On June 22, 2017, the course of recent Minnesota Timberwolves history was changed forever. Newly hired Head Coach and POBO Tom Thibodeau had swung a draft night deal that ultimately netted the Wolves Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls.
We know how this era ended, which was in that it ended in spectacularly terrible fashion.
Let’s try to rewind a bit, though, and examine the draft night deal itself, and one of my personal favorite “what if’s” to play through in my head.
What if, on draft night, it was Andrew Wiggins (along with Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen) who was sent to Chicago, instead of Zach LaVine?
There are so, so many things that would have and/or could have been different. Let’s dig in.
Now, a MASSIVE caveat here is that Zach LaVine was coming off of a torn ACL suffered during the 2016-17 season (February 4th), and he didn’t return until mid-January of the 2017-18 season. In this sense, it makes complete sense why Minnesota didn’t keep LaVine. This is revisionist history, though, so knowing what we know now, we can dwell on the “what if” of this scenario.
On-Court Fit With Butler
Jimmy Butler is an outstanding basketball player. There’s no way around that, and there’s a reason that the only time the Wolves have been relevant at all (for positive reasons) was in the 2017-18 season. He was an animal that year who was quite literally the difference between the Wolves playing like a playoff contender and a lottery team.
It is also true, though, that he’s a player who is best with the ball in his hands. There’s nothing wrong with this, Butler is a good creator, passer, and tough shot-maker. It did, however, make for an awkward fit with Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, now shipped off to Golden State, was taken off of the ball and relegated almost entirely to an off-ball role. Needless to say, the subpar shooting wing did not thrive in this role.
Truthfully, this is no fault of Wiggins. For all the times he was given every opportunity to flourish and thrive, this experiment was not one of them. The Wolves asked Wiggins to mainly become a spot-up shooter, which is not only one of his biggest weaknesses, but it also ensures that he wouldn’t see the ball as often which could have (did) lead to him becoming more disengaged on the other end of the floor. The Wolves were hoping for talent to power through fit here, but it just was never really going to work.
LaVine, however, would have fit in quite nicely here. Zach LaVine is at his best as a secondary creator who can space the floor with his solid outside shooting. He would’ve been a delightful fit next to Butler offensively, and while he was and still is a turnstile defensively, it’s not as if Wiggins provided much on that end anyways.
That 2017-18 Wolves team had a very strong offense, finishing with a ORTG of 112.5, good for 4th in the NBA sandwiched between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the two teams who met in the NBA Finals.
That number was somewhat deceiving though, as the Wolves relied greatly on Butler free throws and contested mid-range shots, as well as Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng hammering the offensive glass. That worked in the regular season, but it wasn’t a sustainable model moving into the postseason.
Having LaVine as a floor spacer and secondary creator, albeit not for a full season until 2018-19, would’ve been a much, much better fit, and provided the Wolves with a much more sustainable offense. For a team hoping to contend, you need guys who can make shots. LaVine was exactly that.
Clearly, the Wolves would’ve been relying even more on Butler and Towns to carry the load until January when LaVine could re-join the team, but the short-term thinking of Thibs and his front office hamstrung the Wolves for years. Would the Wolves have still made the playoffs with an Andrew Wiggins sized hole on the wing for half the season? Maybe, maybe not, but at least on the court they would have been much better off heading into 2018-19, which was Butler’s contract year.
Off-Court Fit With Butler
You can debate the on-court stuff between Wiggins and LaVine in circles. I completely understand that Wolves management felt like they couldn’t wait on LaVine to recover from injury.
What’s intriguing to me is to think about what LaVine’s presence in the locker room would have done.
It’s no secret that Butler and Towns, the team’s two best players, had very different personalities. There’s no sense in re-hashing all that went on. We know that they had their differences.
I could be alone on this, but I feel like LaVine could have been able to at least partially mediate and bridge the gap between Towns and Butler. Towns and LaVine are great friends, it seems. LaVine also seems to be one of the harder working players in the league. Not that KAT isn’t a hard-worker (he’s improved each season), but LaVine seems to have a little bit extra of that mentality to him than your average NBA player.
Would LaVine have been able to be the middle man, helping Butler and Towns find a middle ground? Maybe not, but you have to think he’d have done a better job than what actually happened in that locker room.
I’ve wrestled with this thought experiment more often than I’d like to admit. The thing that I keep coming back to is this: in the grand scheme of things, would it have made a difference? I think it could’ve made things more tenable throughout the life of Butler’s contract, and maybe that’s enough to convince him to stay with Thibs, but Butler left a pretty good situation in Philadelphia after last season anyways. It feels unlikely that Butler was ever going to hang around past the 2018-19 season.
If that was always the end game for Butler, then in a sense keeping LaVine would have made a difference. For one, we probably would have enjoyed the games a bit more. The “fun tax” we endured during Butler’s tenure was very real, and LaVine is certainly “fun” if nothing else.
Maybe LaVine is able to connect with both Butler and Towns, which would then just lead to Butler playing out the contract, the Wolves making another run at the playoffs, and going from there. Granted, trading Butler brought in Robert Covington etc., but I’d trade RoCo’s time here for another playoff run in a heart beat.
It appears the endgame was always going to be the same, but how we got there could’ve been much, much different.