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Losing Jimmy Butler Gives Wolves (and Their Coach) a Chance to Refresh

Saturday’s trade was a blow to Tom Thibodeau’s tribute to his Chicago glory days, but it could finally force a coach stuck in the past to maximize a team built around their state-of-the-art center.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The other shoe finally dropped in Minnesota, as they sent Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia for a package headlined by Dario Saric and Robert Covington on Saturday. The Butler saga had cast a shadow over the organization ever since his trade demand became public before the start of training camp. Wolves head coach and team president Tom Thibodeau didn’t want to trade him, but their miserable start (4-9 record with a net rating of minus-7.2) left him no choice. There’s no way to replace an All-NBA talent like Butler in a trade. The only hope is to make up the difference with pieces that fit better around Karl-Anthony Towns, the one star the Wolves have left.

Towns, despite signing a five-year, $190 million extension in the offseason, has been in a funk all season. The 7-footer is averaging his fewest points (19.9) and rebounds (10.8) since his rookie season, as well as a career low field goal percentage (45.9). While he hasn’t said much about Butler, it’s not hard to connect the dots when you look at his play. Towns is averaging 27.3 points in the three games Butler has missed this season. Talent has never been the issue for the former no. 1 overall pick. He’s coming off his best game of the season: 39 points and 19 rebounds in a 121-110 loss to the Kings on Friday.

The plan when the Wolves traded for Butler was to accelerate the rebuilding process around Towns and Andrew Wiggins by developing them next to one of the most hard-driving stars in the NBA. Instead, both players seemed to wilt under the pressure, stagnating defensively while taking a backseat to Butler on offense. But even at their best, the team Thibs put together never made much sense. Minnesota was built more to win in 2011 than 2018, relying on outdated schemes on both sides of the ball while leaning on too many players from his glory days in Chicago. It was every criticism of a coach-GM come to life.

The Butler trade could allow Thibs to modernize his approach. Saric has been struggling this season, but he established himself as one of the better small-ball 4s in the NBA last season, averaging 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.6 assists, while shooting 39.3 percent from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game. He’s a better version of Nemanja Bjelica, who has been one of the key pieces in Sacramento’s turnaround after spending the last two seasons in the doghouse in Minnesota. Thibs played Bjelica at the 3 next to two traditional big men (Towns and Taj Gibson) instead of using him to open up the floor at the 4. Saric, who is tougher and more defensive-minded than Bjelica, should have an easier time getting on Thibodeau’s good side.

Saric was an uneasy fit in Philadelphia. The Croatian forward was at his best overseas when making plays with the ball in his hands, but he didn’t have many opportunities to create next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

The Sixers cornerstones are two of the most ball-dominant players in the league, and neither spaced the floor well enough to create driving lanes for Saric. He became a 3-and-D player whose lack of athleticism put a ceiling on his value in that role. A frontcourt of Saric and Towns could be better than the sum of its parts. Saric can feed Towns inside better than anyone on the Minnesota roster, and Towns can open up room for Saric on pick-and-pops.

Towns has to buy in on defense for it to work. He has been a conscientious objector on that end of the floor his entire NBA career. The Wolves are tied for the worst defensive rating (114.3) in the league this season, and Towns has been one of the primary culprits. Their defensive rating drops all the way to 105.4 in his 191 minutes off the floor. Thibs brought in Gibson to protect Towns on defense, but the veteran big man has only doubled down on his flaws. The two have a defensive rating of 115.3 in 332 minutes together this season.

The scheme hasn’t helped. Minnesota is one of the only remaining teams in the NBA to start two traditional big men. Thibodeau made his reputation as a defensive mastermind, but the league has long since passed him by. He popularized the idea of overloading the paint with multiple defenders, a strategy that no longer works given how many shooters and playmakers that other teams have on the floor. The irony of his time with the Wolves is that the only offense his defense ca actually slow down is his own. Thibs crossed the line between a coach who sticks to his principles and one too stubborn to acknowledge they no longer work a long time ago.

