After “Choppy” Preseason, Timberwolves Enter Regular Season with Lingering Uncertainty Around Butler

Photo credit: Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler was back at practice on Sunday, but he has not committed to playing Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs. “Man, to be honest I don’t even know if I’ll be breathing tomorrow,” he said, avoiding the question. He is focused on getting in shape, reconnecting with teammates and, well, whether the Minnesota Timberwolves will honor his trade demand.

“Why are you all so focused on this trading stuff? We got a game in what, three days?” he asked. Told that the questioning would end if he answered whether or not he’d play on Wednesday, he said, “Tell me your social security number. There are things you don’t want to say.”

It’s more complicated than if he’s ready to play or not, of course. He wants out, but the Wolves are a better team with him than without him, and he’s contractually obligated to practice with them as long as he’s on the roster. Sunday wasn’t as chaotic as last Wednesday’s practice, when Butler returned and then went on ESPN to discuss the madness, but there still was lingering tension.

We’re always looking at options,” said Wolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau when asked if he was still seeking a trade. “Whatever is best for our team, that’s what we’ll do. So, everything’s fluid. We’ll continue to work through things. We’re always going to do what’s best for the Timberwolves.”

What’s best for the Wolves, however, is that Butler is on the team. Unless it permanently ruins the organization’s relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns — who at 22 is the franchise player, and while he extended his contract this year could start issuing trade demands of his own — they are better off keeping him around, even with all the drama he’s created. The Wolves will likely make the playoffs with a healthy Butler, and probably are one of the first teams out without him.

“He’s an all-NBA player,” said Thibodeau. “He’s been a great player in the league for a long time. He’s a fierce competitor, and I know the impact that he’s had on our team.”

Even though he’s disgruntled and has engaged in an all-out effort to be traded, there is no doubt internally that Butler will play his hardest and make an impact if he suits up on Wednesday.

“All I know is when we start playing the real games, Jimmy is someone you want on your team,” said Andrew Wiggins, who reiterated that he has no issues with Butler and how he’s handled himself. “At the end of the day, people can say what they want to say. But at the end of the day he’s a winner. I feel like no matter where he is, he’s here right now, he is going to give it his all because that’s all he knows.”

While Butler refused to elaborate on his trade demand on Sunday, he was the same guy he was all of last year when he was happy to be back with his old coach, away from Fred Hoiberg and the Chicago Bulls and fully committed to the Wolves. He smiled, he joked around — he even gave Tyus Jones’ younger brother, Tre, a shout-out during the media session.

“Boo me, ain’t going to change the way I play,” he said when asked how he expects fans to treat him during the home opener on Friday, if he’s still on the team. “Probably going to make me smile more, please come on with it.”

Even without Butler, the preseason started just fine with a 114-110 win over the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. But Thibodeau was booed incessantly in the team’s single preseason game in Minneapolis, and a dispiriting 143-121 loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee. Whether or not the last few games are a harbinger of what is to come is still an open question.

“Oftentimes, the starters or the rotation guys aren’t in, and you’re playing a lot of guys that once you get to the regular season, the rotation will go down from 15 to eight or nine, and in some cases 10,” said Thibodeau. “So, I think that changes and it will pick up the intensity, and there will be a better rhythm to it, too. I think everyone looks to get into a season rhythm of how you’re going to play, how you’re going to practice — things like that. We have to be ready. Obviously the preseason was very choppy for us.”

Butler might be on the team when the regular season starts, or he maybe he won’t. Maybe all the trade rumors, Butler’s holdout and the chaotic practice affected their ability to prepare for the season, maybe not. Maybe the Wolves look like a completely different team in San Antonio, maybe they don’t. But no matter what, there’s a game on Wednesday, regardless of whether or not the Wolves are ready for it.

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