John Shipley: Tom Thibodeau follows Jimmy Butler out the Timberwolves door, as it had to be
ST. PAUL -- One wants so badly to blame Jimmy Butler, for everything, really; from Tom Thibodeau getting fired on Sunday, Jan. 6, to “SpongeBob SquarePants” losing steam after Season 3.
Alas, in the case of Thibs, the guy wrote his own ticket to inoccupation. Butler didn’t trade for himself.
In barely more than a season, Butler left a trail of destruction that will live in Minnesota sports infamy, no mean feat. He torpedoed this season with a late trade demand and training camp holdout, then made the entire organization look foolish while he played when he felt like it and blithely blamed the team for his decision to throw a public tantrum just days before training camp.
Butler apparently has reasons for his behavior. That’s what he told us on his way out, although he declined to share them — perhaps because he’s smart enough to know that wanting to play in a bigger market with a bigger contract rings hollow when you’re ignoring a contract already paying you nearly $20 million this season.
And if you call it pride or self-respect, well, that rings hollow, too.
The Wolves are better off without Jimmy Buckets, but only because he was ever here in the first place. Sent to a city with more people and less charm, he already is complaining about his role in the 76ers offense — on a winning team. Thibs coached Butler in Chicago; surely he knew the mercurial forward had a selfish streak.
Thibs is not a dishonorable figure; his work just caught up with him. Most notably sending Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to Chicago in an effort to jump start what had been an organic, draft-driven climb back to relevance. It worked, but only briefly. Minnesota made the playoffs last season, barely, and lost its first-round series to Houston, 4-1.
The Wolves were expected to be even better in 2018-19. Instead, they enter Tuesday’s game at Oklahoma City two games under .500 and behind three other teams for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
Under the circumstances, Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden did well to acquire rotation additions in Robert Covington and Dario Saric from Philadelphia, and it felt as if the Timberwolves were moving on. In reality, that couldn’t happen until parting with Thibodeau, who compounded his error by excusing Butler from practicing and playing while shopping him to an increasingly disinterested league.
There were other issues, as well. Thibs trusted too few of his players to play defense — uh, it’s the NBA — so didn’t play them. He focused on defense when teams are winning because they have guys who can shoot 3-pointers in their sleep. He kept signing guys who played for him in Chicago, which seemed to divide the locker room into Thibs guys and everybody else.
Maybe, maybe not on that last one, but what’s irrefutable is the fact that he left his best point guard on the bench too much and apparently liked to see the other guy take one-handed runners in the lane half a dozen times a game. If that’s a legitimate option in any of Thibodeau’s offensive sets … ugh.
Team owner Glen Taylor told the Pioneer Press on Sunday he had been waiting to see what Thibs and the Wolves could do without Butler. Turns out it was 12-11 and much more interesting to watch, but for a fan base that has seen its team win one playoff game since 2004, it was far from good enough.
Minnesota’s average attendance of 14,765 this season, per ESPN, ranks 29th in a 30-team league; plus, most of those souls had taken to regularly booing Thibodeau. These are not good components in a for-profit business model.
And so the Timberwolves move on. Again.