The Timberwolves won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons despite an injury to their most important player.
Were the Wolves still building with young players, this season could be described as an overwhelming success. With their current coach and roster, it stands as a warning.
The Timberwolves are on the clock. Not for the draft lottery, but for an even more important game of chance.
They will have to play roster roulette over the next year. If they bet poorly, they could quickly return to irrelevance.
Tom Thibodeau traded for Jimmy Butler to win immediately. Butler has one year remaining on his Timberwolves deal, as well as a player option for 2019-2020.
This week, Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times that he could see himself returning to the Bulls. Butler also said this:
“Young guys in this league don’t understand urgency. These guys don’t understand that you never know what the league brings, the times may bring. I think they do understand what it takes to win here and they continue to learn that.
“Decisions I make, the money, my contract, all of that will handle itself. I don’t ever worry about my money. I already have enough money for the rest of my life. It’s all about winning.’’
I will interpret that as a critique of Andrew Wiggins, who again disappeared in Game 5 against the Rockets on Wednesday night.
The Wolves signed Wiggins to a maximum contract, which goes into effect next season.
They are in danger of losing Butler to free agency after next season.
The Wolves can’t afford to lose Butler unless Wiggins is going to replace him as an ace defender, alpha personality and go-to-scorer.
What are the chances of that happening?
Before the Wolves’ season opener in San Antonio, Thibodeau and Butler sat courtside during the team shootaround and held a long, animated conversation. A sort of ritual had begun.
It’s time for them to hold a year-end summit. They need to figure out whether Wiggins should be traded. Yes, Butler should be a part of that conversation.
If the Wolves trade Wiggins, would Butler stay?
If Wiggins stays, will Butler leave?
The Wolves already traded Zach LaVine for Butler. They can’t afford to find themselves in two years without LaVine, Butler and Wiggins — or with only an underachieving Wiggins.
There is another variable at play in these decisions: Butler’s health.
He underwent knee surgery during the season and couldn’t finish Game 5 of the playoffs. He plays extensive minutes and will be 29 next season.
Wiggins is young, healthy and durable. He will be 23 at the beginning of next season. He has plenty of time to grow into a superstar, if his personality will allow such growth.
Butler’s decision will affect Thibodeau and the entire Wolves hierarchy. Thibodeau came to Minnesota to capitalize on dynamic young talent and win big. He quickly determined that waiting for a trio of youngsters to develop was not in his best interest.
If the Wolves don’t win big next season and Butler leaves, Thibodeau will become a lame-duck coach no matter what his contract says.
Thibodeau has tied himself to Butler. Butler has not tied his future to Minnesota. That awkward reality is at the heart of the Wolves’ problems and potential.
It is always thus in the NBA, a league that fluctuates according to the moods of its stars.
Thibodeau can’t afford to lose Butler, or make the wrong decision on Wiggins.
I’d trade Wiggins, cast my lot with Butler, and try to replace Wiggins with three-point shooting and defensive toughness.
Winning NBA playoff games requires athletic bravery — the willingness to go hard to the basket and take a hit, the toughness to defend the rim against powerful men like James Harden and P.J. Tucker, the resolve to take and make big shots under pressure.
Butler has it. If the Wolves don’t believe Wiggins can develop it, they might as well get rid of him now.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org