Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s press briefing was winding down on Tuesday when someone asked a follow-up question about Jimmy Butler’s trade request.
“We’re not going to keep getting into that,” Thibodeau said. “We’re going to talk about the Spurs. That’s what we’re going to talk about. I mean, you guys want to keep the drama going. We’re not going there.”
Not going there? “There” is where the Timberwolves live. Their slogan is “All Eyes North.” Thibodeau seems to think it’s “All Eyes Shut.”
The Timberwolves begin another season of team-generated drama on Wednesday night in San Antonio. If Butler were a part of the long-term future of the Wolves, this team might be good enough to win more than 50 games and secure the third seed in the Western Conference.
This is a very good roster, a better roster than the one that produced 47 victories last year, but at some point the Wolves will trade Butler, because they have to, and hit a franchise re-set button worn flatter than a middleweight’s nose.
In terms of the Wolves’ grand immediate plans, and in context with franchise history, this will be rightly considered a disaster. But it will be a different kind of disaster.
Trading Kevin Garnett for nothing? Hiring David Kahn? Drafting Jonny Flynn instead of Steph Curry? Paying Joe Smith under the table? Those are mistakes that ensured failure.
Thibs’ willingness to hand the reins of the franchise to someone who didn’t want them, in Butler, is an equally egregious mistake, but the Wolves’ situation is less dire this time for one reason:
The Wolves employ Karl-Anthony Towns. His presence alone is cause for a rational form of hope.
Last season, Butler quickly made the case with his play that he may become the second-greatest Timberwolf ever, after Garnett. Now that Butler has abdicated his place on that list, Towns should rise to it, and quickly.
Once Butler is gone, the Wolves won’t be rebuilding from scratch, won’t be trying to sell us on Gerald Glass, Christian Laettner, J.R. Rider or Derrick Williams. They’ll still have one of the best young players in the league, one who should be capable, soon, of making the word “young” an unnecessary qualifier.
Thibs will be remembered for trading quality talent — Zach LaVine, the draft pick that became Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn — for Butler, and if he can’t recoup similar talent by trading Butler, his tenure as a basketball boss will be forever tainted.
What could have been will not be, but what remains isn’t bad. If Towns improves his defense by 10 percent while continuing to grow a remarkable offensive game, he’ll become one of the league’s dominant players.
For all the passivity that Andrew Wiggins displayed while playing with Butler, it’s only fair to note that the previous season, at the age of 21, he averaged 23.6 points. His body of work is more impressive than his body language, and he could thrive after Butler leaves.
The bench is better than it was last year, with the addition of a full-time Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver and two useful draft picks. Jamal Crawford’s personality and flair will be missed. His defense will not be.
Tolliver was asked whether the Butler saga is over. His answer was more realistic than Thibs’.
“No. It’s not over because, I don’t know, he hasn’t come out and said anything differently about what his wishes are,” Tolliver said. “But that’s OK. At the end of the day, hey, he’s here now.”
At the end of the day, yes. At the end of the week? Who knows?
The best thing that could happen to this franchise is Thibs trading Butler for reasonable value, and Towns using this dramatic summer as motivation to take control of the franchise.
If Towns plays and leads to his capabilities, the Wolves’ latest disaster doesn’t have to be as defining as their previous disasters. He can become the leader Butler pretended to be.