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Jimmy Butler Has Played His Hand. Now What?

It was a wild Wednesday in Minnesota, but now that the dust has settled, it’s still unclear where either Butler or the Timberwolves organization goes from here. There’s a chance this standoff could enter unprecedented territory.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A lit stick of dynamite doesn’t leave you many options. You either get rid of it when you have the chance or you watch it blow up in your hand.

Three weeks after Jimmy Butler told Tom Thibodeau, the Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations, that he wanted to be traded—an in-person request that reportedly came after months of similar messages from Butler to the Wolves front office at large—Butler remains on Minnesota’s roster. And he reminded the world of that fact on Wednesday, when he suited up for practice and turned the volume up to 11. It’d be unbelievable, if it wasn’t for all the corroboration: Butler shows up, announces he’s “only here for an hour,” subs himself into a scrimmage alongside the Wolves’ third-stringers to take on the top-flight teammates with whom he’s reportedly been clashing for a year, loudly and in no uncertain terms declares that Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are “soft” and “ain’t shit,” informs Scott Layden that “you fucking need me, Scott. You can’t win without me,” wins both scrimmages, howls “I run this shit,” exits stage left, and promptly sits down for a one-on-one interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.

If Thibs wouldn’t move, and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor wouldn’t make him, then Butler’s only recourse was to start a fire: to show up, show out, show any interested suitors what kind of difference he can make, and show the Wolves exactly what sort of unleashed mad-alpha-dog behavior they can expect every day until they finally get serious. Here was Butler, coming off two and a half months on the shelf following hand surgery, taking the scrubs at the end of the roster and washing the starters with them. This—Butler making a very public and uncomfortable play to wrest control of the proceedings—was always the danger of slow-playing the negotiations, and everybody knew it.

It’s possible, though, that Wednesday’s performance art installation doesn’t have the intended effect. Butler insisted in his chat with Nichols that the practice explosion was just an expression of “my love of the game,” “raw me,” “me at my finest, me at my purest,” and “what you’re going to get inside the lines.” But how many teams in position to trade for Butler really need (or want) someone who’s going to go rogue like that? What if the manifestation of that “passion” dissuades the Heat, the Rockets, or Mystery Team X from making the all-in move Thibodeau’s been waiting for? What if, absurd as this may seem, it pleases Thibs so much that he digs in even harder on his commitment to opening the season in San Antonio next Wednesday with Butler on the roster?

If that’s the case, Butler will have to face a hard reality: that there’s only so much control he can exert over his situation.

Unlike in the NFL, holdouts don’t happen in the NBA. Not real ones, anyway. They used to, from time to time, back in the days when owners could try to lowball top draft picks, and those prospects could respond by asking for the moon, stars, and $100 million rookie deals. But the institution of the slotted rookie wage scale in 1995 largely took care of that, and for veterans, such standoffs virtually never move past the realm of theoretical threats (Carmelo Anthony eventually reported to Denver in 2010, Kawhi Leonard made the trip to Canada this summer, etc.) because, well, there’s typically just too much at stake for it to play out any other way.

The Uniform Player Contract between NBA teams and players details the services players are expected to provide -- things like reporting to training camp, attending “practices, meetings, workouts, and skill or conditioning sessions conducted by the Team during the Season,” and showing up for any and all scheduled games. If you violate team rules, breach any provision of the contract, or engage in “any conduct impairing the faithful and thorough discharge of [your] duties,” you’re subject to escalating fines for each missed practice and game-check-docking suspensions, as laid out by the league’s collective bargaining agreement. In Butler’s case, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, being put on ice would cost him a cool $129,000 per missed game. You also risk running afoul of the commissioner, who, under Article 35 of the NBA’s constitution, has the power to suspend and/or fine players deemed to be acting in a manner “detrimental to the best interests of basketball or of the Association or of a Member” of the league.

The bigger issue for Butler, though, is what a holdout would mean beyond this season.

Article XI of the 2017 CBA stipulates that any player “who withholds playing services called for by a Player Contract for more than thirty (30) days after the start of the last Season covered by his Player Contract shall be deemed not to have ‘complet[ed] his Player Contract by rendering the playing services called for thereunder.’” And if you don’t complete your current contract, you can’t go get a new one: “Such a player shall not be a Veteran Free Agent and shall not be entitled to negotiate or sign a Player Contract with any other professional basketball team unless and until the Team for which the player last played expressly agrees otherwise.”

In other words, if Butler doesn’t officially and fully show up by a month into the 2018-19 season, the Wolves could petition the NBA to restrict his free-agent movement next summer, when he’s got a player option that, ICYMI, he intends to exercise to get the hell out of Minnesota. They could keep him under lock and key until they felt like letting him walk … which, given how hard the feelings would’ve become by that point, would probably require any team that wants Butler to tack on even more sweeteners to any potential deal. If Butler holds firm and doesn’t suit up for live action, then he could be putting his entire $20.4 million salary for 2018-19 on the line and risking his chance to hit the open market next summer. Again: This is why you don’t see holdouts in the NBA.

Given the volatility surrounding this situation, nobody really knows for sure which, if any, of these prospective penalties could come into play. Woj noted that it was “unclear if Butler made his full-time return to the Timberwolves” on Wednesday, formally ending any holdout, or “just proved a point of some kind in practice.” For his part, Butler returned to the Wolves’ facility for a Mamba-esque workout Wednesday night and told Nichols he planned to practice again on Thursday. For theirs, the Wolves, hilariously, canceled Thursday’s practice and media availability. (Because that’s going to get everybody to pipe down about all this.)

You don’t have to squint too hard to see why Thibodeau and the Wolves have held the line. The coach who helped Butler become a four-time All-Star; the executive who cashed in three lottery picks for him last summer; and the single-minded prisoner of the moment who defines success as whatever helps him win the next possession, and the next, and the next—they’re all the same person here. Thibodeau isn’t about to give up a game-changing two-way player (and his personal grind avatar) for anything less than a king’s ransom, and nothing Taylor can say—short of “You’re fired”—is going to change that. (And even that might not.)

It’s because, beneath the bark, Butler was right. Minnesota won 37 of the 59 games he appeared in last year, a .627 winning percentage that, prorated over the course of the full season, would have only been topped by the Rockets, Raptors, Warriors, Celtics, and 76ers; the Wolves went 10-13 in the games he missed. With Butler on the court last season, the Wolves posted the point differential of a 61-win titan, according to Ben Falk’s stats at Cleaning the Glass; when he was off it, they had the apocalyptic scoring margin of a 29-win also-ran.

Players like that are rare, and they matter. Even if they want out, you wouldn’t be doing your job as a personnel chief if you didn’t try to create every bit of leverage you could to extract as much value as possible from those elite assets. And so, despite Taylor’s protestations, Thibodeau and Layden waited, and waited, and waited. But Butler got tired of waiting and decided to transform the specter haunting the Wolves’ season into something corporeal, unavoidable, and untenable.

While Wednesday’s activity sure as hell was notable, it didn’t really offer much in the way of clarity on which path Butler or the Wolves might take moving forward or what the potential ramifications of those choices—suspensions, grievances, arbitration, voided contracts, you name it—might wind up being. “It’s just so early to know,” a league source told The Ringer.

Even so: It’s getting late in the Twin Cities. With six days remaining before the start of the regular season, Butler’s acting like he owns the Wolves even as he spoils for an exit, and the longer this continues, the worse it gets for anyone and everyone who’ll be left standing after he’s gone. He’s played his hand; now, we find out whether the Wolves are ready to play theirs, if they’re really content to continue to hold fast, and if the league’s most ludicrous stalemate will wind up entering unprecedented territory.