MILWAUKEE – Just before Tom Thibodeau addressed reporters Friday for the first time since Jimmy Butler’s infamous debut at practice, the lights went out in the hallway where Thibodeau was set to speak.
Thibodeau walked in, stood against a gray wall, and the only light in the hall was from a few cameras directed at Thibodeau’s face. Fitting, since it seems like the spotlight of the entire NBA is centered on the Timberwolves drama and little else.
During his session, Thibodeau didn’t criticize how Butler spent his Wednesday when he confronted teammates and the front office, then went on ESPN after to tell the country about it.
Instead, Thibodeau said Butler was not with the team as he worked on conditioning in the Twin Cities while trying to downplay the effect Butler had on the Wolves, who didn’t practice Thursday, allowing fans and media to spend the last 48 hours wondering how much damage Butler had done to the Wolves and possibly to himself.
“It’s not uncommon when players scrimmage that there will be some talk,” said Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations. “It was competitive.”
Based on accounts of what happened, that’s putting it mildly. Butler himself told ESPN he might have gone a bit too far in his actions, when he called out General Manager Scott Layden and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Thibodeau said some of what was reported about the incident was correct, some wasn’t, but he declined to say what parts of the story were inaccurate when asked.
Thibodeau also mentioned multiple times that the Wolves have to do what’s best for the team, that “that’s what everyone has to understand — it’s all about the team. The team has got to come first.”
But when asked if Butler was exhibiting team-first behavior, Thibodeau didn’t give a direct answer.
“Well, I think the important thing is, we have to do what we think is best for our team and we always will do that,” Thibodeau said. “We’re always going to put the team first.”
Thibodeau wouldn’t say for sure if Butler would play Wednesday in the season-opener against the Spurs, saying only it was a “fluid situation.” He also said he canceled practice Thursday because of scheduling issues, and he didn’t want the team to practice too many consecutive days with “contact.”
Towns also didn’t feel much like talking about Butler and Butler’s critiques of him. Towns wouldn’t confirm if Butler had addressed the Wolves in a players’ only meeting Thursday. Butler had told ESPN a meeting occurred, teammates on social media said it didn’t. Towns would only say he was just “happy that we could play basketball.”
About that practice, in which Butler reportedly guarded Towns and defeated the starters with the third string? Was that unusual?
“We had practice. We got better. Everyone got better and we left.”
Veteran Taj Gibson, who played with Butler in Chicago, elaborated a little more than that, and said practices like that with the Bulls were not abnormal, even if Butler reportedly hurled an obscenity to tell Layden that the Wolves needed Butler.
“I felt like it was a normal practice, but it was new for guys,” Gibson said. “It’s only our second year together, but I’ve been around Jimmy for a long time. We always had practices like that in Chicago. It was always a good competition and after it ended everybody just shook up and we still understood we were teammates.”
Along those lines, Thibodeau said he encourages leadership among teammates, even if it means confronting them from time to time. In that way, Thibodeau seemed to suggest he didn’t have much of a problem with what Butler did, even if it caused quite the stir around the league.
“The biggest job of a leader in my eyes is to unite and inspire,” Thibodeau said. “It’s OK to confront. That’s not an issue. The way you confront that’s important. But if you do confront, don’t beat down. The big thing is to lift people up. You make other people better.”