+ Hiring a Butler
Last week Tom Thibodeau made his first [major move] as team executive when he traded Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the 7th pick to the Chicago Bulls to bring in rising super star [Jimmy Butler] and the 16th pick. Thibs used the pick to snag Creighton’s center [Justin Patton]. An intriguing talent, but the joy of this trade is that for the first time in over a decade, the Timberwolves can finally afford to not be particularly concerned with how their top pick develops. It’s a terrific feeling, and something the Timberwolves should be set to become accustomed to with their incredible young core.
Coach Nick has done a terrific job with his Basketball Breakdown [video] of showing some highlights while discussing how Butler will fit into the Timberwolves’ offense. Let’s take a moment a dive in a little deeper into the conceptual side of this arrangement.
+ Falling Timber - Nearly 30 Years of the Wolves
As any Timberwolves fan is painfully aware, the franchise has endured one of the longest playoff droughts in league history. The Wolves are still a relatively young franchise, first entering the league in 1989-90 and had some issues with [unfortunate drafts] for the first 6 years, picking up Pooh Richardson (10), Felton Spencer (6), Luc Longley (7), Christian Laettner (3), Isaiah Rider (5) and Donnell Marshall (4) with those first round picks. Despite being an expansion team, the Timberwolves were consistently doing just well enough to be in the middle lottery where they failed to grab rising stars.
In 1995 the Timberwolves decided to gamble and took Kevin Garnett straight out of high school. It took him just 2 years to jump the franchise from its mid-lottery hell to its first playoff season, and this coming despite the Wolves trading their next draft pick Ray Allen (5) for Stephan Marbury. Marbury had a nice 5 year stint with Minny, but clearly Allen and Garnett were destined for something bigger together.
The Wolves spent the next [6 years] hovering around 50 wins but getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, only to finally make a deep run to the Western Conference Finals in 2002-2003. Looking at the [roster], there are some personal favorites like Sam Cassell and Wally Szerbiak, but this is not a roster you’d expect to be contending. Kevin Garnett was quite a beast.
Despite no major shakeups to the [roster], the next year was a dramatic fall from grace as the team won 14 fewer games and failed to make the playoffs in a very strong West. So the Wolves effectively went into [rebuilding] mode despite Garnett being in his prime. After trading Brandon Roy for Randy Foye, it was time to pull the plug.
Even when the Wolves finally moved on from Garnett, the pieces they got in return hardly did much to jumpstart the rebuild. And thus the incredible people of Minnesota have been plagued with some of the most frustrating seasons filled with questionable draft picks imaginable. The Wolves finally won a trade of draft picks in 2008 when they moved OJ Mayo for Kevin Love, but one good move does not make a playoff team.
In  the team had an astounding 4 first round picks, including the 5th and 6th pick in the draft. Fairly confident the league was going to instate a new rule eliminating anyone over 6’6”, the Wolves used those picks to get themselves 3 PGs and a SG, two under 6 feet and all under 6’4”. Yes, being a Wolves fan is like a masterclass in anger management.
Fortunately, after moving Love the Wolves started turning their draft fortune around. First nabbing LaVine with the 13th pick was a great addition to Wiggins who they had snuck out from the Cavs in their desire to win now with LeBron. Then, finally, after 16 years, the franchise received its first number 1 draft pick, and the good fortune was only just beginning as Karl-Anthony Towns declared for the draft.
A watershed moment for the franchise, the team finally had a collection of high ceiling youngsters to build around. Following the tragic death of the beloved Flip Saunders, the team managed to snag one of the premier coaches in the NBA, Tom Thibodeau, a perfect fit for a young team looking to develop into a winner.
The Wolves followed it up by drafting Dunn, who was moved with LaVine to bring Butler into this emerging future-contender. It is here that we can pick up and look with excitement to the immediate future.
+ The Butler Did It
LaVine has brought [plenty] of [joy] to [Minnesota], even If it didn’t include a whole lot of winning. Dunn looked promising entering the league, but Thibs has never been big on playing rookies, and Rubio consistently showed he deserved his minutes. While the 7th pick is nice for any team, after this ridiculous drought of playoff experiences, I don’t think anyone in Minnesota will be too upset about giving up an opportunity to wait patiently for a rookie develop.
