Chicago after Butler, in the offseason, openly questioned the commitment of Wiggins and Towns?

After Monday’s loss, the Wolves fell to 4-7 (0-6 on the road) and are in danger of seeing last season’s momentum evaporate. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whom Thibodeau was an assistant coach to years ago in Boston, said: “They’re better than this. They just have so much stuff — clutter — going on.

“It’s tough. It’s a balancing act. It puts you in a very tough spot as a coach. All of us go through these. Hopefully they are more private than public but this one is extremely public.”

Thibodeau has no one to blame but himself, since he also calls the shots — for how much longer, who knows. He sent three lottery picks to the Bulls to get Butler and is now looking to get something back in any trades for Butler. However, Minnesota isn’t operating with a leverage advantage, given Butler’s contract situation and unpredictability.

So, the clumsy and uncomfortable dance continues. The Wolves are on the clock with Butler. Can they afford to wait until the February trade deadline to deal him? Their season would likely be in flames by then. If there were a solid deal from the Rockets, Clippers or another team on the table, Butler would be gone by now.

The Wolves must try as best as possible to ignore the elephant in the locker room. They must cope Butler’s antics (waving a towel along with Warriors’ fans after Minnesota’s loss, his sitting out) until then. Butler is better than this, or at least he should be. Maybe his next team will find out, because his current one is sinking along with his attitude.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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