The skyway connecting Marquette Avenue and 6th Street in downtown Minneapolis has five pillars decorated in a Timberwolves promotion.
Four pillars are draped with giant posters of four starters — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague. The fifth pillar, the one in the middle, is covered by a standard Wolves logo.
Something is missing, and it’s not subtle.
Their best player is not up there because he demanded a trade, then went bonkers in practice, then torched the front office in a national TV interview, then encouraged fans to boo him in the home opener.
That’s a winning card in crazytown Bingo.
Jimmy Butler is still here, though. For now. Maybe for another week. Or month. Or maybe until the trade deadline in February.
Butler will be gone eventually. The commotion last week didn’t change the fundamental premise of the organization’s predicament: The Wolves can’t risk losing Butler for nothing if they dared trying to slow-play this stare-down for the entire season.
So they’re stuck in limbo, which means the Wolves have to pretend publicly that all is right in their world.
They have no choice at this point. Butler’s outburst and staged ESPN interview probably didn’t endear him to potential trade partners. The organization’s best hope is that Butler distances himself from drama by playing well, avoiding more outbursts and reminding teams of his value as a top-15 player.
Having the entire NBA witness this degree of chaos publicly is not what the Wolves had in mind with their “All Eyes North” slogan. Nor is it ideal preparation for the season.
“Do I feel confident? Absolutely,” Towns said. “I feel confident in the guys we have in the locker room.”
What about Butler?
“Jimmy is an All-NBA, All-Star player,” Towns said. “Having his talent on the court is going to give us a lot to work with.”
This whole situation is awkward. The season starts Wednesday and an elephant is sitting at center court. And the Wolves want everyone to ignore it.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Tom Thibodeau said about his team’s readiness after an awful preseason. “But I would feel that way in any circumstance.”
This isn’t just any circumstance. The infamous practice felt like DEFCON 1.
Now here’s one hypothetical: What happens if the Wolves somehow, some way get off to a strong start and look like a potential playoff contender while Butler is still here? Based on everything he has said publicly or his camp has floated privately, the Wolves can’t possibly trust that he would have any desire to stay here long term.
So at some point, the makeup of the team will change dramatically when Butler is traded. That expiration date — whenever it might be — hangs over the entire operation.
This mess should have been resolved long ago. If Butler is to be believed, he informed Thibodeau of his unhappiness right after last season and reiterated his stance at different times after that. Rather than deal with it then, Thibodeau, in his role as basketball boss, hit pause and eventually this turned into an 11th-hour crisis.
The fallout provides further proof that, in pro sports, a head coach should not also hold final authority on personnel matters, as is the case with Thibodeau. A separation in responsibilities is necessary because those two jobs occasionally have competing interests or viewpoints.
Predicting how the Wolves will fare this season is a futile exercise because nobody knows how long Butler will wear their uniform. Or how chemistry issues will affect them on the court. The Western Conference is loaded with heavyweights, so the picture looks daunting with or without him.
The ongoing drama adds layers of intrigue because Butler is upset with the organization and has barely practiced since demanding a trade. Even Thibodeau sounds uncertain about how his starters will mesh with Butler since he was mostly absent during training camp.
“That’s a great question,” Thibodeau said. “We’ll see when we get there.”
Buckle up, folks.