Butler is a whole new class of wing talent for the Timberwolves. The Wolves have had a couple terrific big men, obviously, and Rubio is a pretty decent PG, but their list of best wings to date would include Sam Cassell, so this is a substantial upgrade. Where LaVine and Wiggins have flashed some mouthwatering moments of potential, Butler has [turned] in some of the [premier] performances by a [wing player] in the NBA oner the past couple years.
Butler is also a proven [two-way] player who likes to be [matched] up against the [opposing] team’s [premier] player while still being the [go to guy] in the [clutch]. That sort of skill and determination is extremely rare, and players who have possessed those traits have tended to have extremely successful careers. Butler is adept at drawing contact, and can keep a bad team in a game with his key steals and parade of free throw attempts.
For Butler, this is going to be a huge adjustment. Butler entered the NBA as the 30th pick, and under Tom Thibodeau only managed to get on the court 42 times in a lockout shortened season, averaging 8 minutes as a rookie. An obvious rising star, Butler was tearing apart opponents in limited minutes at a blistering 40% shooting average and 18% from the three point line on nearly two attempts per 8 minutes.
Ok, so Butler could basically have won the most improved player 3 or 4 consecutive years, and his rise to power is totally unprecedented in the NBA. Typically players who excel from later rounds tend to be overmatched athletically and then make up for it in other ways so that it’s a non-issue or even becomes a strength a la Draymond Green. Butler is unique as a late round star as he actually is traditionally athletic, with a solid build and [some] impressive [hops]. He is very [agile] driving to the [basket], but doesn’t need to be as he mostly can just [power] through people.
Butler is a bit of a throwback as an NBA player, absolutely dominating the [mid range], particularly along the right side of the court, while preferring to only run fast breaks off of the 2 or so steals he gives you a game. Butler has never been a pace and space kind of guy, preferring to mostly walk the ball up the court and to size up players frequently on the wing.
When Butler is at his best, he picks his moments and tends to not be heavily involved in the action for the first half of the shot clock, mostly hiding on the weak side corner where he is a surprisingly decent three point shooter. This allows the ball to move around gives an opportunity for the role players to stay in rhythm and knock down some open shots when available. If no one has found a good look, you can just toss it to Butler in the corner with about 6-9 seconds on the clock, and he’ll get you some efficient scoring with his signature pull up jump shots and powerful drives to the hole which tend to draw fouls.
Butler’s biggest weakness as a teammate is that when the team is struggling, he has a tendency to start dominating the ball earlier and earlier in the shot clock. This results in role players losing any potential to heat up and jump start the team, and so it forces Jimmy to shoulder more and more of the load, and the vicious cycle repeats. Jimmy is so incredible that a few times a year he’ll actually just win the game anyway, like when he [dropped 40 points] in the second half against the Raptors, but more often than not these games do not end well.
Butler has never had an opportunity to play with another superstar performing at a high level. As luck would have it, his rise coincided with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah’s decline, and Pau and Wade were just a tad too far outside of their prime to give him a proper taste. When Butler has played with other stars it has been in All Star games or the Olympics, and when surrounded by so many scorers Butler has been content to mostly just play lock down defense and spot up for some corner threes.
It’s hard to know from the outside, but the word on Butler is that he wants to be the face of the franchise, and judging by his behavior on the court, he seems pretty hellbent on being the guy in the clutch. While Butler has never played with a star, he also really has never played with anyone who is a consistent back to the basket scorer like Towns and who rightfully should be taking up a lot of space in the post on most possessions. The closest he’s come is Taj Gibson, a far cry from KAT, but for the most part the two stayed in separate lineups.
This seems like it’ll be tough on Butler since he is at his best when he’s taking the ball strong to the hoop consistently. Butler has a terrific mid range game, but its efficiency drops quickly when he’s not mixing in penetration and so much of his effectiveness is related to how impossible it is to not foul him when you are unsure if he is pulling up or driving strong. Towns obviously is extremely effective anywhere on the court, and will be able to do quite nicely as a three point shooter, but he can do so much more for the team if most possessions he is near the paint, powering through 3 players for layups and cutbacks.
+ Does It Fit?
Hopefully KAT and Butler will quickly workout some nice chemistry on pick and rolls, and can do some fun high low sets with the two of them. One of Butler’s [best plays] involve sneaking past a talented big man in the [high post] and streaking the basket for a lob. I haven’t seen Towns throw many lob passes in the NBA, but if he can [bring] it back from Kentucky, imagining KAT in the Gasol role on this play is… well honestly it seems like it could score 50 points a game by itself. KAT just draws so much attention in that spot, and he and Butler have a huge variety of weapons they can use from that position. Plus, Wiggins will be just hanging out in the corner, waiting for the defense to over help where he will get plenty of open shots on the wing and some nice back cuts as well.
