Heading into last season, Minnesota looked like a team on the rise — Karl-Anthony Towns was developing into one of the game’s best centers, Jimmy Butler was added to the mix, and the team was poised for a big leap forward. Which the Timberwolves took, winning 16 more games (47) to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and Towns and Butler were All-Stars.
It feels very different heading into the 2018-19 season. Reports have Butler frustrated with Towns and Andrew Wiggins (well, everyone in Minnesota is frustrated with Wiggins), there are rumors of serious chemistry issues in the Minnesota locker room, reports of frustration with coach Tom Thibodeau’s hard-driving style, and Butler could leave as a free agent next summer to head to the Lakers with LeBron James, or to New York, or a host of other options. Numerous sources say teams are preparing both to make trade offers to Minnesota for Butler at the deadline and to try to win over Butler next summer in free agency. With all that going on — and the West stacked with good teams — can Minnesota take another step forward?
Tom Thibodeau says he isn’t worried. From Jerry Zgoda Star Tribune:
“The winning will take care of (Butler leaving),” he said….
Thibodeau said “I respectfully disagree” when a fan questioned the unity and culture of a team that won 47 games last season — its first winning season since the Kevin Garnett era — and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004…
“I’ve been around a long time; I don’t buy into any of that stuff,” Thibodeau said. “You have to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. You never heard any of that come from Jimmy’s mouth. It’s always a source close to Jimmy. If Jimmy has something to say to someone, he usually says it directly…
“The biggest thing is chemistry on the floor and winning. How efficient they are tells you there’s strong chemistry on the floor.”
Butler is too smart to publicly anger a fan base in the city he is playing in next season by saying these things publicly. Again, other teams talk to agents and players, believe there is something to this, and are prepared to try to step in and steal an elite player if they can.
That said, Butler leaving is no lock. Minnesota can offer more money and one more guaranteed year than any other team, and if Butler looks at what happened to past guys Tom Thibodeau leaned heavily on — Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, etc. — he may want that security. Maybe enough winning can cure any locker room issues, especially if the Timberwolves can stay healthy and get off to a fast start.
Minnesota is a team to watch. Even in the West, it’s hard to imagine them missing the playoffs, but if things start slow and start to go sideways, it could get ugly. And lead to some roster and staff shake-ups.