Last week’s draft is done and the NBA free-agency period doesn’t begin until 11 p.m. Saturday.
But every day, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is at work, laying brick-by-brick a path that will keep four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler in Minnesota beyond this season.
The question is, just how good of a stonemason is Thibodeau?
The Wolves added cost-efficient Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop to their roster in the draft. They will work to sign Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose and bring back Nemanja Bjelica once free agency begins. They could sign another free agent to a salary exception, despite their stretched cap space, once superstar LeBron James determines his future — he must decide by Friday if he will opt out of his contract with Cleveland — and the league’s free-agency moves tumble like dominoes in response.
The Wolves also need to sign some bargains — possibly veterans such as Joakim Noah or Luol Deng, if either reaches a contract buyout with his current team? — willing to sign league minimum contracts.
But nothing is more important this summer than creating that path for Butler to sign a contract extension and structuring a maximum-contract extension for young star Karl-Anthony Towns, too.
If Butler signs an extension, it likely will be next summer, when he can become a free agent and sign to stay with the Wolves for considerably more than any other team can pay him.
“Every day we work at it,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “We know how important he is and we feel he’s one of the best players in the league. So how you manage that on a daily basis is important. I think our communication with him is important.”
The Fifth Factor
Last summer, Thibodeau traded a chunk of the Wolves’ perpetual future — guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, as well as the rights to seventh overall pick Lauri Markanen — and reunited with Butler, whom he coached for the guard’s first five NBA seasons in Chicago.
Butler can opt out of the final season of his contract next summer and become free to sign with any team.
Late last season, Butler said he has already earned more money than he needs and said the chance to win big will trump dollars when he decides his long-term future as he approaches his 30th birthday in September 2019.
Thibodeau listed four factors Thursday that sway free agents to sign with a new team: The new city, the chance to win, money and the new teammates with whom he will be playing.
Thibodeau said all four apply to Butler’s situation as well.
“I know he loves living here,” Thibodeau said. “The winning is important to him, I know.”
There’s also a fifth: The coach said he talks to Butler every day, even in summer.
“Your communication with him, your actions, how you conduct business,” Thibodeau said. “The chance to win big is important. I’ve been around Jimmy a long time now, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of what makes him tick. I know how important he is to the team.”
The Wolves last summer signed young star Andrew Wiggins to a maximum five-year contract extension worth at least $146.5 million. Towns could earn one worth as much as $188 million if the 22-year-old is named to another All-NBA team next season. Butler commands a maximum salary and could sign for as much as well.
That’s three players comprising most of the salary cap on a team that owes backup center Gorgui Dieng more than $48 million for the next three seasons and point guard Jeff Teague $38 million for the next two.
Thibodeau was asked if financial reality might make the team trade Wiggins.
“Well, we love Andrew,” Thibodeau said. “Players that are good players, they’re always going to be talked about as a possibility. But when you look at who Andrew is and what he has accomplished at a very young age, we think he’s critical. So we’ll always talk to people, but we like Andrew a lot here.”
Wiggins didn’t sign his extension until October last year.
When asked if he has a feel for how negotiations with Towns will proceed this summer, Thibodeau said: “I don’t, I don’t. We’re just optimistic it will be done as soon as possible.”
As for Butler, Thibodeau said it’s possible the team could extend his contract yet this summer.
“There’s options that we have, yeah,” he said.
If Butler decides either sooner or later that his future is elsewhere, the Wolves would do well to trade him — as Indiana did last summer with Paul George — by February’s deadline rather than let him walk for nothing.
“You take everything step by step,” Thibodeau said. “We think about today and about what we can do today. And as I said from the time he got here, we understood how important he is. I know the type of environment he is looking for and when you look at the players we have here, I think that’s appealing. So all those things factor in.”
Thibodeau said he would be comfortable if the team enters this coming season with Butler’s future still in doubt.
“Players of that stature, they’ve earned that right,” Thibodeau said. “If a guy is a free agent, it doesn’t matter really. If you value them, you work at it every day. We think we have a great environment here.”