The next free agency storm is on the horizon, and the clouds come from the north.
A lot of trying to see what’s coming with NBA seismic shifts is picking up on small, under-the-radar signals. We never saw Kyrie Irving’s trade request coming unless you were covering the team every day. And sometimes those signals don’t bear fruit; Paul George was linked to the Lakers going all the way back to 2013, and he wound up re-signing with the Pacers before that season.
George does, however, show a bit of the pattern that can foretell a departure. George was upset in 2014 when the Pacers traded Danny Granger. He missed David West after the Pacers let him walk. By 2016, he was just unhappy in general after all the success the team had in 2012-14. That led to conversations about trading him to the Lakers at the 2017 trade deadline and foreshadowed his departure to Oklahoma City months later.
It’s often not one thing, but an accumulation of factors that signals a departure.
And so we turn to Jimmy Butler, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Butler’s 2019 free agency.
THE MINNESOTA MALAISE
When the Wolves traded for Butler, it was a coup. A young, hungry team with stellar talent added a young superstar in his prime who would bring elite defense and scoring, making the Wolves a major force. And it started off that way. The Wolves were lights-out in November and December on the back of some very close wins. Oddly, their defense never really thrived under Tom Thibodeau, it was just their offense burning folks up. But the wins kept racking up.
Then the calendar turned, and it all fell apart.
The Wolves started to melt down, and when Butler was injured for more than a month late in the season, Minnesota fell all the way to the 7-seed, needing a last-game victory, at home, vs. the Nuggets to clinch a playoff berth. The Wolves very nearly fell from the 3-seed in December all the way out of the playoffs entirely.
But OK, it was a young team, learning its way; at least the Wolves made their first playoff appearance since 2004, won a game vs. Houston and built some momentum. Then the rumors started. There was an unsubstantiated rumor of a front office screaming match that ended with Thibodeau throwing a computer through a window (that was refuted by the Wolves to ESPN). Trying to get a concrete answer for what the problems are is difficult. You have to read between the lines.
Reading through Jon Krawczynski’s archive at the Athletic is a good start. You pick up pieces such as:
“I do think chemistry is an issue with this locker room. I don’t believe players hate each other like Kobe and Shaq did. But there is a disconnect that needs to be bridged for this team to really take off.”
“Much of it has centered around the team’s chemistry, in particular Jimmy Butler’s relationship with young teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and the ongoing search for common ground between Towns and coach Tom Thibodeau.
Towns found himself in the middle of trade speculation last month when rumors about his unhappiness reached the national stage. Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden maintained low profiles as they prepared for last month’s draft, which only seemed to amplify the volume of the speculation. In his first meeting with the media in more than seven weeks, Thibodeau discussed his relationship with Towns and the often tricky endeavor of dealing with the league’s incessant rumor mill in the age of social media.”
There was also the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst where they talked about the Wolves not being “in a good place internally.”
USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Karl-Anthony Towns
And then, of course, there was this, a piece from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley, a writer who has never been a favorite of social media. Crowley has feuded with other writers and generally is an irritant to various subsects of sports media.
One thing is true, though: When Cowley first reported that Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose had tension, Bulls fans claimed it was fake news. What wound up becoming clear later was that even if the two got along off the court, they still had tension on the floor. (This is a similar dynamic to what John Wall and Bradley Beal have in Washington.)
Cowley reported that Butler and Irving plan to join the Knicks together next summer as free agents. Now, count me skeptical on that part; these long-distance pre-rumored team-ups almost never happen. But this part?
“A league source said Butler, who has been frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates — specifically Karl-Anthony Towns — does not intend to sign an extension with the Timberwolves.”
That part rings true.
So if you have Towns, the future of the franchise no matter what, who doesn’t get along with Thibodeau, whose teams are no longer the defensive juggernaut they are supposed to be, and who doesn’t get along with Butler, who is tied to Thibs … what’s next?
There’s all this ambient tension in Minnesota, framed around Thibodeau and Towns, with Butler facing a huge decision next summer. There will be a conversation about Towns and his future. The idea of the Wolves actually trading Towns popped up very briefly.
But you keep a player like Towns. That’s just what you do. And he’ll sign the extension because it’s his first crack at big, guaranteed money and the Wolves can match any offer in restricted free agency. This is how these things go. Towns will likely agree to a max extension, no matter how long it takes.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Tom Thibodeau
At that point, it becomes about whether Wolves ownership will side with Thibodeau, whose teams have underperformed even with making the playoffs, or with Towns, the young star big man Minnesota is going to have for at least eight years. If it’s the latter, which seems more likely, that could lead Butler out of Minnesota, as well. Even if Thibodeau and Towns reach an agreement and find a way to work together, that doesn’t mean that Butler will accept whatever issues he has with Towns and commit.
NEXT SUMMER IS JIMMY TIME
Things are also working out perfectly for Butler to take advantage next summer. The cap is expected to rise by $7 million next season, giving teams more room to work with, and max contracts will go up accordingly as a percentage of the cap. More teams will have space. And other stars (such as Irving) will be available.
So if Butler isn’t convinced that Minnesota is the way to go, the Knicks are an option. There are other choices, though. Say Kawhi Leonard doesn’t want to be Robin to LeBron’s Batman and joins the Clippers. If the Clippers were to off-load Danilo Gallinari either by trading a pick or waiving him with the stretch provision, they could clear up to $75 million in cap space. That’s enough to sign Butler, someone else or several someone elses, and then re-sign Leonard using Bird Rights.
If that doesn’t float Butler’s fancy, he could go to the LA as well. The Lakers purposefully took on all these one-year deals to give themselves a shot next summer at another free agent. Butler has said winning is the only thing that matters to him. If that’s the case, teaming up with LeBron could accomplish that goal. That’s before you factor in LeBron’s decline and how Butler could take the mantle from James like Kobe did from Shaq without the feuding.
The point is, Butler is going to have a whole lot of options that don’t involve “playing 48 minutes because Thibodeau wants to win this January game vs. Milwaukee even when Minnesota is up by 20” or “dealing with Karl-Anthony Towns and whatever his problems are.”
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kawhi Leonard
A REASSURING PARABLE
We started off this post talking about the comparisons to various stories from George and how they forecasted his departure from Indiana. Except, the ending to that story matters here, as well. Most people felt George was a goner, headed for LA even as recently as last month. There have since been reports that as early as January, PG’s agent was broadcasting a likely extension with OKC.
Minnesota is in a similar spot. OK, Year 1 didn’t go well. But it also didn’t go badly. If Butler doesn’t get injured, the Wolves might have landed a top-four seed and knocked off either OKC, Utah or Portland. Then the conversation about them changes dramatically. Towns, whatever his locker-room issues are, is only going to get better. The defense almost has to get better, because it can’t get worse.
Minnesota can salvage this. The Wolves still have a lot of talent. There are problems: Wiggins’ immaterial excellence at literally anything, Towns’ attitude, Thibs’ minute management, Butler’s abrasiveness, Rose’s stealing of minutes from Tyus Jones.
But there’s upside.
If the Wolves can’t convert that upside, however, we’re going to wind up looking at that trade very differently, especially with how good Lauri Markkanen is. And Butler could wind up being the storm that shifts the seas of the NBA next season, no matter what he decides.