The impression of interested Minnesotans and the NBA as a whole seems to be that the Timberwolves have returned to the abyss into which they tumbled after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004.
There were 12 straight losing seasons, from 2005-06 through 2016-17, and the vitriol from the outside never matched what this team has encountered since Oct. 10, when Jimmy Butler burst into a first practice, bad-mouthed a variety of teammates and General Manager Scott Layden, and then left on his own schedule for a prearranged ESPN interview.
The question became, “Is Tom Thibodeau going to do something about this?’’ and the answer was, “No.’’
Exactly one month later, last Saturday, Thibodeau and the Wolves finally did something to address Butler’s various degrees of disruption, sending him to Philadelphia in a trade mainly for forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
The public remains incensed and the media ridicule toward Thibodeau knows no bounds. And the fact is this public relations disaster is a much greater issue than Thibodeau’s decision to trade for Butler in the summer of 2017, and what he was able to get in return when Butler was moved 13 games into the 2018-19 schedule (10 of which Jimmy condescended to play).
The players sent to Chicago were guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, and a No. 7 overall draft choice that became forward Lauri Markkanen. Covington brings more to a team than the shoot-first, guard-last LaVine; 2018 first-rounder Josh Okogie is a better version of Dunn; and Saric is the same style of tall shooter as the now-injured Markkanen.
There is no doubt the Wolves, without recent draft blunders, would have a more impressive roster. The blunders go back to 2013, when Flip Saunders was running his first draft in a return to the organization, and passed on the clear choice — C.J. McCollum — and traded the No. 9 selection for choices that became Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.
A year later, Saunders made a solid selection in LaVine at No. 13, but Flip also traded a No. 1 for Adreian Payne that winter — a bad idea that Thibodeau and the Wolves finally paid for in the 2018 draft.
As the customers have stayed away and the critics have howled incessantly, I still look at Thibodeau’s largest mistake to have been taking Dunn with the No. 5 overall pick in 2016, his first Wolves’ draft, when Jamal Murray was sitting there and with a ringing endorsement from Thibs’ friend John Calipari, the Kentucky coach.
Taking Justin Patton in the first round in 2017 turned out to be bad luck with his foot injuries, and he became part of last weekend’s Butler trade. And Okogie at No. 20 looks to be a good pick, when you consider Thibodeau also could have had No. 19 (Kevin Huerter to Atlanta) without Flip’s Payne trade.
There are unsuccessful draft choices repeatedly — here more than most, but all over the league. Markelle Fultz, No. 1 overall? The Wolves didn’t commit that sin, nor did they want him in the Butler trade.
There’s this notion Thibodeau gave up a bright future with the Butler trade. For sure, it backfired as far as the current return to empty sections in Target Center, but a bright future led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and LaVine was more a rose-colored dream offered in honor of the late, lovable Flip than a real thing.
Any grand vision would require Wiggins to become a great player — whether in tandem with LaVine, with Butler and now Covington. In the vision of grand possibilities with Flip in charge, Wiggins was a perennial All-Star. In the reality of today, he’s the Wolves’ version of Byron Buxton.
You know — a couple of years ago, Buxton was going to be an MVP leading the Twins from the wilderness, and today we’re hearing, “Gosh, if he could only hit .250, that would be good enough.’’ And with Wiggins, it is, “Gosh, if he could only shoot 45 percent, and get to the line a half-dozen times, and get a handful of rebounds, that would be good enough with his indifferent defense.’’
Jeff Teague in, Ricky Rubio out. You want to complain about that? Please.
Derrick Rose shouldn’t be here. Why not? Taj Gibson, what’s he bring, besides relentless effort, defense and a needed voice of reason.
Soon, it will be KAT, Saric, Covington, Wiggins and Teague, with Rose, Gibson, Okogie, Anthony Tolliver and Tyus Jones as a second five.
That’s better than two years ago, if the Wolves magically could get the public and the media to forget the agony of getting here.