MIAMI – When Ryan Saunders took over as interim coach last season, Jimmy Butler gave Saunders a bottle of wine as a present when the Timberwolves visited the 76ers. Saunders said he still hasn’t opened what he said is an expensive bottle.
“I’m still trying to figure out what the right occasion is for it,” Saunders said Wednesday.
There are only two Wolves left who played with Butler, and one of them, Karl-Anthony Towns, didn’t play Wednesday night because of a fractured left wrist. Josh Okogie is the only other former Butler teammate on the Wolves, and that was only for a little while. Saunders, meanwhile, is the only coach left on the staff.
“It’s crazy to think,” Saunders said. “But this league, a lot can happen in short periods of time or throughout a longer period of time, so you just deal with what you have in front of you.”
Another current player who did spend time with Butler, albeit not in Minnesota, was James Johnson, the veteran who came to the Wolves from the Heat in exchange for Gorgui Dieng.
Butler’s exit didn’t leave a lot of good feelings about him around the Wolves organization. He criticized teammates Towns and Andrew Wiggins for, among other things, not working hard enough and not being tough enough to compete at a championship level, at least in Butler’s eyes. He didn’t always tactfully express those thoughts.
But Johnson, who on Wednesday was playing in his first game back in Miami since the trade, said he enjoyed playing with Butler.
“I loved him,” Johnson said. “I love his work ethic. I love what he stands for. It sometimes can be misconstrued. Me, personally, one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
Those words packed meaning when delivered by a veteran of Johnson’s stature.
Just what made Butler one of the best teammates Johnson ever had?
“He’s not for everybody,” Johnson said. “But I think what made him a great teammate for this situation, this organization and to me is he came into something that he felt was like him. Just like myself I learned different things on my way to Minnesota that I don’t think I’d be able to help Minnesota with if I didn’t go through. But Jimmy, when he got here, was totally different than anything I’ve ever read on him.”
Saunders said his relationship with Butler predictably changed when he left the team, but the coach did reach out to Butler earlier in the season when he had his first child a few months after Saunders had his.
“I’m really happy for him for that,” Saunders said. “Ultimately, that’s the greatest joy you can have in life. I’ve tried to share some of my experiences as a new father, because I’m a fresh one too. We’ve always had a mutual respect and a good relationship because he is a competitor. It’s a good place for him here in Miami.”
Towns back with team
Towns joined the team for the game in Miami after he wasn’t present during the first two games of this four-game trip. He still had his left wrist in a brace.