It seemed like an ominous sign for the Timberwolves that the meeting, which was originally scheduled for Monday in Minneapolis, was pushed back to Tuesday and moved. The trade request, which was first reported by the Athletic on Wednesday, officially makes the situation so.
There is no clear path forward from here for a franchise that already has had a turbulent offseason despite finally snapping a 14-year playoff drought last season, in no small part because the Timberwolves acquired Butler in a trade last June. Now, with just a few weeks before the start of the regular season, Butler has told the Timberwolves he doesn’t plan to re-sign with the organization when he can opt out of the final year of his deal and become an unrestricted free agent in July.
But while Butler has decided he doesn’t want to be in Minnesota, telling the Timberwolves this now has – at least for now – limited his options. Players signed this summer can’t be traded until at least Dec. 15 (and, in specific instances, Jan. 15), which greatly reduces Minnesota’s flexibility to make the best deal it can for one of the league’s elite wing players. If Butler and his representatives had gone to Thibodeau with this decision earlier in the offseason, he already may have been traded elsewhere, either in a second draft night deal or in July.
Additionally, the three teams reportedly making up his list of preferred destinations – the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets – all will have the cap space to sign him next summer, diminishing Minnesota’s leverage even further.
So despite his request for a trade, it seems likely Butler will remain in Minnesota – and likely will for some time to come. Thibodeau is famously, and relentlessly, competitive, and it is hard to envision him being willing to part with a player who embodies everything he values in a player and whom he traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick in the 2017 NBA draft to acquire.
Butler’s unhappiness is just the latest issue to befall Minnesota over the past few months. Butler has been frustrated at times with both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 picks in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, respectively. Wiggins, meanwhile, has been said to be bothered by being relegated to the team’s third offensive option behind Butler and Towns.
As for Towns, who has yet to sign the max contract extension that has been offered, it’s still unclear exactly what he is evaluating for before signing it, though earlier this summer the franchise did fire assistant coach Vince Legarza, with whom Towns was close.
All of this also ratchets up the pressure on Thibodeau, who was already seen as being in some hot water before Wednesday’s developments. The NBA has steadily moved away from the “emperor coach” model of having one man overseeing all aspects of the organization in recent years, and only two – Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio – remain in the league. And if Minnesota struggles to make the playoffs, or misses it altogether, this season, Thibodeau’s time in Minneapolis could come to a close. Now he also must balance the possibility of Butler leaving, and how the franchise should best handle that.
And now, instead of being asked about how they can build off last season’s successes, the only questions anyone in the organization likely will receive, beginning at media day Monday, will be about the franchise’s future – and specifically the futures of Butler, Towns, Wiggins and Thibodeau.
Those questions won’t stop until the season ends – or until the Timberwolves answer them with actions.
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