CHICAGO – A draft-night trade considered so lopsided by so many just eight months ago doesn’t look so much that way here in February.
To be sure, the Timberwolves’ acquisition of All-Star Jimmy Butler has, in Tom Thibodeau’s estimation, transformed his team’s culture. not to mention its record.
The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, are 18-35 and headed nowhere fast in the East, for now. But all three players they acquired for Butler — former Wolves guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn as well as No. 7 overall draft pick Lauri Markkanen — have played well enough when healthy this season to believe the Bulls indeed are headed someplace good, maybe even relatively soon.
If there really is a trade in which both teams win according to their needs and wants, this might be it.
The Wolves have their star and alpha signed through summer 2019 after the Bulls chose to rebuild around coach Fred Hoiberg’s modern offensive philosophies that emphasize the three-pointer and traded Butler and his old-school game instead.
The Bulls have done so with three promising lottery picks — none of them older than the 24-year-old Dunn — expected to grow together for the next several years.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson said. “We’re really happy. I won’t speak for Minnesota, but they’ve got an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler to go along with their young core. It seems to have addressed the desires for both teams, and if you can do that in this business, that’s a good thing.”
The two teams play Friday night for the first time since that five-player June trade. Both Butler and Taj Gibson will be recognized for their contributions to the Bulls all those years.
LaVine will play for the first time against friends Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Raised in the NBA together, the three of them once talked about all the great things they could accomplish together … until they didn’t.
“You can’t be mad,” said LaVine, back the past 11 games after knee surgery last February. “You’ve got to understand the decision organizations have to make. Sometimes it’s bigger than you. We’re friends regardless. It would have been hard [financially] for all three of us to stay on the same team, either way. We all talked about it, messing around, that one day one of us was going to be on a different team. It was me.
“You move forward from that. It’s a great opportunity I have here. I embrace it and I love it here.”
Butler’s new team hasn’t made the playoffs since he was a ninth-grader. Now, the Wolves have already won more games than the 31 they won last season.
He has given them the elite two-way veteran — arguably the second-best player in team history behind Kevin Garnett — they lacked alongside Towns and Wiggins.
More than anything, Butler has given the Wolves badly needed credibility after all these losing seasons.
“I know what he has done for us,” said Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations. “He has completely changed us. It’s hard to go from where we were to where we are now. To get a player like that, just going into his prime, we were very fortunate. To me, it’s more what a player does. That’s where he has really stood out. It’s how he practices, how he prepares, how he plays both sides of the ball, how he’s unselfish on offense and on defense.
“That’s the best type of leadership you can have.”
Butler played his first six NBA seasons at United Center, his first four for Thibodeau. In that time, he transformed himself from the last player selected in the 2011 draft’s first round into one of the league’s best players and an All-Star for the fourth time next week in Los Angeles.
He downplays his return to Chicago, saying he just wants to make the right play and walk away a winner in a return Butler calls “back to the place I started.” He played here five-plus seasons with current Wolves teammate Gibson.
“Everybody wants to hear me say, ‘I’m so happy to be back,’ this and that,” Butler said. “I’m glad I get to experience it with Taj, to tell you the truth.”
Asked if he looks forward to playing on that stage again, Butler said: “You could say that. I’m fortunate to play basketball anyway, every day.”
A reporter told Paxson that if Butler scores 50 on Friday, it’s because he couldn’t score 60. The reporter asked Paxson if he expects Butler to play with “a chip on his shoulder” and with something to prove to the Bulls team that traded him.
“That’s the one thing we learned about Jimmy when he was here,” Paxson said. “He’s motivated by a lot of things. He’s motivated by having that chip on his shoulder. He’s survived, thrived his whole life by doing that. We have great respect for Jimmy. He was wonderful for us.”