Thrust into a high-stakes standoff in which he has only one logical escape, Tom Thibodeau’s tone and expression Monday suggested he’s not bluffing.
Privately though, Thibodeau must already know that he’s defeated. He took a risk and got burned. And now his own future as Timberwolves coach and basketball czar appears very much uncertain.
“I never worry about that,” he insisted under bizarre circumstances at the season kickoff media day.
Thibodeau said repeatedly that the organization won’t be pressured into a bad trade for Jimmy Butler and hinted that the disgruntled All-Star could rejoin the team if nothing acceptable arises in trade talks.
Nonsense. That was merely Negotiating 101. Thibodeau knows he can’t bring Butler back into the locker room and pretend nothing has happened. The damage is done. He has only one option.
Thibodeau’s master plan and vision for the future went up in flames the moment Butler requested a trade. Spraying a garden hose won’t extinguish a raging fire.
Thibodeau paid a high premium for one season of Butler. He bet on himself and his relationship with Butler that he could make the marriage last longer than this. He guessed wrong, and it might ultimately cost him his job if the Wolves take a significant step backward.
“We knew there was risk involved,” Thibodeau said.
The heat gets turned up tenfold now. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor (who also owns the Star Tribune) gave Thibodeau a five-year, $40 million contract and control of personnel decisions with the hope of a big payoff. Taylor allowed him to change course dramatically last year with a significant roster overhaul that promised to speed up the timeline for becoming a playoff team.
That philosophical shift worked if strictly evaluating data points. The Wolves finally ended their playoff drought, improved their win total by 16 games and played before sellout crowds at Target Center.
And everyone seemed miserable.
The organization is back in limbo because Thibodeau underestimated personality clashes that existed inside his locker room and Butler’s simmering frustration with younger teammates.
At an appearance at the Star Tribune’s State Fair booth last month, Thibodeau brushed off media reports that quoted unnamed sources amplifying Butler’s unhappiness.
“I’ve been around a long time; I don’t buy into any of that stuff,” Thibodeau said. “You have to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. You never heard any of that come from Jimmy’s mouth. It’s always a source close to Jimmy. If Jimmy has something to say to someone, he usually says it directly.”
Well, he said it directly last week.
Thibodeau’s comments suggested three possibilities: He was lying, or incredibly naïve, or overly confident in thinking he could control a runaway train.
Even after Butler’s trade demands, reports surfaced that Thibodeau initially balked at parting with Butler until Taylor intervened and mandated a trade. That created an appearance of a house in disarray, raising even more questions about Thibodeau’s job security.
Thibodeau has never hidden his deep affection for Butler. They were kindred spirits more than player-coach. The fact that Butler asked Thibodeau to fly to California so that he could break up with him must have pierced Thibodeau’s soul.
“It’s not the first time a player has made that type of [trade] request,” Thibodeau said.
This wasn’t just any player. Or any situation. This was his guy, his plan. Nobody — and certainly not Thibodeau — expected the relationship to unravel so quickly after witnessing the euphoria of Butler’s official welcome at Mall of America last year.
The Wolves won’t be starting from scratch without Butler because they still have an organizational cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns. Andrew Wiggins is being paid like one, too, but he remains an enigma.
No amount of public spin can disguise the fact that Thibodeau’s blueprint looks totally different without Butler. He envisioned being side by side with Butler, trying to transform a beleaguered organization into a contender. It seemed like a perfect union until it wasn’t.
Butler will be gone soon, but Thibodeau still is charged with building a contender once he resolves this mess. His original plan backfired. The clock is ticking on him to prove that he can salvage a Plan B.