Coach Nick highlighted that Dieng and KAT are troublesome on the court together despite the decent efficiency numbers as they create spacing issues in the paint, and that seems like it could be the Achilles heel for this team. If Butler is constantly dealing with a big man on the strong side posted in front of the basket, it will severely limit his strengths and likely result in a lot of highly contested mid range shots and weak entry passes through 3 defenders. Towns alone seems like he will be able to quickly adapt to sticking to the weak side, collapsing to the hole as Butler gets into his motion for dump passes and devastating put-backs. With Dieng on the court simultaneously it’s difficult to imagine how those three guys will stay out of each other’s way.
There was some minor rumblings of the Timberwolves looking to move Rubio even after the Butler deal, and lord do I hope they don’t do that before giving them at least a season together. Rubio’s game is very analogous to Rajon Rondo in his prime, and Butler’s talent was maximized this last season when Rondo flashed his old ways.
Rubio has the ability to keep the ball moving while still being in control of the offense, which is an extraordinary talent. He also can make passes which seem [impossible], and should do very well finding Butler on the weak side for those corner threes and back cuts. Rubio is also a very solid defender, and even though Butler is going to be the premier perimeter defender for Minnesota, the fact that Butler will only be tasked with guarding point guards like Westbrook in the biggest moments allows him to pick his spots much better.
So with a true big three in KAT, Butler and Wiggins, an elite floor general priming the pump in Rubio, and a bevy a few nice role players like Dieng just how good is this team going to be? Well that’s the million dollar question.
+ Thibodeau: The Perfectionist
Tom Thibodeau lives basketball. The man eats and breaths tape, is constantly putting in the work, and doesn’t understand why the English language bothers with words like satisfied. Everything is a process for him, and he loves it.
If Butler is somewhat of a throwback player, Thibs is absolutely a coach from a different era. He rants and raves loudly on the sideline in a way no other modern coach does. If you somehow had an audio feed of NBA broadcasts without the announcers, you still would immediately know if the Timberwolves were playing as you’ll always hear Thib’s abusing his vocal chords on the sidelines. Just thinking about his voice makes me want to go eat a raw lemon and drink some tea.
Thibodeau firmly believes that execution wins championships, not talent. I’m fairly sure if I were to show up in the locker room as his star PG with 4 other journalists who had never touched a basketball, he would be preaching to us about how we had more than enough to win. Thibs has no patience for disorganized defense, hates turnovers, but is surprisingly chill with people missing tough shots.
Thibs got his first head coaching stint after being an assistant for 40 years. Adopting a team with basically no identity who had gone 41-41 two consecutive years with Derrick Rose and had played one of the most [entertaining and competitive] 1st round series of all time against Thib’s Celtics, Thibs came in and had an almost immediate impact.
The team had picked up Carlos Boozer in the off season, and Derrick Rose was entering his 3rd year and was [ready to ball]; but the biggest change was Thib’s and his exacting attention to detail. After hovering around .500 for a couple weeks, the Bulls suddenly became a defensive juggernaut, and managed to end up with the best record in the league [winning 62] games. Having made it past the 1st round only once since Jordan, the Bulls dominated the Pacers, got passed the Hawks, and even though they ended up losing in [5 games] to the Heat, they lost the series by a combined 9 points and it was one of the more challenging finals births LeBron has earned over his ridiculous 9 year streak.
Things looked great for Thibs and the Bulls, who had the youngest MVP in league history and a youthful Joakim Noah. That off season they drafted Butler, and while they didn’t know it at the time, they had the perfect backcourt piece to pair with Rose as the Bulls ran off with the Eastern Conference. Thib’s defensive methodology of denying the paint, ICEing everything towards the baseline, and savagely running teams off the three point line was revolutionizing the league. But then something happened.
First off, the Bulls suffered a staggering amount of injuries. Rose obviously is the most notable, but Joakim Noah also struggled to stay on the court, and basically never was remotely healthy in a playoff series. Butler’s mentor, Deng, [nearly died], and at times the Bulls struggled to field a team. Throughout all of this, Thibs continued to play his starters some of the longest minutes in the league, even when returning from extensive injuries, increasingly to the dismay of the Bulls franchise and its vocal fanbase.
