It was clear how key Jimmy Butler is to the Minnesota Timberwolves before the season started. Just two games in, though, Butler has reminded everyone just how good he is.
Minnesota are 1-2. They snuck past the Cleveland Cavaliers on their home opening night. Butler carried the team with 33 points and seven boards, despite the booing from the Wolves faithful.
On Saturday, Minnesota lost to the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas have talent – and could creep into the playoffs this season – but Minnesota are meant to be better than them. The difference between the defeat and victory was Butler. The All-Star was rested for the trip to play Luka Doncic and company.
Dallas outrebounded, outassisted and outblocked Tom Thibodeau’s team. Karl-Anthony Towns managed just five rebounds and no Timberwolf got into double figures.
It’s worth mentioning that Minnesota also lost to the Spurs with Butler in the line-up. They’re not a 82-0 team with Butler, but as we saw last season, they are definitively a playoff level group. Without Butler, Minnesota were subpar in the loaded West. Towns and Andrew Wiggins have done nothing to suggest otherwise in the opening days of this season.
Butler is one of the top five two-way players in the NBA. His absence would hurt any team. The performance of the two max contract players – Wiggins and Towns – when he’s not on the court, though, goes a long way to justifying his frustrations. There’s no doubt Butler is the most important player on the T-Wolves right now. He wants recognition of that.
The start of this season has served as a reminder of where the Wolves are without Butler. They are a borderline eighth seed at best, and Thibodeau is walking a tightrope to keep his job for next season. One more year of Butler might be the only way Thibodeau is still in Minnesota next season. Even if he was to leave in free agency, there is a school of thought that hopes that some of Butler’s innate competitiveness would rub off on his talented, but inconsistent, teammates.
This is the dilemma with having a coach have a key role in the front office. Trading Butler – providing there’s any sort of halfway decent return – is the best way forward for the organisation in the medium to long-term. Keeping Butler, however, is how Thibodeau the coach gives himself the best chance of still being with the team next season.
Thibodeau’s stubbornness to keep Butler will only have been reinforced by what he’s seen so far this season. Butler’s desire to leave will only have grown stronger too.
Minnesota are in an impossible position. One thing is for sure, the longer this goes on benefits nobody.