Tom Thibodeau is having a pretty good time right now.
Despite a disappointing inaugural season as head coach and president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thibodeau was all smiles on Thursday while newly-acquired Timberwolves superstar wingman Jimmy Butler was introduced to the media and fans at the Mall of America.
And when I say Thibodeau was all smiles, I mean he smiled an uncomfortable amount for a guy who smiled maybe twice during the entire 2016-17 season.
Find someone who looks at you the way Thibs looks at Jimmy Butler. pic.twitter.com/7VRhelLYan— Drew Mahowald (@DrewMahowald) June 29, 2017
Though Thibs had to part ways with Flip Saunders’ grand slam draft pick in Zach LaVine and a high-upside guard in Kris Dunn, he did swindle the Chicago Bulls into shipping one of the best two-way players in the NBA to Minnesota.
Butler fits the Wolves like a glove. He adds everything this young roster needs — leadership, defense, playoff experience and an undeniably strong prior relationship with Thibodeau.
The addition of Butler almost certainly vaults the Timberwolves into the playoff chase in the Western Conference, and maybe even higher. Minnesota’s ascension through the ranks since the Butler trade has, in a broad sense, brought forth two very different paths in the franchise’s quest for success.
And that path will be chosen by Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden within the next few days.
During his introductory press conference today, Butler hinted to the media and the fans about his recruitment of more talent to Minnesota.
“I’ll be talking to a lot of really good players, much better than myself, I will tell you that,” Butler said Thursday, “and get them here to join what we have. I know that, with the support that I’ve already felt from this city, they’re definitely going to love it.”
The “much better than myself” part is definitely an exaggeration, but Butler’s point stands. He seems to think he can bring another superstar to the Timberwolves to form a “Big 4” with himself, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Butler’s quotes hint at the fork in the road faced by Thibodeau and Layden.
Of the two options I will present, Option A is the safest and probably the more boring option. In this scenario, Minnesota does not sign any of the big-name free agents on the market that will presumably require a max contract.
Instead, Minnesota uses its remaining $18.7 million of salary cap space to add solid role players to fill what is now a weak bench. This would potentially include free agents such as Patrick Patterson, JaMychal Green, Joe Ingles and Mike Dunleavy — basically, players that aren’t necessarily household names but can shoot the three or defend, or both.
In this scenario, the Wolves keep Ricky Rubio for the time being and Gorgui Dieng remains in the starting lineup. Additionally, the bench players acquired could be signed on multi-year deals.
Through Option A, Minnesota’s rise to a championship-level team is slower — which isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, considering Golden State’s reign of terror doesn’t appear to be slowing down in the next couple of years.
In theory, the Timberwolves have Towns, Wiggins and Butler on mega deals. Towns and Wiggins have developed into perennial All-Stars alongside Butler and the front office has enough cap room to be somewhat methodical in surrounding the Big 3 with a viable supporting cast. This would allow the squad to peak in four or five years, just as Golden State is beginning to decline.
Option A also includes several cons. Planning that far ahead creates more time for short-term variables that could impact long-term quests. For example, the Big 3 has a higher risk of an injury that could derail the “championship window.” Plus, the franchise would be counting on Wiggins to reach his ceiling, Rubio to find a jump shot and Thibsden to nail its team-building process around the Big 3.
Minnesota’s future is bright regardless, but Option A requires a bit of patience before reaching maximum brightness.
The other option the Timberwolves front office faces includes plenty of fireworks, just in time for the Fourth of July.
In Option B, the Timberwolves sign another star player to a max contract. Most likely, this player would be either Kyle Lowry — who has been linked to Butler and Timberwolves already — or Paul Millsap — who has also been linked to the Wolves, though by a less credible source.
The Wolves are forced to “dump” salaries to make room for a max contract. This almost certainly means Rubio and either Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica are gone.
The new superstar, whether Lowry or Millsap, would be added to the starting lineup immediately and create a scary foursome with Butler, Towns and Wiggins. The Timberwolves are instantly a contender in the Western Conference.
Minnesota’s reputation as a contender begins to lure accomplished veterans and ring-chasers on minimum deals. Additionally, with four max contracts on the books after Butler, Towns and Wiggins are extended, the Wolves will be able to use various roster exceptions to add role players on cheap multi-year contracts.
The potential downfalls of this route could be lethal. Both Lowry and Millsap are in their 30s, and a four-year max deal would mean paying a player in his mid-to-late 30s over $30 million. If either player experiences a dramatic drop off in production, he will be virtually unmovable and the Timberwolves will be stuck with that contract.
The most intriguing thing about Option B is that it’s probably only available this offseason. With Wiggins, Towns and Butler set to receive extensions soon, this free agency period is the only opportunity to add another max contract in the forseeable future.
It would move the championship window up even further, though it likely means the team would peak while Golden State is still ruling the league.
Option B doesn’t require a whole lot of patience before the Timberwolves become a contender. But the team could potentially be stuck with one of the worst contracts in the NBA in four years, which would make finding the right pieces for a championship team extremely difficult.
There are plenty of great things about Jimmy Butler — and the fact that he willingly gave out his real phone number during the press conference Thursday is just one of them.
But the fact that Butler is only 27 provides the Timberwolves with the flexibility to have the choice between Option A and Option B here. If Butler is two years older, the Timberwolves are likely forced to go Option B and throw all the chips in the middle.
I get the feeling that Thibodeau is more of an Option B kind of guy. Regardless, it’s about to be a bonkers few days that will have a profound impact on the ‘New Era’ of the Timberwolves franchise.
If the fate of the Timberwolves franchise is in your hands, which route are you taking?
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