Yet beyond that, for a team looking to contend for a title, the Bulls were finding far more success in the regular season than in the playoffs. It started to become common knowledge that the Bulls ran a very limited number of sets and had likely the most predictable offense in the NBA. During the regular season this resulted in the Bulls being more precise and prepared than their opponents and translated to some very good positioning entering the playoffs. Inevitably, once in the playoffs, teams had the opportunity to adjust their game plan specifically for Thibs, and the Bulls offense would grind to an exasperating halt.
Finally, Thibs was extremely resistant to change, not just with regards to play calls, but also with lineups and personnel. Whenever the Bulls had an injury you could be sure John Lucas III or Mike James would be making an appearance, despite the fact that clearly neither of these guys had any potential to grow from the opportunity. Thibs seemed to prioritize winning every single game, even if it meant playing someone past exhaustion and running them off the court for a few weeks. Kirk Hinrich returned as an old man and Thib’s would play him 35 minutes in a single game, Kirk would be unable to play again for a week or so, and repeat.
So the Bulls decided to pay Thibs to move on, and Thibs got a vacation, likely the only year he’s ever had to himself in his entire life. While mostly seen on the sidelines and in the practices of various teams like Golden State, he was seen going out to dinner and attending movies, and even briefly was caught with something not dissimilar to a smile cracking across his face.
+ Anticipating the Season
A young team with a bunch of potential and need of an identity, Minnesota pulled off an incredible coup to land Thibs as their replacement for the legendary Flip Saunders. After his immediate success with a seemingly under talented Bulls team, expectations were surprisingly high for the young Wolves team last year. With Thibs at the helm and players like KAT, Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio, Dieng and Dunn, how could this team not be a defensive juggernaut with far more capable scorers than the Bulls ever had?
Yet, as we are likely all too painfully aware, the year did not go as well as hoped and the team topped out at a very disappointing 31 wins. While the games often started great, third quarters were immediately a disaster for the team, and as the year went by, the team kept dropping closely contested games. Like clockwork, if the Wolves were up by 10 or so in the mid third quarter, you just came to expect that the game would end in a loss.
Despite the huge amount of young talent on the team, suddenly Denver was having more success with their young core, to say nothing of what the Utah Jazz were accomplishing. Despite KAT coming in an shattering the expectations for a big man displaying a complete game of post moves, drives and three point shooting; Embiid somehow looked to be taking it to yet another level in his limited action. Meanwhile, Milwaukee had come out of seemingly nowhere to have arguably the best performing young team in the league and in some ways Antetokounmpo makes you dream he will be overshadowing LeBron’s accomplishments in the next decade.
Oh yeah, and Golden State went from being arguably the best team of all time and added the best player in the game, creating the most talented group of athletes ever assembled in a professional league and they’re still all under 30. So if you’re looking to contend, when exactly is this window going to be available?
Well, fortunately, Thibs has no chill and isn’t going to be phased by Five Thirty Eight showing win probabilities for anyone other than the Warriors approaching zero. The Bulls were recognizing they were never going to be competing with these other teams with just one superstar and a bunch of guys 5 years younger than him, and so they decided to go all in on their youth and look to rebuild. Hosting a bevy of projects, Thibs was none-to-happy to unload a couple in return for a premier superstar entering his prime on a team friendly contract. Oh, yeah, and Thibs has already coached him, we know he’s big on consistency.
Which leads me to my prediction for how this will all work out this season. First off, let’s state the obvious, the playoff drought is over. The team underperformed at 31 wins last season, and probably should have been about .500 even with the injury to LaVine. However, end of game scenarios are always tough for young teams, and particularly when you’re best player is a big, it is just so hard for big men to learn how to take over games since they need someone to get them the ball. Even with a mastermind like Rubio on the court, the Timberwolves lost a lot of games last year due to execution in the clutch.
Well, the Bulls won a lot of games in the exact opposite fashion, and some of it was Wade, but the vast majority was specifically because Butler is just so good in those situations. If nothing else, Butler will add 10 wins next year simply because of how he finishes games and how close the Wolves were to a much better record.
Beyond that, with Butler’s experience and KAT consistency combined with Thib’s exacting detail, this team will likely grow into a regular season juggernaut. The Wolves will be able to win a lot of games in the regular season just through effort and defense combined with the fact that they now have 3 guys who can score with no ball movement in Butler, KAT and Wiggins.
