Tom Thibodeau saw an opportunity, and he seized it. The Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations executed a deal with the Chicago Bulls to land Jimmy Butler in order to curb the longest playoff drought in the NBA, and potentially contend for a championship in the next few years.
“We felt if we had the opportunity to get a player of Jimmy’s caliber, that we would do it,” said Thibodeau. “Of course we hated to part ways with Zach [LaVine] and Kris [Dunn]. To get a player like Jimmy you have to give good players up and we did.
“Not only are they good players, they’re good people. That’s the tough part.”
The Wolves won 31 games last year, 10 fewer than their Vegas projection, and the team missed the postseason for an NBA-high 13th straight year. Acquiring Butler, a player Thibodeau coached in Butler’s first four seasons, and the No. 16 pick from the Bulls, his former employer, for LaVine, Dunn and the No. 7 selection is a move that should put them in the conversation as a playoff team in the West.
Thibodeau tried to make this move last year and could not pull it off. Now he’s got his guy
“You’re looking at it, and we feel that we know how good of a player that Jimmy is, but we also felt that where Zach was, as a player, he’s terrific, so we felt we were giving up a lot,” Thibodeau said when asked if he’d make the deal without getting the No. 16 pick. “We knew we had to get multiple assets back ourselves, so we felt it was a fair deal. We thought they got some good young players, they got a good pick, and we got Jimmy, and we feel Justin Patton’s a terrific player, so we’re excited about that as well.”
Thibodeau tried to make this move last year and could not pull it off. Now he’s got his guy. Not only is Butler a Top-15 player in his prime (27), but Thibodeau now has a defensive-minded player that understands his system who can be a leader for his young, talented players and a mentor to Andrew Wiggins, specifically.
“The thing that I like about it for us is Jimmy’s age,” said Thibodeau. “We’re not getting a guy in his mid-30s. We’re getting a young guy that’s just approaching his prime, so everything aligns really well along those terms. So that’s why I thought it was a good fit. His age, where he is and where he is in his career and where our young guys are and obviously looking at what Karl and Wigg are doing at 21 and 22 years old is pretty special. I think this will help them, and we’re excited about that. I think these guys are going to help Jimmy, also. It’ll be a good fit.”
This trade could backfire, of course, although it seems rather unlikely. LaVine’s ceiling is Butler. He’s got extreme athleticism, a good outside shot and an incredible personality that rubs off on his teammates, but he’s also raw and occasionally makes unforced errors. And Dunn is a great defensive player that could develop fine-tuned point guard skills, although at age 23 he’s not as young as NBA rookies typically are.
But the truth of the matter is Thibodeau traded LaVine, a player that blew out his knee last year, and Dunn, likely a wing-stopper, and a the pick used to select Lauri Markkanen, a poor defensive player, for one of the best players in basketball.
“You’re getting a two-way player,” said Thibodeau. “You’re getting a guy who can score a lot of different ways. He can guard multiple positions. He can actually guard four positions well. He makes big shots late. He plays the right way. He’s tough. He practices hard. Smart. So we’re excited to get him.”
“His size, his skill set, his ability to run the floor, his ability to finish, putting pressure on the rim,” said Thibodeau. “He’s coming out of a great program at Creighton, so we’re excited about that. Greg McDermott is the coach there, he runs a lot of pro sets so I know he knows how to execute. Our scouts did a terrific job of preparing for the draft and all the possibilities so they were ready and they liked him. They felt very strongly about him.”
Thibodeau isn’t waiting around for this team to put it together. He’s not sitting on his five-year, $40 million deal. He wants to win now. And with Butler lining up next to Towns and Wiggins, he made an honest effort in order to do so. In many ways, he’s found a player that embodies what he’s all about to put on the floor — toughness and defense bundled with elite scoring ability.
“The passion and the love of the game is so important,” said Thibodeau. “It has to be the most important thing, and I think that’s a big part of winning, and it’s easy to get distracted in this league. There are many things that I respect about Jimmy and how he goes about his business. He’s smart and driven and he’s got a lot of talent and he’s gotten the most out of that talent.”
And, in the end, that’s what the Wolves need to do — get the most out of their talent. If they’re able to, they have a championship-caliber ceiling, and Butler has arrived in order for them to unlock that potential. This is the kind of trade that changes the culture, and the fortunes, of a franchise.