When asked about Ricky Rubio the other day, Tom Thibodeau said there was no guarantee that the veteran point guard from Spain wouldn’t be traded. Still, when the Timberwolves dealt Rubio to Utah on Friday for a first-round draft pick, it was a big surprise to a lot of people, including me.
“As you know you never can say that somebody is untradeable,” Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, said last Sunday. “If something comes along that can make you better, you’re going to take a look at it. Everyone would. But we like Ricky a lot. He was terrific the second half of the year, and we’re going to continue to go forward with the players we have.
“We’re going to look at free agency, and we’ll continue to always explore the trade market. If something can make us better, the big thing for us is we have to get out of this hole. We’re always going to put the team first and do what we think is best for this team.”
That’s certainly what Thibodeau is thinking with the deal, ending the Wolves’ association with Rubio after they drafted him sixth overall in 2009, then waited two more years for his arrival in North America.
Rubio had a fantastic season in 2016-17, averaging 11.1 points and 9.1 assists per game, both career highs. He also had career bests in shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and 89.1 percent from the free-throw line. He appeared to be getting better and better throughout his NBA career, including as a shooter.
But apparently Thibodeau wanted to go with Jeff Teague, a better scorer and three-point shooter throughout his career. Teague, a 2015 All-Star, averaged 15.3 points per game last season with Indiana while shooting 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.
To get that move done, the Wolves had to free up the money and the position, meaning Rubio — still only 26 years old — and his $14.1 million salary are headed to Salt Lake City.
Concern for the trade
Thibodeau reported that for a little while there was some concern that the deal for Butler might fall through.
“When you’re talking about a player like Jimmy, you go in with the understanding that sometimes it’s difficult to finish things off,” he said. “There are certain things they felt they needed and there were certain things that we felt we needed in order to do the deal. Everything has to come together, and it did. We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
“It wasn’t an easy decision. We felt very strongly about Zach [LaVine] and Kris [Dunn] and of course the pick. But you know when you have an opportunity to get an All-NBA player, it’s a little unusual to get that type of player. We wanted to take advantage of it.”
In more recent seasons the Wolves have been so stuck on the idea of developing their young talent that all of a sudden they feel like a completely different team from a competitive standpoint after grabbing Butler.
The team hasn’t had a two-way player of Butler’s ability since Kevin Garnett was here in his first stint with the club. Butler, 27, isn’t as dominant defensively as Garnett was, but he did make three consecutive NBA All-Defense second teams from 2013 to ’16.
It’s that kind of talent that eventually made the deal OK in Thibodeau’s mind. “In order to get a player like Jimmy you’re going to have to give up some high-quality assets, and we felt like we did that,” he said. “That’s why the 16th pick [Justin Patton] was so important to us. I know we wouldn’t have done the deal if we didn’t get that pick.”
Yes, Butler’s talent is hard to overstate, but consider this: ESPN has a statistic called “real plus-minus” that measures a player’s effect on his team when he is on or off the court. The network breaks it down by measuring the net point differential for the team over an average of 100 possessions.
Butler ranked seventh in the NBA at plus-6.62. The players ahead of him: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic.
Bjelica a key part
One player Thibodeau enjoyed having on the floor last season was Nemanja Bjelica. And while the word around the Wolves office is that the 29-year-old from Serbia might not be ready for the start of the season after surgery for a broken bone in his foot, Thibodeau sees the 6-10 forward as a big part of the team’s future, saying he’s a nice player to have with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
“He’s a basketball player, to me,” Thibodeau said. “He can shoot. He didn’t shoot great, but he was shooting well right before he got hurt. He had a five-week stretch there where he was shooting terrific. He can put it on the floor and he can make plays. He’s a very good passer.
“I love his size, he rebounds the ball better than people realize. It’s his overall skill set. It opens up the floor. He complements Wigg and Karl very, very well. Along with Jimmy, I think his skill set will be a big plus for our team.”
Free agency has just started and already it has been a busy offseason for Thibodeau and the Wolves, but for once it’s nice to be a team on the hunt.
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck reported that the team will start its training camp the first week in August. “The way we run training camp, how we have our practice scheduled, I think here’s what I’ll say, rest is really important to me during training camp, and our players’ health is very important to me during training camp. So we’ve kind of done some unique things in the last two years [at Western Michigan] that we’re going to carry over here in the next few years to the University of Minnesota, and I think the players are going to really, really like it. It benefits our players’ safety, benefits our players’ health, and mentally and emotionally and physically. I think that is really, really important.”
• It took the Twins 76 games to get victory No. 40 this season, as they hit 40-36 on Wednesday after defeating the Red Sox in Boston. Last season they earned their 40th victory on July 31 to move to 40-64.
• It will be interesting to see how much fan interest improves after the Timberwolves’ offseason acquisitions The Wolves finished 29th out of 30 teams in the NBA in total (607,203) and average (14,809) attendance last season. It’s worth noting that they finished eighth in the NBA in road attendance with an average of 18,113 fans per game.
• Tim Leiweke, one of the Wolves’ first front-office employees when the team was formed in 1989, is advising New York Knicks owner James Dolan regarding a replacement for departed president Phil Jackson. Leiweke is the CEO of the Oak View Group, which advises entities in the sports and live entertainment industries. Since leaving the Wolves, he has been CEO of Maple Leafs Sports, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors, and of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings, the Galaxy and part of the Lakers.
Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m., Fridays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org