What if Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tom Thibodeau were just a little bit easier to get along with?
With nearly two years of hindsight looking back at the Jimmy Butler fiasco, it is hard to imagine that the Wolves could have ever smoothed things out. Butler, after leaving the Wolves, found a new problem to pick at with the Philadelphia 76ers after an Eastern Semi-Conference Finals run that took an improbable Kawhi Leonard shot to close the series. He quickly found himself in the situation he wanted all along, as the lone superstar on the Miami Heat, which he then helped lead to a current 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Wolves, for their part, have gone through a complete reboot in the past two years, sending off the ornery Tom Thibodeau and the associated veterans, bringing in a new regime of hope, change, and the modern NBA, but currently have little to show for it.
But what if things had turned out just a little different? After all, it would not have taken much. Maybe Thibs could have been a bit better at navigating the personality flare-ups between his stars. Maybe Jimmy could have cut Andrew Wiggins and Towns a little slack. Maybe Towns could have been a bit more sure-footed as a young star, more confident in both his own stardom and willingness to defer to the veteran star.
Just a marginal degree of difference and the Wolves could have been a perennial playoff team with real championship aspirations. At the time, it was easy to poke holes at all the very real problems with the team. The Wolves were playing out-of-touch systems on offense and defense, taking the fewest three-pointers in the NBA and failing to show improvement on defense. The long-term roster crunch was coming and the Wolves front office was focused on featuring Bulls retreads. Thibs failed to mesh with the fans, media, and ownership and the Wolves’ fourth-quarter offense devolved into Butler hero-ball that looked great when it worked, but terrible when it failed all too often.
But the Wolves were also really good. They had just broken the playoff drought and were seemingly playoff locks for the following year, as they were playing at a top-four seed rate before Butler was injured the previous year.
All of the complicating factors with the playing style, roster, and coaching, may not have mattered if the Wolves were winning. Butler and Towns could have even secretly despised each other. There are a ton of great teams with less than amicable relationships among their stars that have done just fine.
The fact of the matter is that teams with great players, and Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are just that, can fail on the margins and still succeed. And, truly, the long-term outlooks of the franchise were rosier than we cared to admit at the time. Part of that is the importance of having two legitimate stars, but the other is the inherent malleability of the NBA.
Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and Taj Gibson may not have been the ideal teammates for Butler and Towns, but the furor of the Gersson Rosas rebuild has revealed that Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng’s contracts were truly moveable. Thibs, Butler, and Towns could have all agreed that Wiggins contract was an albatross and traded him for a different third piece. Two years ago, with Wiggins languishing in a third-banana role, it is easier to imagine a team believing it could provide Wiggins the starring role he needed to finally develop. The Wolves had all of their draft assets at the time, which could have been utilized to upgrade at a starter position. Perhaps the Towns’ role, which we were all complaining about at the time, may have more effectively allowed Towns to develop a more defensive-oriented mentality while being a hyper-efficient secondary option on offense.
The Wolves’ new draft picks, Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, are the exact type of young players any team would want to complement a veteran team. Similarly, Tyus Jones could have served as a long-term backup who had developed strong chemistry with Butler. Nemanja Bjelica never found his foothold with the team, but the player archetype was there.
Prior to the offseason, the Wolves were summarily handled by the Houston Rockets. Throughout the season, they had been repeatedly destroyed by teams that played space-and-pace offense, as the math left the Wolves far behind. But the team was legitimately good and if Butler had signed a max contract with the Wolves, the team would have had two of the best young players in the league playing together for a long time.
Most of the time, that is all that matters and the rest can be figured out after. That is clearly what the current Wolves regime believes, as they have moved heaven and earth in their goal to get their second star in D’Angelo Russell.
Unfortunately, the what if game is nothing but a fantasy. Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau, and Karl-Anthony Towns are all who they are and nothing would have changed that. Perhaps that alternate reality features a Wolves team that never gets beyond the second round of the playoffs before the eventual blow-up. I just know that I would rather watch a team that is capped out as the 4th seed than a team that might cap out as the 9th seed.