+ And Beyond
The concern will be with the Wolves being able to take that next step and becoming a true contender. Now when you say that word these days, pretty much everyone rolls their eyes because Golden State exists. Golden State is a monster, but they are not perfect and there are ways to beat them. First, they have a huge gaping weakness when it comes to dominant big men. Their best defense is to go small and hope they can run the big man off the court, but KAT is far too agile and can score from basically anywhere, so that strategy is a non-starter against him.
The Warriors are also extremely prone to turnovers and have a nasty habit of getting in foul trouble. Their biggest advantage is that they can run a pick and roll with any combination of Steph, Klay, Durant and Green and basically inevitably force a mismatch. Your only hope is to have a bunch of long guys who are strong perimeter defenders, and a big with good footwork who can hedge out front but then quickly recover for rim protection. I don’t think any team is better prepared to pull that strategy off than the Wolves with Butler, Rubio and Wiggins as perimeter defenders and KAT and Dieng as interior rim protectors. Those guys can force a lot of turnovers as well, and Butler alone can get anyone in foul trouble. I’m hoping that with Butler as a mentor, Wiggins will develop a similar ability.
Yet if the Wolves are going to be competing with a team like Golden State, some of their key guys are going to need to break from a lot of their habits. Thibs will never stand a chance against a Steve Kerr coached team in a series unless he learns that adjustments are necessary and that perfect execution is not enough. The Cavs played an absolutely flawless offensive game in game 4; and while their defense wasn’t as good, anything short of that level of execution with that level of talent will still literally gets you run off the court. Since it’s not possible to hit 70% of your contested 3 point shots, you aren’t winning against the Warriors just by sticking to your game plan.
Butler is going to have to let the other guys do the heavy lifting on offense for most of the shot clock. He’ll need to become comfortable taking good shots in the flow of the offense unless the shot clock is under 6 seconds. He will also need to learn to accept that Towns deserve a lot of post ups and needs to be the focal point of the offense in most situations. Thibs always liked to start games going to Boozer and Gasol, but tended to go away from it after the first few minutes. With Towns, you can’t justify ignoring the post.
Wiggins is going to need to learn a lot from Butler if they want to have a true big three. The guy has so much potential, but needs to learn from Butler how to get himself to his spots consistently through a game. Each season you can immediately see what couple moves Butler focused on during the summer as he will do the exact same body motion 10x in one game. This sort of consistency is how you become a knockdown shooter even when the defense is hanging all over you. Wiggins has the tools to be the same thing, and if he learns from Thibs and Butler, the Wolves will likely be among the cream of the West for the next decade.
KAT is going to need to learn to not let Butler overpower him. Butler can be the public face of the team, can come up with the biggest plays on D and can hit all the game winning shots. Hell, he can even do all the post game interviews. Yet, for the other 40 minutes, this needs to be KAT’s team. The man is far more efficient in far more ways than Butler, and that cannot be ignored. Butler is really only more efficient at hero ball, which has its place on a contending team, but if it becomes too prevalent it will destroy any chances this team has of being elite.
My final concern is that from the outside I’ve still only seen Thibs in conversations with teams about players he’s already coached. It’s impossible to know how many of the rumors are true, but he’s been linked to Rose, Butler, McDermott and Gibson, and pretty much nobody else. If the Wolves are going to be perennial contenders, Thibs is going to need to learn how to judge talent he hasn’t worked with personally and find ways to integrate role players to fill in missing pieces such as three point shooting.
Yet fundamentally, who the hell cares about all of that right now? For a team which hasn’t made the playoffs since Hoobastank and Petey Pablo were topping the billboards, the fact that the team’s biggest concern is it may struggle in a playoff series against teams like Golden State, well that’s just the best problem to have ever. It’s too early in the offseason for me to start making predictions about where this team will end up in the rankings, but if there are even 6 other teams in the West as good on paper as the Wolves that will be quite the surprise.
Thanks for checking out Old News! If you'd like to see my breakdown of this same trade from the Bulls perspective, you can read it here. I'll have more breakdowns of the NBA off season action as teams start to look to finalize their rosters, and look for an in depth breakdown of each team heading into next season this fall. I do not plan to break down the Chris Paul to Rockets trade at this time as I'm fairly confident both teams still have more moves to make before we can judge anything.