As we arrive at the three-week anniversary of Jimmy Butler’s Los Angeles meeting with Tom Thibodeau during which Butler requested a trade from the Timberwolves, all sorts of uncomfortable questions need to be explored.
One of them: What happens if the Wolves dig in and decline to trade Butler? What is Butler’s end game in that scenario?
I can’t imagine any pleasant outcome in that case, nor do I think it’s very plausible. Butler being traded soon, as much as Thibodeau might not want to, is still the most likely and obvious outcome.
But if not … well, Door 1 is Butler somehow comes back and the atmosphere at Target Center is overwhelmingly toxic. The team is likely fractured and plays poorly, and even if they play well there’s a cloud hanging over the whole thing because Butler will walk away for nothing at some point.
Door 2 is more intriguing but no more pleasant: What if Butler remains steadfast in his trade demand and refuses to report to the team?
Thibodeau at media day two weeks ago said Butler needed more time to get into shape after offseason hand surgery. That was the official reason he wasn’t in camp, though everyone assumed it was just a convenient excuse to keep Butler away while a trade is pursued.
He said at the time Butler would be expected to rejoin the team when healthy — maybe a week, the coach said — but here we are two weeks later.
I asked Thibodeau on Tuesday if Butler — who has been working out in various local gyms for the past two weeks and was spotted against Tuesday at the Life Time Fitness in Plymouth — is still excused from being away from the team.
Thibodeau said yes.
When asked if there is a point at which the absence would be unexcused, Thibodeau said: “It’s fluid. We’re always going to do what’s best for the team. That’s the important thing for everyone to understand. If that means he’s here, then he’ll be here. If that means he’s not here, then he’s not here.”
Per league rules, if Butler’s absence becomes unexcused, he has 30 days to report to the team. MSN noted a couple weeks back that the big deal about that is if Butler doesn’t do that within 30 days, he won’t accrue a year of service in the league — and therefore couldn’t opt out of his contract and become a free agent next year, when he clearly wants to cash in with a big payday.
That 30-day clock presumably has not started ticking as long as his absence is excused due to injury. So here’s where Butler’s hand injury — even if it’s a sham — comes into play. The Star Tribune and other outlets have reported that Butler’s meeting three weeks ago with Thibodeau was not the first time he expressed a desire to move on from Minnesota.
It might have been the most definitive occasion, a line in the sand of sorts, but the sentiment had been communicated this summer.
So let’s travel back to July 26, and this strange-seeming (at the time) and very short news release sent out by the Timberwolves: “Minnesota Timberwolves guard/forward Jimmy Butler underwent a successful, elective right hand procedure on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. Butler has already returned to offseason activities.”
I remember thinking it seemed strange at the time because why would there be an announcement about a procedure that seemed so minor?
In retrospect, two things were possibly happening: 1) Butler was establishing on the record that he had an offseason procedure and 2) The Wolves in announcing it were trying to downplay it as much as possible by describing it as elective and saying Butler has already returned to offseason duties.
The first part seems most important right now because that hand is being used as the official excuse as to why Butler isn’t with the team. And as long as Butler is injured with a previously established condition, or can say he is still injured without being challenged, he can collect paychecks and accrue his time.
Butler could have chosen a knee procedure since he was coming off a season in which he missed time with a meniscus injury, but maybe a knee would have been a red flag for other teams?
Kawhi Leonard perhaps did some version of this with San Antonio last year, when he played just nine games with a mysterious calf injury before being traded this offseason to Toronto. Pro Basketball Talk noted that Mo Williams pulled something similar.
Would the ultra-competitive Butler really be willing to sit out an entire year in his prime just to prove a point? Hard to say. Maybe even doubtful?
But that’s his leverage right now, and the worst of all worlds for the Wolves is that Butler never plays another minute here AND they recoup nothing for him in a trade.