The Timberwolves are Faltering in the Wake of Latest Jimmy Butler Trade Rumors

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For more than a month, the Twitter feed of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has been sending tremors through the Minnesota Timberwolves’ fanbase. The explosive nature of the reports pry open typically double-knotted curtains at the Timberwolves’ practice facilities, sealed by Tom Thibodeau himself.

And beyond the curtain, Wojnarowski has transcribed an almost unbelievable wake of Jimmy Butler’s trade demand. Through Wojnarowski’s lens, the Wolves organization has appeared to be a step beyond off-the-rails.

However, for much of the month that has followed Woj’s biggest bomb — the one that detailed Butler going full-King of the Castle at the Wolves’ Oct. 11 practice — to a man, the entire Wolves roster denies the drama is anywhere near what it seems.

I asked Derrick Rose the day after that infamous practice if the off-court stuff was mentally wearing for him or the group.

“What? The Jimmy stuff,” Rose asked. “No, man. Nah. It’s not like he’s around the team. It would be different if he were around the team.”

Again, this was Oct. 12 and Butler had only been around the team for that one practice. But as we know, things have changed. In the, now, two weeks that have followed that response from Rose, Butler has been around the team every day — other than his brief sabbatical when the squad traveled to Dallas.

Yet still, for a while there, it seemingly wasn’t affecting the group. Rose appeared correct. The Wolves began the season as well as anyone could have hoped. They were competing with similarly talented groups (San Antonio and Dallas), taking care of lesser opponents (Cleveland and Indiana) and losing to superior foes (Toronto). A good piece of work, given that their best player missed almost the entirety of training camp.

The locker room’s sentiment of you’re blowing this out of proportion seem justified. The media seemed in the wrong. We were the ones blood-hungry for clicks, painting with broad keystrokes, embellishing the Butler Soap Opera.

But then Woj dropped another bomb.

“Four First Round Picks”

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Just over 24 hours before the Wolves were set to face the Milwaukee Bucks Friday evening at Target Center, Wojnarowski put together a report that detailed the Houston Rockets offering four first-round picks — the maximum possible total — for Butler’s services.

While detailing exactly what those four picks actual value — with protections and salary cap filler — can be is important (and not explicitly included in the report), that didn’t matter from a public relations standpoint. It was another tremor.

The damage was done. The shocking headline of “four first-round picks” shook the fanbase into a collective uproar of If Thibodeau doesn’t do this deal what will he ever do? More importantly, and somewhat clear after the result of Friday’s game, this time there was anecdotal evidence that the team was also shaken.

Butler did not participate in the team’s shootaround the morning after the report and was given the “questionable” label for his status in the game. Ample ammunition for conspiracy theorists, and the latest example of terrible timing in this kerfuffle. Players hear that. They know.

And they played Friday evening’s game as if they knew. The Wolves’ performance against Milwaukee was flat, to put things mildly. Butler was there, but it felt like he wasn’t. He was again wearing No. 23, but his minus-23 in the box score plus-minus column left a larger mark than W-O-L-V-E-S emblazoned across his jersey. Worse: his lack of energy had negative externalities that trickled down through the entire roster. The Wolves were down by 34 in the first half and went on to get smacked by 30.

Butler scored four total points, didn’t shoot a free throw, and tallied two assists.

Yes, Milwaukee appears to be a fantastic team but, still, it is undeniable that the performance was real evidence of the drama actually wearing on the group.

This is a distraction. And after the loss, Thibodeau acknowledged the distraction of the noise — as much as he ever has. To form, he did so without making any excuses.

“The challenge of our league is to not allow yourself to get distracted,” Thibodeau said at the podium postgame. “When you lose focus, you’re not going to perform up to your potential.”

But the distraction is mounting and the potential is falling. The whole organization, and anyone loosely tied to it, has been left sitting around waiting for the next shoe — or, in this case, bomb — to drop.

What’s Next?

The Houston offer does require some parsing. The offer could be legitimate. (I believe the reporting.) But it could also carry the baggage of a public relations ploy.

One thing that is known, and Thibodeau has said as much, is that the Wolves will not accept an offer for Butler that does not help the team. What remains somewhat unclear is the threshold for what “help the team” is.

Thibodeau is a man historically borderline obsessed with the now. His in-season tactics, from roster construction to rotations, are shaped so as to drive winning today. And his grander scope of building the team has almost always leaned towards the short-sighted end of the gradient. Acquiring four future first-round picks would be the antithesis of what has come to be known as the Thibodeau Way.

Houston’s general manager Daryl Morey knows this. With this knowledge, perhaps this offer of four firsts is merely a firing of a flare into the sky. One that he knows Thibodeau would never accept, but will effectively cause a ruckus. A move that would nudge the Wolves front office to deal more reasonably.

Four future first round picks are not necessarily the coup they may sound to be, even for those with eyes for the future.

Due to league rules, teams are not allowed to trade picks in consecutive seasons. They are also not allowed to trade picks beyond seven years into the future. This means “the offer” is a first in 2019, 2021, 2023 and 2025. However, those picks could have hefty protections. If those protections prevent the pick from converting in a timely manner, or at all, then you have somewhat of a faux offer.

For example, let’s say the picks are lottery protected. This would mean that if the Rockets do not make the playoffs in any of the seasons in which the pick is protected then the asset being traded is converted to a second-round pick — a legal and frequently used machination in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

If this is the hypothetical case, all four assets could become second-round picks. Who knows how the league’s magic 8-ball will have rattled by then? But a dismal return of say, three seconds and one first is certainly possible. Butler for second-round picks — and late seconds if Houston remains dominant — would be a far cry from a treasure chest.

Moreover, the Rockets would need to put together $16.3 million in salary to meet legal requirements in “matching” Butler’s outgoing salary. The proposed offer’s salary filler could be Brandon Knight’s albatross of a contract (two years, $30.3 million) and Marquese Chriss’ empty deal (two years, $7.3 million), and thus aggregate, with the picks, to be an offer of next to nothing.

Morey has a history of putting together deals that make NBA dorks drool. His brain is the Trade Machine.

Now, this is all speculation, but it is plausible. Perhaps the offer wasn’t really an offer but a banging on the trade table, demanding that Thibodeau and Timberwolves general manager Scott Layden sit down and deal rationally.

So, what’s next? No one knows for sure. It’s been nearly six weeks since Butler demanded a trade and two since he flexed at practice — and on national TV.

Yet all that seems clear is that the fanbase is peeved about this and that, now, the roster appears to be faltering as well.

Maybe Rose was right initially. Maybe it was fine when Butler wasn’t around. But Jimmy is around. And his presence comes with bombs in his wake.

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