Something strange is happening at Target Center. For perhaps the first time in the star-crossed and star-starved history of your Minnesota Timberwolves, the team shot itself in the foot, and the bullet struck oil.
The Wolves are known for bad decisions and bad luck, but with one shrewd and initially unexciting trade, Tom Thibodeau has corrected his biggest mistake, saved his job and belatedly demonstrated that he is the coach he was suspected to be when the Wolves hired him.
With another entertaining comeback victory, this time Wednesday night at Target Center against Charlotte, the Timberwolves are 9-3 since trading Jimmy Butler for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Butler’s ghost should be the Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.
Trading for Butler returned the Wolves to relevance. Trading Butler may turn the Wolves into a sustainable success, highlighting the importance of personality in a league filled with massive egos.
Without Butler, who was their best defensive player, the Wolves have improved dramatically on defense. And without Butler, their most accomplished offensive player, they have improved dramatically on offense, at least in crunch time.
Their most talented players touch the ball more in the fourth quarter and play with more freedom throughout the game. Karl-Anthony Towns is becoming the star he was always destined to be, and Andrew Wiggins, while still too inconsistent for a player of his athletic ability, is contributing as a winning player.
These developments are gratifying for anyone who thought the Wolves made the right move when they hired Thibodeau, and anyone who hates NBA cliches.
NBA players don’t care?
NBA teams don’t play defense?
NBA seasons are filled with boring, meaningless games?
The Wolves have defied each of those thoughtless thoughts since the Butler trade, playing hard, playing together and making home games worth attending.
They are demonstrating that leadership and effort matter even in a league ruled by athletic ability and skill, and that there is a desirable path between completely rebuilding and selling out for one season.
Thibodeau’s trade for Butler was risky because he is an older player with injury concerns and contract expectations, and that experiment failed when Butler decided acting like a selfish jerk was in his best interest.
Thibodeau’s job and reputation were on the line, and in dealing for two players who immediately fit in, he is resurrecting his career. He traded a money-mad egomaniac for a 27-year-old player who could not fit the Wolves’ needs better if he were invented in a laboratory (Covington) and a 24-year-old who fits well now and may grow into a larger role (Saric).
If Gary Payton was The Glove, we have the perfect Minnesota nickname for Covington: The Mitten.
Whether trading Butler to Philadelphia was an act of genius or desperation, the result is all that matters. Thibodeau was right to avoid trades that would have brought only draft picks, which would have made Target Center a ghost town again, and he was right to choose the Philadelphia package over the Heat package featuring Josh Richardson.
Richardson is a fine young player, but he would not have made the impact defensively that Covington has.
This is Towns’ franchise, and now he’s playing with teammates who don’t mind his status, who are willing to give him the ball. And his eagerness to improve defensively since Butler’s departure is yet another indictment of Butler. Towns wants to be great. He just needs to be treated like most young stars — with encouragement and deference.
The next breakthrough in sports analytics will measure narcissism and team chemistry. The Warriors are dealing with relative struggles as Draymond Green and Kevin Durant bicker. The Rockets’ resurgence lasted one season.
The Western Conference isn’t as daunting today as it was even this summer, and the Wolves’ arrow is again pointing up.
This is a rare juncture in franchise history. They are promising, good and likable, all at the same time.
And Thibodeau, previously a walking bucket of blame, should get the credit.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org