An NBA star player has missed three of his team’s first 10 games — two of them due explicitly to rest and one because of a vague injury — to start this season.
That player is expected to play for a new team in 2019-20, when he could cash in with an expensive new free agent contract.
And that player is … either Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard.
In a strange little bit of symmetry, both Butler and Leonard sat out their respective road games Sunday — Butler for rest, Leonard ostensibly because of a sore foot.
Both players had missed two previous games during the season. Both players’ teams have road games again Monday. Both are among the NBA’s best two-way players. And indeed both very well could be on new teams next year.
Leonard already forced his way out of San Antonio last year, winding up in Toronto — which many people assume is a temporary stop before free agency. Butler is trying to do the same in Minnesota, hoping for a trade so he can sign a more lucrative extension.
And when they’ve played, both have put up numbers befitting of their status as stars. Butler is averaging 22 points, 5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Leonard has been even better: 26.7/7.6/3.4.
But yet their respective situations feel completely different.
First, everyone in Toronto seems to be on the same page with Leonard’s schedule. Raptors coach Nick Nurse has already said Leonard will miss the front or back end of back-to-back games indefinitely — which Leonard has done three times this year, with the reason given explicitly as rest in the first two cases while a sore foot was the explanation given for missing Sunday’s game at the Lakers. Leonard’s status is unclear for Monday’s game at Utah, but it feels legitimately unclear.
No such plan has been articulated with the Wolves. With Butler, the player seems to be calling the shots — telling the Star Tribune’s Chris Hine “I let them know” when asked how the Wolves determine when and if Butler will play. It’s not quite Randy Moss and the infamous “I play when I want to play,” but it’s entering that territory. It also calls into question the leadership of head coach/basketball president Tom Thibodeau for allowing this to happen.
Second — and perhaps as a result of the clarity of the situation? — the Raptors seem to be functioning just fine even if Leonard has one foot out the door. They’re 9-1 through 10 games and are 7-0 when he plays. They routed the Lakers on Sunday without Kawhi.
The Wolves? They’re limping along at 4-6, including 3-4 when Jimmy suits up. They were pummeled by 30 points without Butler on Sunday at Portland, their second loss by that margin already this year (though Butler played in that first one vs. Milwaukee).
Third, Leonard might not love being in Toronto but he seems like he’s prepared to make the best of the situation as long as he’s there while honoring the final year of his contract.
Butler likes to say he’s committed to his teammates, but the simple act of requesting a trade in the final year of his deal says otherwise. The Wolves weren’t as good as the Raptors were a year ago, but let’s not forget they were a playoff team marching toward a top-four seed before Butler was injured. Without the Butler distraction this year, and with an improved bench, it wouldn’t take much squinting to see the Wolves emerge as a 50-win team and a potential top-four seed after winning 47 a year ago. Now it’s fair to wonder if they will climb above .500 at any point this season.
It adds up to one situation that appears dysfunctional from all lenses — one that is “ruining the Timberwolves season” and perhaps even polluting their future, per a strong piece from SB Nation.
The other situation? Fans are bummed they didn’t get to see Kawhi vs. LeBron last night, but as it turned out the Raptors can win without him anyway.