The Minnesota Timberwolves have started their season in a way that serves exactly no one involved. Jimmy Butler’s trade request has gone thus far unfulfilled, all while the Wolves have fared just well enough (2–2, with one win and one loss coming to likely lottery teams) as to not force the issue. Tom Thibodeau, exacting as he is, cannot be at all pleased with the team’s clumsy defensive performance—even if he finds some small encouragement in their latest effort against the Pacers. Karl-Anthony Towns has been merely, blandly fine at a time when the franchise needs more. There has been no abject disaster or hopeful development in these early days. Only the trudging forward of a team without much alternative.
This is what basketball limbo looks like. The Wolves don’t know—and can’t know—what they are until Butler’s situation is sorted. Until then, their season gives way to subtext. Was it meaningful that Minnesota began its game against Indiana by looking for Towns, over and over, while Butler waited in the corner? Is Butler playing a more independent, self-sufficient game than usual, or does it just feel that way? Most trade requests are met with swift action to avoid just this sort of ambiguity. Once a player willingly and openly casts their own motivations into doubt, all bets are off.
Every team, Thibodeau will tell you, faces adversity. Yet this episode with Butler is more foundational than your average NBA tiff; the first, defining act of these Wolves was the team’s best player making clear that he wanted no part of them. They are building on a fault line. At a time when the rest of the league was reinforcing concepts and culture, Minnesota was running damage control—insisting that this was all business as usual, that there was nothing to see here, that Butler mocking his teammates and front office in practice was somehow overblown. What we see now is the fallout of that defense: a reality where even the team’s most complete performance of this young season runs secondary to expressed discontent.
Whatever progress Minnesota makes can be undone with a phone call. When Thibodeau and Wolves majority owner Glen Taylor finally find agreeable trade terms, Butler will likely be gone. The infrastructure of the team will be fundamentally changed, from the orientation of the offense to the assignments on defense to the build of the rotation. Every advance is ephemeral. Impressive as Minnesota’s second unit has been, much of its success has come from staggering Butler into the mix—fitting, considering that it was supposedly Butler’s play with the reserves against the first team in practice that literalized all this internal angst. What reassurance might normally be found in the Wolves’ scrambling coverage on Monday night is instead subject to a pressing expiration date. There remains precious little evidence that Minnesota can defend at all without Butler in the lineup, and yet his exit still remains the most likely outcome. This team depends on Butler even now, in an All-Star case of Stockholm syndrome.
To be fair, the Wolves have nothing even resembling an easy out. It would be healthiest for Minnesota’s internal dynamic to move Butler as soon as possible, yet any reluctance to do so would be understandable. Trading a star this good is the kind of irreversible act that only makes sense after exhausting all other options. Even then, Thibodeau only gets one shot at making the most of his leveraged position. The Timberwolves should be as patient as they can afford to be.
In the meantime, who could rightly blame Minnesota for leaning on Butler while they can, particularly when every game could prove crucial to their playoff pursuits? The great indignity of Butler reportedly yelling “You f---ing need me,” and “You can’t win without me,” at Wolves general manager Scott Layden during that now-infamous practice is that Butler was essentially right. It was also, as trash talk goes, a strange bit of oratory from a player intent to force his way out.
Parse Butler’s meaning as you will (along with his subsequent comments to Rachel Nichols about money and feeling “needed”), but most every read of the situation knots up in its complexity. The trade request itself is simple and direct. Everything else is a tangled mess, down to the games themselves and what Minnesota can take from them.