Thursday’s transformative trade brings the Timberwolves more than an Olympian and three-time NBA All-Star when Jimmy Butler arrives in town next week.
It also gives their pack its alpha.
Young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns lost a good friend when the Wolves traded injured Zach LaVine as well as Kris Dunn and Thursday’s seventh overall pick to Chicago. In return, they gained a mentor, taskmaster and self-made star who has gone where they still hope to go, but on a far different path.
Wiggins and Towns are former No. 1 overall picks taken in consecutive years who have started and starred every day since they entered the league. In contrast, Butler was the last player selected in 2011’s first round who through sheer will and hard work has made himself one of the league’s 15 best players.
With one carefully plotted and bold trade, things just got real.
The Wolves’ perpetual development phase suddenly becomes all about now for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, and Butler is the man Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau has delivered to bring his franchise finally from the future into the present.
Abandoned by his father when he was an infant and kicked out of the house in a Houston suburb by his mother when he was 13, Butler has told reporters he refuses to look back or let his past define him because today’s work has made him who he is.
“Jimmy found his way,” said Thibodeau, who coached Butler during his first four pro seasons in Chicago. “He didn’t get there overnight, and that’s what I love about him. Immediately he was very good defensively and he has grown every year. His work ethic is always there: how he practiced, how he prepared, how driven he is. Those are the things that carry him to this day.”
Butler found his way early in his NBA career aided by Bulls veteran Luol Deng, whom Thibodeau recalls working nightly with the young, driven prospect at the Bulls’ practice facility.
“At that time, Jimmy was a little shy and Lu would come up and tell me how good he was and he should be playing,” Thibodeau said.
Butler is shy no longer. Now he is an outspoken star who vacations in Paris during Men’s Fashion Week, hangs with actor Mark Wahlberg and told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday about what it’s like to be the former face of the Bulls’ franchise.
“I guess being called the face of an organization isn’t as good as I thought,” Butler told the Sun-Times by phone from Paris. “We all see where being the so-called face of the Chicago Bulls got me. So let me be just a player for the Timberwolves, man. That’s all I want to do. I just want to be winning games.
“Whatever they want to call me … face … I don’t even want to get into that anymore. Whose team is it? All that means nothing. Face of the team, eventually you’re going see the back of his head as he’s leaving town, so no thanks.”
Now Butler is the veteran, the NBA’s 2015 Most Improved Player who’s a versatile scorer, willing passer and playmaker and fearless defender and probably one of the top three two-way players in the game.
He’s also what Thibodeau calls a “closer” on a team that lost double-digit leads time and again last season.
Towns and Wiggins are the young stars already famous worldwide and fairly soon to be richly rewarded with contract extensions even though neither has proved himself committed to defense and winning.
“Jimmy has the most experience, so I think that’s important,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of the things our young players are going through, Jimmy’s gone through those same things. When you see the projection of his career, it was step by step. Our players are through that, how to close games and things like that. I think that will be valuable for our players.
“The most important things to me are the things he does every day, the way he practices, the thing he does in meeting, the way he prepares before a game. He’ll show our players a lot of the things that he’s learned along the way.”
Thibodeau denies that he and Butler have a relationship deeper than he has with other players, but there’s no question they speak the same language of basketball and are alike in certain ways.
“The passion and the love of the game is so important,” Thibodeau said. “It has to be the most important thing. That’s a big part of winning, and it’s easy to get distracted in this league. There are many things I respect about Jimmy and how he goes about his business. He’s smart and driven. He has got a lot of talent, and he has gotten the most out of that talent.”
Now we’ll see how much such a man can do the same with a promising young team.