When it was announced that the Wolves were trading Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the 7th overall pick in the NBA draft for Jimmy Butler, there was an incredible reaction of excitement from the Timberwolves fan-base. In our minds, we were ready for the long haul. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine were the theoretical cornerstones of the team and the Wolves were going into the off-season with near maximum room to sign a free agent.
Our questions for the short-term were important, like what were the Wolves going to do with Ricky Rubio, as well as wondering if the Wolves were really going to be able to contend for signing a high-caliber free agent like Paul Millsap.
However, the long-term questions were a bit scary. Like, will the pairing of Wiggins and LaVine ever allow the team to play good defense? Or how much money would the Wolves be spending on a relatively unsuccessful trio in just a few years?
The story that we are all familiar with by now is that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden jump-started that process by trading for a true superstar in Butler, as well as bringing on several key veterans in order to ensure that the Wolves development hit high gear on day one.
Butler, in many ways, was the catalyst, the essential ingredient thrown into the mix that has allowed the Wolves to rocket from being a languishing has-been in the modern NBA to a team that deserves to be in the playoffs and one-day, hopefully, contend for a title.
He also brought them a bit of star pedigree, a player who is respected in the ranks of the true elite of the NBA. He is an NBA Olympian. He regularly rubs shoulders with the best of the best, such as the often told anecdote about how Butler learned about his trade to Minnesota while playing spades with Dwayne Wade, his wife, and Carmelo Anthony.
However, it is odd when we talk about Jimmy Butler, and all that he has brought to the Timberwolves, we rarely talk about what he is getting out of it.
Of course, he is beginning to receive all of the accolades of a superstar NBA player. He gets long think-pieces about his worth to the Timberwolves, there are articles written speculating whether he is a viable MVP candidate, and he gets the stamp of approval for being responsible for an incredible jump in respectability.
All of this is deserved, as he has put together an incredible first season in a Timberwolf uniform. Butler was billed as a superstar and he has lived up to that pedigree.
His raw stats, per game, are 21.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.9 steals while shooting 47 percent from the field, all while playing hard-nosed defense and being generally responsible for running the show.
In the fourth quarter, the Wolves offense usually devolves into Jimmy-time. It may not be the prettiest thing in the world, but it has worked more than not. I was lucky enough to be at the Target Center during the spectacular Nuggets game, when he essentially scored all of the Wolves points during the fourth quarter and overtime.
For the first time in over a decade, cries of MVP rang out, loud and clear, in the Target Center.
But what does Jimmy want? He is, after all, just a kid from Tomball, Texas.
He seems to want to be here, that is for sure. It certainly helps that the Wolves employ his mentor, the coach that recognized that this late first-round draft pick could be a valuable NBA Player.
We rarely talk about Jimmy’s past, other than the typical talk of all the difficult circumstances he overcame in his childhood. We don’t mention how close he came to defeating the Miami Heat in 2014-2015 before that team ran out gas. Butler had a crazy 6.0 BPM that playoffs, basically willing along a team to the Eastern Conference semifinals that included a resurgent Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, but the team flamed out and Tom Thibodeau was fired.
Before that, Butler and Rose rarely overlapped in their playing time, as Rose suffered his litany of recurring injuries just as Butler rose to relevance. Butler’s best teammates were Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, who were extremely good players in their own right, as Noah was First-Team All-NBA in 2013-2014. However, Butler has not really been surrounded by a team where he is the fulcrum, as well as the guiding influence for the next crop of superstars that will help take him to the promiseland of the NBA Finals.
His last season, before being traded to the Wolves, was perhaps the closest analog of Butler finding himself in the teacher role. That spun out of control though, as Butler seemed to never really respect Fred Hoiberg and he and Dwyane Wade called out the Bull’s youth at one point. Even that team, constructed to be a lurching trainwreck from the get-go, was dragged to the playoffs by Butler.
Butler is, by all accounts, an insane workaholic. He is a grinder who spends his offseasons conducting a grueling routine with no distractions. He also drives a minivan and listens to country music.
However, even with his well-chronicled backstory and oddball personality that seems ready-made for the social media age, Butler somehow flies under the radar. Nothing illuminates that more clearly than the current All-Star voting, where first results have Butler with the 10th most votes for guards in the Western Conference with 88k votes, far below the likes of Lonzo Ball, Damian Lillard, and Manu Ginobili. That isn’t even a Minnesota effect, as Karl-Anthony Towns has over 100,000 more votes right now than Jimmy Butler.
Butler somehow gets short-shrift in the NBA pantheon. Some of that is due to where he is on the wing totem pole, as there seems to be a clear delineation between LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and all those below. Butler is not the athletic freak that Giannis is, nor has he received as much attention as Paul George has, and he does not inspire the same analytics debate that DeMar DeRozan does.
Instead, Butler just grinds. He may not want the level of attention that some of his contemporaries receive, which seems to fit with his personality. But he wants to win. He wants the respect, the privilege of being an All-time great. He knows what he has to do to get there.
Truly, for what Butler gives to the Wolves, it is unlikely he is going to be receiving the same in return, at least for this year. We have already seen what disaster unfolds when Butler is unable to suit up.
But the Wolves give something to Jimmy that he has never had, at least for the foreseeable future, which is stability and promise. Andrew Wiggins and, especially, Karl-Anthony Towns are going to rise up and help Butler, they will hopefully be the stars that can take this team to a further level beyond where Jimmy is able to drag this team all by himself.
It is almost as if the grind of Butler, and Tom Thibodeau, acts like a grindstone, punishing the other teams, but at the same time honing the skills of the Wolves for today and for the future.