MINNEAPOLIS — Last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves parlayed the arrival of Jimmy Butler into the franchise's first appearance in the playoffs in 14 years.
Butler, naturally, has been the focal point for Minnesota with the start of this season fast approaching, but in a most surprising and distracting way.
Butler's request for a trade has yet to be fulfilled. After three consecutive lackluster preseason performances by the Timberwolves, Butler joined practice on Wednesday and created quite a stir by verbally challenging teammates and executives during the session.
The opener at San Antonio is just a week away and coach Tom Thibodeau wants Butler to remain with Minnesota despite his adamant refusal to re-sign with the team before he can opt out of his contract next summer. So the possibility remains that the 29-year-old Butler would take the court for the Wolves with an awkward-at-best atmosphere surrounding their 30th season as a franchise.
Butler's stance about wanting to be elsewhere, belying his career-long bond with Thibodeau since their time together with the Chicago Bulls, still makes a deal the most likely outcome to a sideshow that has complicated the challenge the Wolves were already facing to return to the playoffs. The Western Conference competition has only stiffened, with the arrival of LeBron James in Los Angeles.
"If he's around then he'll play. If he's not then he won't," said Anthony Tolliver, the only player of significance acquired this year beside rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop in the draft. "I think we have guys here that, if he's not here, we can play with, and we have enough talent that we can go out and win some games."
Butler or not, the Timberwolves are built now and for the future around center Karl-Anthony Towns, who signed his $190 million super-max deal last month. He has not missed a game in any of his first three years in the NBA, and he became an All-Star for the first time in 2018.
"I want to bring this city something special," Towns said.
Here are some other key angles surrounding the Timberwolves this season:
TOLLIVER'S TREYS: The Timberwolves finished last in the NBA in both 3-point tries and makes in each of Thibodeau's first two years, failing to join the league-wide trend of pace-and-space offenses that value the long-range shot more than ever.
One of Thibodeau's moves to change that was a one-year contract for Tolliver, the 11-year veteran power forward who spent two seasons earlier in his career with Minnesota but has since developed an even sharper 3-point shot. Tolliver hit a career-best 43.6 percent of his attempts from behind the arc, the seventh-highest rate in the league.
"I am not going to change what I do. I was brought here for a reason and so if I play, you will see 3-pointers. Period," Tolliver said. "He knows what he is going to get out of me, right? It is not a secret to anybody. So it will be real obvious whether it is a priority or not. Just me as a player, I'm just going to control what I can. When I'm out there, they will go up."
DEVELOPING DEFENSE: One of the purported reasons for Butler's discontent with the Wolves is the approach to playing defense by Towns and sidekick Andrew Wiggins, whose strengths lie with the ball in their hands. As a team, the Wolves have been in the middle of the pack in the league in two years under Thibodeau, but without Butler they've lacked the shutdown defender who can take on an opponent's best player and produce a stop or a steal at a critical point in a game.
"You look at everybody across the league now everybody's switching," power forward Taj Gibson said. "You have to be able to guard multiple positions."
WORLD OF WIGGINS: Wiggins struggled to find a rhythm as a third option on offense last season behind Butler and Towns, often settling for mid-range jumpers in the corner rather than using his athleticism to attack the rim. Wiggins has been trying to be more vocal this season and, assuming Butler is elsewhere, will be leaned on heavily to make significant strides in scoring and leadership, let alone defense.
"I took a liking to Wiggs so many times last year," Gibson said. "He didn't really get too much credit the way he handled himself."
SCHEDULE, FOR STARTERS: The home opener is on Oct. 19 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with former Wolves star Kevin Love now the focal point of a James-less squad. James and the Lakers visit Target Center on Oct. 29, with former Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio and the Utah Jazz due in two days later. Then they travel to Golden State to play the reigning NBA champion Warriors on Nov. 2. The first 10 games will tell the Wolves a lot about where they're at, Butler or not.