The Minnesota Timberwolves were under a microscope coming into the season. Let’s recap: a trade request by a disgruntled star player? Check. A max contract extension to a future star who hasn’t earned it? Check. Rumored trades that were close to the finish line but didn’t happen? Check. There was also an incendiary practice at which the disgruntled star chewed out the team and showed how much better he was than everyone. And a tell-all, exclusive interview in which this player reiterated that the relationship between him management is beyond saving. This was the NBA version of Hard Knocks we never knew we needed.
After all of that, Jimmy Butler is still a Timberwolf, and he’s picked up where he left off as the team’s best player. Through five games, Butler is averaging 24.8 points (on pace for a career high), 5.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, as well as an unsustainable but impressive 3.8 steals.
Then, there’s Karl-Anthony Towns. If you thought the focus would be on Butler in-season, think again. The microscope has now zeroed in on Towns, who has not played up to potential, to put it lightly. The 7-footer looks lost, unmotivated, and far from the franchise player his contract indicates he should be. In five games, he’s averaging 16.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 2.0 blocks, with a 58 percent true shooting percentage. All of those numbers are on pace for career lows.
In the Wolves’ season-opening 112-108 loss to the Spurs, Towns took only six shots from the field. Six! (When I checked to see whether Towns had any games last season in which he took notched only six field goal attempts, I expected to find none. I found two. Take that as you will.)
Towns’s usage has improved since the opener, but not by much. In a 112-105 loss to the Raptors on Wednesday night, Towns took 17 shots, but only five went in. Of the five 3-pointers he took, only one found the bottom of the net. One of Towns’s missed 3s was an air ball. He held the follow-through in contempt, then looked toward the bench and motioned to be subbed out.
KAT airballs a 3-pointers, sulks on the court and then asks Thibs to take him out of the game pic.twitter.com/1N5p8gpnny— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 25, 2018
Longtime Wolves broadcaster Jim Petersen didn’t hold back. “If Towns is going to play soft, might as well go with Gorgui Dieng,” he reportedly said on the broadcast. “KAT just has that look in his face like he doesn’t want to play tonight.” After the game, Towns denied that he was asking to come out and said he was on his way to the bench, anyway. Regardless, having to answer those questions says a lot about the place Towns is in right now.
Towns is set to face off against Giannis Antetokounmpo on Friday night, and their careers couldn’t be heading in more opposite directions. At one point, they were both considered to be unicorns. One of them is turning into a beast in a new system catered to his strengths, while the other is fading on a team stuck in limbo.
The one game Towns shined in was the one that Butler sat out to rest. The 22-year-old scored 31 points on 16 shots in a 140-136 defeat in Dallas. Even if connecting his strong output to Butler’s absence is a reach—after all, the Wolves did lose that night—there is some irony to Towns thriving with Butler off the court, and perhaps a larger message too. If the Wolves want to get the Towns they paid for, they’ll need to get rid of Butler.
Thursday afternoon, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Rockets were making a new push for Butler, offering four future first-round draft picks in a deal. It’s a mammoth deal, and one that the Wolves should accept if it’s on the table.
Butler can opt into free agency after this season, and Towns is locked up for five seasons after this one. No matter how much Tom Thibodeau values Butler’s toughness, or how flawed Towns looks at times, Butler represents the present, and Towns represents the future. A bundle of draft picks would mean more waiting, which would be tough for a franchise that had to wait 13 seasons to make it back to the playoffs. But the Wolves already made their bet when they maxed out both Towns and Andrew Wiggins. It’s time to move on from Butler and see their original plan through.