Jimmy Butler may be gone from Minnesota almost two months, but some of his parting words the night before he left the Timberwolves continue to define their season, and perhaps their future.
When asked after a loss in Sacramento on Nov. 9, the end of an 0-5 road trip, if the Wolves needed to be self-critical with each other, Butler said: “Yeah. But I don’t think everybody can handle it. … Everybody got to talk to one another and be able to handle it if somebody says something they may not like.”
The next day he was gone to Philadelphia, altering the course of the Wolves’ franchise trajectory yet again.
Before Friday’s win over Orlando, Wolves veteran Luol Deng, another former Bulls player, offered a similar message.
“Guys got to be confident within each other and not take it personal when other guys get on them,” Deng said. “In order to be great and be consistent, you have to go at each other.”
These Wolves have been neither great nor consistent. One year after winning 47 games and making the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons, with Butler playing a starring role, the Wolves are in a precarious position as they near the halfway point of the season.
At 18-21, they are 12th in the crowded Western Conference — three games out of the No. 8 seed, occupied by Sunday’s opponent, the Lakers. They will have to navigate the foreseeable future without defensive stalwart Robert Covington, who is out “a while,” according to coach Tom Thibodeau, because of a sore right knee.
Not only are the Wolves losing Covington’s physical abilities, they’re also losing one of their most valuable voices on the floor. The rest of the Wolves will have to find theirs if they are going to get through these next few weeks.
“Losing Cov was big for us, but we got to do better,” forward Taj Gibson said. “We got to just give him some time to heal.”
But when he does, what will this season — and this team — look like?
Before dashing off to get in a pregame workout, Deng paused to expand on his thoughts. Even though Deng isn’t a part of the rotation, he’s not a neophyte. His words carry the weight of 15 seasons in the NBA.
“What I mean is when there’s someone missing a defensive assignment or forgetting the plays, or someone’s not playing as hard as you think they should, there’s got to be a brotherhood where for two hours, we’re out there, all I care about is the game and what you got to do better for me to be better,” Deng said.
This has been a work in progress all season for the Wolves, and it often shows up on the defensive end.
Over their past 14 games, the Wolves have the 24th-best defensive rating (112.6 per 100 possessions). In the 12 before that after the Butler trade, it was third (101.2).
As a consequence, the Wolves followed their 9-3 spurt after acquiring Covington and Dario Saric with a 4-9 stretch — the same record they had in those awkward first 13 games of the season before the Butler trade.
This has led to angst among fans at Target Center, who have watched winnable games recently against Detroit and Atlanta slip away. Average home attendance has dropped from a respectable 17,056 a season ago to 14,543 this year, the second-worst mark in the NBA.
After that Atlanta game, Andrew Wiggins — who is averaging just 17 points and is shooting a career-worst 40.3 percent from the field in the first season of a five-year max contract — called out some fans’ support, using an expletive to convey his feelings. There could have been more boos Friday at Target Center had the Wolves not erased a 19-point deficit to defeat a middling Orlando team.
“We came in here at halftime and said, ‘We got to change the game,’ ” said center Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging 30 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in his past five games. “In essence we came in here, slapped each other and said, ‘Wake up.’ ”
Chemistry and communication have been a work in progress all season. A team outing to a driving range before a game in Oklahoma City on Dec. 23 helped open the lines of communication. That resulted in perhaps the Wolves’ best road win of the season against the Thunder, but the results haven’t been consistent since.
“Some people can take it and some people can’t,” guard Jeff Teague said. “But it’s a growing process. We all are kind of, if you really think about it, kind of new with each other. I know certain people I can talk to and know how to talk to them, but there’s different ways to lead throughout the whole team. It still works.”
However, when the ball hits the floor, talk doesn’t mean much to Thibodeau if it doesn’t translate into results.
“Oftentimes you hear chatter. What I look at is actions,” Thibodeau said. “What’s a guy actually doing? You can say the right things and do none of them. … Talking about it, eh. I want to see the actions. When I see the actions, I see that we’re very good.”
What if the Wolves aren’t consistently “very good?” What if in this next stretch without Covington the Wolves resemble what they were through most of December, a team that couldn’t close out a number of winnable games?
There’s still a month before the trade deadline on Feb. 7. That stretch contains several favorable matchups and could provide some clarity.
But if the Wolves have only a small chance of making the playoffs a month from now, will Thibodeau, president of basketball operations, turn the Wolves into sellers — something that could be prudent for the long-term health of the organization but might be at odds with Thibodeau’s job security and his hopes as a head coach to win games now?
Owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, hasn’t set a firm benchmark on expectations he has for Thibodeau, but he does expect progress.
“It’s part of my responsibility to communicate with [Thibodeau], and, as frustrated as I am, I know that he’s more frustrated,” Taylor said on WCCO radio last week. “I’ve got to encourage him to keep looking at what he’s doing, what we’re doing, is there other alternatives, is there changes that need to be made, what can he do differently. He communicates with me very well and we’ve just got to figure it out.”
As of Friday, ESPN projections gave the Wolves only a 5.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Wolves have some players on expiring deals who might intrigue some contenders — Anthony Tolliver, the three-point specialist, or Gibson, who could fill a valuable role as a starter or bench player. There’s also Tyus Jones, set to be a restricted free agent, whom the Wolves have reportedly talked to other teams about in the past.
A lot can change between the now and the deadline. But Covington’s absence complicates matters. Communication can help them survive.
“We can’t just follow the game plan when we choose to or when we want to,” Gibson said. “That’s what happens with young teams …
“When we did what [Thibodeau] wanted [Friday], we had success. It all comes down to us understanding what we have to do and maturing, and we have to mature fast.”
Time certainly isn’t a luxury.