The Mazzola Minute: Jimmy Butler

In an era where superstars like LeBron James and Steph Curry already function as pseudo-general managers in terms of their influence over roster construction, Jimmy Butler is taking the player-empowerment age of the National Basketball Association (NBA) to a different level.

Before diving into the Butler saga, though, let’s briefly step back to the summer before the 2017-18 season. Paul George sent shockwaves through the NBA when he warned the Indiana Pacers — his team at the time — of his intention to sign with another team after his contract expired. The Pacers responded by promptly trading him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Weeks later, Kyrie Irving announced he wanted out of Cleveland, prompting the Cavaliers to ship him off to the Boston Celtics.

On the surface, Butler’s situation seems fairly similar. On Sept. 18, his trade request from the Minnesota Timberwolves was made public. His preferred destinations, according to the initial report, were the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.

Butler also piqued the interest of teams like the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets, both of which crafted potential trade packages for the All-NBA swingman.

The Timberwolves, however, showed little intention to trade their disgruntled star, with the front office reportedly closed-off to discussions and head coach Tom Thibodeau publicly pleading for Butler to remain in Minnesota.

Thibodeau is the kind of guy where, after one look at him, you have a pretty strong pulse on with what kind of players he gets along well. Big, sweaty, loud and expressive, Thibodeau is a screamer on the sidelines; predictably enough, he prefers to work with, putting it gently, “passionate” players.

As days continued to pass without any real progress on a trade, Butler grew increasingly frustrated, and he doubled down on his efforts to force a trade. With the franchise finally open to and actively engaged in discussions, it seemed Butler would get his wish.

Still, deals continued to fall apart, and Butler grew more and more frustrated. His prior verbal attacks on the work ethic of young teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins remained a prominent part of the discussion.

Watch one game, and you’ll see what Butler means about Wiggins. Possibly the most heralded number one overall draft pick since LeBron James, Wiggins plays with a distinct lack of defensive effort or offensive discipline.

Regular season Karl-Anthony Towns is elite. His offensive numbers display impressive volume and efficiency, and his diverse skill-set is unprecedented for a seven-footer. Sure, his defense is suspect at best, but he’s not the only superstar who doesn’t play defense in the regular season.

However, in the postseason, where stars are expected to elevate their game, Towns has played a disappearing act and his numbers have decreased across the board.

If they were any other young stars, I would blast Jimmy Butler for the way he speaks to two franchise cornerstones, both signed to max contract deals. It’s hard not to empathize with a competitor like Butler, though.

Some general managers may shy away from a locker-room presence like Butler, but with Butler being a veteran brought in for his hard-nosed approach, I see why Thibodeau wants to keep him around so desperately.

This is the state of the Timberwolves, and it isn’t pretty. It’s no coincidence that Towns didn’t announce his supermax contract extension until after Butler’s trade request was publicized.

The Timberwolves reached multiple critical junctures with the Heat on potential trades, at one point even exchanging medical information on involved players. These discussions all had a common thread, however: at the last minute, Minnesota asked for more and the trade was called off.

With the Clippers earlier, it makes sense why Minnesota was hesitant to pull the trigger. Los Angeles did not want to surrender an approaching-his-prime Tobias Harris, but Harris was the essential ingredient of any trade on the Timberwolves side.

After all, if Jimmy Butler is worth a dollar, in the star-driven NBA, getting four quarters back is not a fair return. Tobias Harris isn’t a dollar, but he, especially when paired with other assets, comes significantly closer to approximating the value of a player of Butler’s caliber.

With the Heat, Minnesota had a deal involving one of Miami’s most valuable assets — Josh Richardson. A young swingman with excellent range and defensive skills, Richardson not only offers high value to the Timberwolves in terms of his ability, but he’s a perfect positional replacement for Butler. He can’t run an offense as well as Butler, but his youth more than makes up for that deficiency.

After all these failed trade discussions, even after initially claiming he would not attend preseason training or games, Butler showed up at practice last Wednesday. According to various reports by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski among other sources, Butler hopped in the scrimmage with the third stringers and beat the starters in full-court basketball. Directed at Timberwolves’ general manager Scott Layden, Butler reportedly yelled, “You f*ing need me, Scott. You can’t win without me.” He also allegedly engaged in a verbal conflict with Towns mid-game.

Clearly trying to prove a point, Butler left a crowd of speechless players and coaches after his victory in the scrimmage to do an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.

Admitting he may have stepped out-of-bounds in terms of his attitude, Butler spoke frankly with Nichols, laying out his issues with the team. While he wasn’t optimistic about the issues being fixed, he seemed to imply a willingness to work with the organization, should the Timberwolves fail to heed his trade request.

Per the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, it would be virtually impossible for Butler to sit out contests in protest of his team affiliation, and he’d be at risk of losing significant money and interest from other organizations.

Even in the player empowerment era, Butler is helpless against a stubborn Timberwolves organization, especially Thibodeau.

Said Butler about Thibodeau: “And right now, I know Thibs, and he’s in there by himself. He locked his door, and he’s smiling, and he’s laughing. Thibs, I know you man. I know you. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got him back.’” The Timberwolves are right. Even if he’s not at his happiest in Minnesota, Butler is worth keeping around. Remember, Minnesota was tied for third in the historically-loaded Western Conference last season before Butler went down with a knee injury, after which the Timberwolves fell to eighth place, only clinching a playoff berth in the very last regular season contest.

Butler’s high-intensity approach is exactly what the Timberwolves need to bring their young core to the next level, and Butler’s own high volume, efficient production will be essential for Minnesota to make the playoffs again.

In spite of his rawness, Butler’s teammates were reportedly inspired by what they saw at practice, and even Wiggins referred to Butler as “someone you want on your team.”

Butler and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor have come to an agreement that the organization will continue to seek a trade, and Butler will play for the Timberwolves in the upcoming regular season games.

Through all these antics, Butler has not improved his trade stock. In fact, I’d argue it has fallen quite a bit. He did, however, remind the Timberwolves exactly why they need him.