The Jimmy Butler mess has destroyed the start of the Timberwolves season on the court and in the eyes of the public. It will be resolved eventually with a trade in which the Wolves receive less than they gave to acquire him from Chicago in June 2017.
There is also consternation with the erratic play of center Karl-Anthony Towns, anointed prematurely as a superstar of the future. Towns turns 23 next week and as he matures as a competitor, there is hope for KAT to fulfill the $190 million contract that kicks in starting with the 2019-20 season.
There is a strong likelihood that the current chaos will bring down Tom Thibodeau as coach and president of basketball operations. The price tag for that move would be substantial for owner Glen Taylor — with what’s now $22 million-plus remaining on Thibodeau’s contract — but the perception of a train wreck is destroying the Wolves in ticket sales and presumably in TV ratings.
When is the last time you were having a beer and talking sports with friends and anyone in the group said something on the plus-side about the Timberwolves? Phil Fleck hears more positive feedback after a humiliation at Illinois than the Wolves do after a victory.
When this all shakes out — Butler is gone, Towns is having more dominating nights and a move has been made on Thibodeau — the Timberwolves still will be left to face the No. 1 question for a successful future:
What is to become of Andrew Wiggins?
The top priority in bringing in the next coach is to choose someone with the best plan to get to Wiggins — either by himself, or with someone on his staff who can convince Andrew that it will be much more satisfying to collect on a $148 million contract if you’re actually earning it.
There was excitement when the Wolves were able to land Wiggins in the Kevin Love trade in the summer of 2014, and he was the NBA Rookie of the Year on a terrible team (16-66) in 2014-15.
Sam Mitchell took over after the death of Flip Saunders for the 2015-16 season. Mitchell and his staff’s tough-love approach helped make Wiggins a better player at age 20 than as a 19-year-old rookie.
Thibodeau also was able to get a good enough season out of Wiggins in 2016-17, when he was in the go-to role in the stretch of games. Then came the contract extension and the arrival of Butler.
For much of last season, my excuse was that Wiggins didn’t know how to play with Butler, after Jimmy was handed the role as The Man. And then I started to wonder if Wiggy really wanted to figure that out.
Whether it’s money or role or coaching, or when Butler’s playing or chosen not to play, Wiggins has turned into a $148 million yoke around the franchise — Derrick Williams, only much more expensive.
Wiggins, who scored 19 points Wednesday night, never has been a real shooter, but now he can’t shoot. He started missing free throws last season; worse yet, he has stopped getting to the line.
He can’t possibly want this to be his basketball legacy. His father, Mitchell, played in the NBA and all over the world.
I have no idea what words Andrew hears now from his father and the rest of the inner circle; Wolves followers can only hope they aren’t excuses and that he’s being challenged to do much more with his basketball gifts.
Mitchell was tougher in public remarks than Thibodeau. When critical, Thibs sticks with generalities and seldom specifies Wiggins or any other player. He also consistently rewards Wiggins with praise for even minor stretches of strong play.
Somewhere between tough love and praise stands a coach with the ability to sell to Wiggins a path toward excellence.
Suggestions? I don’t know. Rick Pitino has given up the idea of returning to college coaching after being taken down by the Louisville scandals and is now campaigning for a return to the NBA.
He’s 66, and we already have his kid, Richard, in town with a 31-59 Big Ten record after five Gophers seasons, but there is a difference:
The old man always has been a terrific coach, exceptional at preparation, developing athletes into players and motivating them.
I’m not nominating Shifty Rick. I’m only stating that five years into his NBA career, Wiggins still needs preparation, development and motivation. And the Wolves need him to absorb those things to have any chance for success in the foreseeable future.