Jimmy Butler was an egomaniac and a hypocrite.
Tom Thibodeau was a monotone taskmaster.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, unburdened of their two boogeymen, are free to chase greatness.
But what if Butler was right?
And what if Thibodeau proves not to have been their problem?
In one of the most embarrassing performances in a franchise history filled with embarrassing performances, the Wolves lost 149-107 on Tuesday night at Philadelphia.
It was the kind of matchup that inspires athletes who pride themselves as competitors. For the first time since Thibodeau was forced to trade Butler, the Wolves were facing Butler, who publicly criticized the Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and whose desperation to flee the organization was as insulting as any sentence he uttered.
Butler didn’t just criticize his Wolves teammates as players. He questioned their toughness, their pride, their will to win. He made much of coming off his training camp holdout to dominate the Wolves starters in a scrimmage. That kind of frontal behavior should prompt even a pacifist to fight, or at least put up one.
The Wolves, too, were testing themselves against a top Eastern Conference team not long after their inspiring victory at Oklahoma City in Ryan Saunders’ debut. In the locker room after the game, the players doused Saunders, looking as much like a team as they have since Ryan’s father was taking the Wolves to the playoffs.
What the Wolves displayed in Philadelphia was a lack of toughness, getting blown out from the start against a team that is dealing with its own version of Butler dyspepsia.
The Wolves played more poorly for Saunders than they had for Thibodeau, refusing to guard the hoop or the corner three.
That Butler might have been right about the Wolves, and that Thibodeau might prove to have not been their biggest problem, doesn’t mean either should be invited back. Each in his own way burned every bridge he walked across, leaving behind many in the organization — and not just in the locker room — who would like to burn Butler’s old jerseys and Thibodeau’s old playbook.
Both could have been wrong for the Timberwolves, and both might have been right about the Timberwolves.
Towns was a minus-42 on Tuesday. Wiggins was minus-25 with zero assists. Towns has been brilliant lately but was dominated by Joel Embiid. Wiggins has shown signs of life under Saunders but reverted back to his low-energy doppelganger.
The Wolves miss Robert Covington’s energy and defense, but let’s not pretend he would have made the difference Tuesday while his teammates wilted.
If that performance in Philly turns out to be anything but an aberration for the Wolves, they have problems that can’t be cured by the removal of a rude teammate or one-note coach.
If that performance is a true indicator of this team’s competitiveness, this group of Wolves will be viewed historically as talented failures.
Unlike almost any other professional sport, the NBA rewards promise. Players like Towns and Wiggins get paid immense sums before they win anything. Players like Butler can shred franchise after franchise and still live like kings, knowing the primary variable in their pampered lives will be the climate of the city where they earn their millions.
The NBA, as much as any sport, broadcasts and tests personality. You never needed to break down film to know what Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson was about. You never had to wonder about their end-to-end competitiveness.
With Towns, Wiggins and the rest of these Wolves, you wonder. Constantly.
Friday, the Wolves face the San Antonio Spurs of Gregg Popovich, one of the great coaches in modern American sports. The Spurs are four games better than these Wolves because of coaching and competitiveness.
It would be a good night for the Wolves to show some heart, whether to spite Butler and Thibodeau or to reward Saunders. At this point, any reason will do.