There are other blueprints out there. A lineup with Towns, Saric, Covington, and Wiggins could switch screens and be interchangeable across four positions. Covington (6-foot-9 and 225 pounds) and Wiggins (6-foot-8 and 194 pounds) are now the longest and most athletic wing duo in the NBA. Wiggins, like Towns, has never figured out how to translate his athleticism to defense, but Covington, a first-team All-Defense selection last season, is the rare player who isn’t much of a downgrade from Butler on that side of the ball. He fits better with Wiggins and Towns. Compared to Butler, he’s an elite spot-up shooter (shooting 39 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game this season) on a more affordable contract without as many miles on his body.

The trade could create a domino effect in the Wolves rotation. Jeff Teague, who has missed the last six games with a knee injury, will return shortly, and he could share a starting lineup with four good 3-point shooters when he does. A pick-and-roll between Teague and Towns would be hard to defend in so much space, while posting up Towns should be more effective in four-out lineups. One of the few bright spots in Minnesota this season has been the career-high 3-point shooting from Wiggins (39.6 percent on 5.3 attempts per game). The Wolves could go from one of the worst floor spacing teams in the NBA last season (they were no. 30 in 3-point attempts per game) to one of the best.

It isn’t just the starters, either. Gibson should be more effective as the sole big man on the floor on the second unit, a role which would have the added benefit of removing Gorgui Dieng from the rotation entirely. Derrick Rose would be free to hunt shots while sharing a backcourt with Tyus Jones, arguably the best passer on their team. Josh Okogie, the no. 20 overall pick in this year’s draft, has shown promise as a hard-nosed perimeter defender on the wing, while Anthony Tolliver could space the floor next to Gibson.

This version of the Wolves has more lineup flexibility, theoretically giving Thibodeau the ability to stagger the minutes of his best players and give each more time with the ball. There’s a reason most NBA teams don’t play five-man bench units anymore. It makes no sense to give Towns and Wiggins max contracts and force them to spend the entire game spotting up on Butler, while keeping all of them on the bench as more limited offensive players like Jamal Crawford and Rose dominate the ball. The easiest way to get buy-in from young players on defense is to give them freedom on offense.

It’s unclear whether Thibs would be willing to make many changes to his philosophy on such short notice. He could just as easily keep Gibson as a starter and close games with two shot-happy guards in Teague and Rose. His job is on the line, which is why offers for Butler built around future assets, like a trade package from Houston with four future first-round picks, were dead on arrival. After what has happened the last few seasons, the odds of Thibs being given another head coaching job, much less one with as much authority as he has in Minnesota, are low. This is his last chance to run an NBA team, so he may triple down on his beliefs about the right way to play the game.

It doesn’t matter in the big picture. Trading for Butler only made it seem like Minnesota was a contender. Butler isn’t good enough to be the best player on a championship team, and Wiggins and Towns weren’t ready for that responsibility, either. They are both in their early 20s, and they don’t become free agents until 2023. Going all-in on the present at the expense of their growth was short-sighted if understandable, given how long the franchise had missed the playoffs. The Wolves have to dig themselves out of a massive hole to get back there this season. Staying in the lottery could be the best thing that happens to them, if it forces Thibs out and brings in a coach better suited for Towns.

Everything in Minnesota ultimately comes back to Towns. It was only two seasons ago that NBA GMs voted him as the best player in the league to build around. He hasn’t been in the best situation to maximize his skill set, but a guy paid like a superstar is expected to thrive regardless of his environment. Towns was a well-rounded prospect with no holes in his game in college. There’s no reason a player with his physical gifts should be such a poor defender, and he’s too smart a player to average as many career assists (2.3) as turnovers (2.3).

The Wolves now have the right pieces around Towns. Wiggins may never be a star in his own right, but he’s still a supersized wing who can shoot 3s and create his own shot. Saric could be the perfect playmaking 4 next to a stretch 5. Covington is an elite 3-and-D player. Okogie and Jones are the perfect role players to round out a rotation. Minnesota can still be a long-term power, but only if Towns becomes the player everyone expected coming out of Kentucky. He should be playing in the NBA into the 2030s. Thibs and Butler will be footnotes in his career by that point. Towns, who is in the last year of his rookie contract, will make $27.3 million next season. He’s officially on the clock.