Minnesota Timberwolves fans embraced Jimmy Butler's arrival last year as the alpha dog the team needed. He quickly transformed Minnesota's culture into one of grit and grind, leading the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 13 years.
But now the alpha dog wants out, and a coming season that seemed filled with promise now feels oddly on the brink.
Last week, the four-time NBA All-Star met with team president and head coach Tom Thibodeau to demand a trade. Thibodeau has had a week to move Butler but has yet to confirm a move. Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor is telling teams Butler is available, adding that he would handle negotiations personally, should Thibodeau and the front office be hesitant to let Butler go.
With the preseason underway, we still don't know exactly who'll be playing where when the games start to count. So, here's a Timberwolves preview with — and without — Jimmy Butler:
Thibodeau, the NBA's last dual president and head coach, has said Butler will return to the team if the Timberwolves are unable to move him within a week. That makes a toxic situation more chaotic, no doubt. It's almost as if Thibs is purposefully holding out on trading his favorite player.
While rising star Karl-Anthony Towns has been professional in dealing with Butler's trade demands, it was Towns' decision to hold out on signing a max contract that highlighted that the Timberwolves had an internal issue on their hands.
League veterans Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague say training camp has been a little awkward because of the Butler dilemma, but the team is focused on moving forward whatever happens.
Still, if Butler comes back, it won't be pretty.
Andrew Wiggins, the team's other young star, has been the scapegoat for Butler's longing for greener pastures. Wiggins' older brother, Nick, tweeted, "Hallelujah," when news broke that Butler wanted out, fueling rumors that Andrew shared similar sentiments.
Tensions are sure to escalate. You can toss out any fantasy of team unity. Towns and Wiggins, who both signed big-money, long-term contracts, still haven't bought into their coach's strategies, and they haven't embraced Butler's leadership.
With Butler out of the picture, the Timberwolves could finally buy into the youth revolution led by Towns and Wiggins. The pair were often eclipsed by Butler, a top-20 NBA talent, during the season last year and did not blossom as expected.
With Wiggins signing a five-year, $148 million contract last season and Karl-Anthony Towns recently signing a five-year, $190 million, the Wolves are fully invested in their young stars.
In the offseason, the Timberwolves drafted shooting guard Josh Okogie, who projects to be a small forward and defensive wing player, and forward Keita Bates-Diop, who many are calling the steal of the NBA draft. If either become impact players, things could get interesting. The Wolves also signed sharp-shooting forward, Anthony Tolliver and shooting guard James Nunnelly.
Thus far in training camp, the Wolves have rolled with a starting unit of Derrick Rose at point guard, Jeff Teague at shooting guard, Wiggins at small forward, Taj Gibson at power forward and Towns at center. Rose is unlikely to remain with the starting lineup, but for now this is what the future entails.
The playoffs without Butler could prove to be daunting, as the Western Conference, the far superior conference, has gotten even tougher with LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer. The Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, and Memphis Grizzlies are all expected to be much better than last season.
How far the Timberwolves go this season rests on the determination and growth of Towns and Wiggins. The team must absolutely move Butler while his value is still high. They need to consider deals that best compliment Wiggins' and Towns' skillset: shooting, defense, and youth.
The Miami Heat reportedly have been involved in talks, with guards Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and big man Hassan Whiteside being mentioned as potential returns. Many other teams have been mentioned as trade partners, but Butler's agent has indicated his client is hoping for a move to Miami.
Is it possible for Minnesota to have a come-together moment if Butler walks through the door? Yes, but it's highly unlikely. Even if Butler were to play nice and the Wolves were to make the playoffs, he's not staying for next season. His contract will be up, and he'll be gone anyway.