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The Bulls and Timberwolves Are Trading Places

Chicago is as bad as expected without Jimmy Butler. But while Minnesota is winning, it can learn a thing or two from Butler’s old team about patience.

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Fred Hoiberg never had a chance. After one unsuccessful season in Chicago, Hoiberg was handed two old vets in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, neither of whom fit his motion-based, floor-spacing style. The Bulls predictably struggled, and though they snuck into the playoffs with a .500 record, their own crowd chanted, “Fire Hoiberg!” as they were eliminated from the first round. The front-office tandem of Gar Forman and John Paxson didn’t listen. Instead, they traded Jimmy Butler and kept Hoiberg.

The Bulls have been bad ever since, but their situation isn’t as rough as their 7-20 record seems. They’re making progress; fans seem especially happy watching young players like Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen develop. Chicago has won its past four games—which is a pretty big deal for a team with seven total wins—and Dunn has made a complete turnaround from a disastrous rookie season. In the month of December, the 2016 fifth overall pick is averaging 12.7 points, 5.1 assists, and 5.0 rebounds.

While the Bulls show signs of life, the Timberwolves are gasping for breath. Minnesota, now the home of Butler and former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, is 16-12. If the season ended today, the team would make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04, back when Hoiberg was coming off Minnesota’s bench.

Roles have reversed. A subsection of trigger-happy Wolves fans are calling for Thibs to be fired—which, as I (eventually) mentioned last week, is too extreme of a stance. The majority of fans don’t seem exactly happy, either, even though the Wolves are currently in fourth place in the West standings. Thibs is committing the same sins of his Chicago days and playing his starters for too many minutes and not focusing enough on player development. The Wolves shuffled between 10- and nine-man rotations earlier in the season, but have stuck to just eight players for their past five games. In their most recent game, a 118-112 overtime loss on national TV, Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins both played 40 minutes, Butler played 46, and Karl-Anthony Towns played 48. (Jeff Teague, the fifth starter, got off lucky. He played 38.) The defense is exhausted by the end of the third quarter, and might be better than 25th overall if Wiggins and Towns, two 22-year-olds still learning the nuances of the NBA, could focus on execution rather than on conserving energy. The transition defense is an eyesore. By the fourth quarter, Minnesota’s defensive rating slips to 114.7, which ranks last in the NBA. It’s great that they’re winning games, but, man, it’s ugly.

Everything you’d assume about Minnesota’s record would suggest that the team is in a great spot. But as I mentioned last week on The Ringer NBA Show, there are rumblings of chemistry issues caused by Thibodeau’s minutes management. The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski said he heard the same. Some Wolves players have started to say as much in the press: Butler, tongue-in-cheek or not, said he needed to talk to Thibs after playing 43 minutes in a recent game, while Towns admitted on The J.J. Redick Podcast that playing so many minutes isn’t the “smartest thing” long term. Both Butler and Towns have talked about how it’s on the players to handle their workloads.

The situation in Minnesota reminds me of a conversation I had with a current rookie from another team about team chemistry. Though things were good in the rookie’s locker room, despite his team’s subpar record, he said he had heard horror stories about good teams with bad chemistry, and was anxious about getting drafted into that type of environment. The Wolves feel like that type of team. When I watched them live recently, there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm or talking in huddles. It’s an odd atmosphere.

Things don’t look good in Minnesota, but Thibodeau, now in his second season there, should be afforded time. Hoiberg’s progress this season is the perfect reason. Dunn, for instance, looks reborn after changing his jumper mechanics. Hoiberg told the Chicago Sun-Times that the team tweaked Dunn’s posture on his jumper, and that Dunn was inconsistent with both his release point and footwork when landing. “When we first started working on his shot he didn’t shoot it well,” Hoiberg said. “But he talked about the consistency of it and if he stuck with it, it would get better.”

The changes Dunn has made are apparent—he once leaned back, but now he shoots upright. The 23-year-old also doesn’t jump forward nearly as much. His form is also more compact. Overall, he just looks relaxed. “[Hoiberg] allows me to play with freedom,” Dunn said. “[Providence coach Ed Cooley] allowed me to play through mistakes, and [Hoiberg’s] doing the same thing. It’s definitely beneficial to me.”

Positive momentum is one of the perks of smart, timely rebuilding. Markkanen, the player plucked with the no. 7 pick from the Wolves, has had ups and downs, but his first season has been largely encouraging. Zach LaVine, who was also acquired in the trade, will return soon from a torn ACL. Bobby Portis sucker punched Nikola Mirotic before the season, yet Mirotic says the team has developed “great chemistry.” Hoiberg isn’t a perfect in-game manager or decision-maker, but he’s still adapting to the NBA; most importantly, he’s giving the kids a chance to develop. Or, in Dunn’s case, a chance to learn how to shoot a 3-pointer (37 percent on 2.3 attempts a game this season).

The Bulls’ success in the six months since they swapped Butler and the no. 16 pick for some Timberpups doesn’t make the deal any worse for Minnesota. Butler is the Wolves’ engine. He’s a leader who sets the tone on both ends of the floor. Without him, they wouldn’t sniff the playoffs. Thibs also added Gibson, who has been terrific. And though Teague isn’t a perfect point guard, he was signed for less than Jrue Holiday. Ricky Rubio, now shooting 38 percent from the floor in Utah, was also flipped for a first-round pick. Executive Thibs deserves credit for putting together a team that, although incomplete, is going places.

Now Coach Thibs needs to find the right approach to managing it. The minutes workload is a legitimate issue. Thibodeau said last season, via Jerry Zgoda of the Star-Tribune, that he wants his young guys to get used to the burden shouldered by star players like James Harden. Harden indeed led the league in average playing time two seasons ago and was sixth last season en route to a second-place finish in MVP voting. But Daryl Morey also built the sort of deep, talented roster this season that allows Mike D’Antoni to stagger his rotations and keeps his stars fresh. Harden is playing the fewest minutes of his Houston tenure (35.9, 12th-most in the league), and the Rockets have the best record in the league.

Thibodeau doesn’t have the same luxury. When Thibs looks down his bench, he sees Cole Aldrich and Aaron Brooks. The injury to Nemanja Bjelica, one of the few bench players seeing steady minutes, has limited the options even more. What's hard to understand is why the young guys, like Marcus Georges-Hunt and Anthony Brown, don’t get a look even though both have excelled in the G-League. What exactly is the point in having Brown or Shabazz Muhammad if they won’t play in Bjelly’s absence? Why sign Gorgui Dieng for four years and $63 million, only to use him for 17 minutes a game? Will rookie big man Justin Patton even get a look when he returns from a G-League stint? Not all the great players are given a heavy workload, because their teams have depth they can lean on. At what point do we stop questioning Thibs’s minutes management, and start questioning his ability to develop talent?

Patience, as we’ve seen in Chicago, can be a beautiful thing.