Lest we ever forget how petty the NBA can be, the aftershock of Jimmy Butler’s reported trade demands Wednesday made sure to remind us. The past 24-plus hours have been a perfect appetizer for the NBA season, which starts in less than a month. What began as another pre-agency power move has devolved into a referendum on Tom Thibodeau, the young Wolves, team chemistry, and basketball toughness. It’s also, naturally, turned into a social media catfight involving some unlikely figures.
The Wiggins Brothers vs. Stephen Jackson
The shenanigans began Wednesday evening when Andrew Wiggins’s brother Nick tweeted “Hallelujah” in response to Butler’s trade request. Then, 14-year NBA vet Stephen Jackson—yes, that Stephen Jackson, of Malice at the Palace fame, who is now an unfiltered ESPN talking head—took to Instagram to create essentially a one-man Wizard of Oz sketch (via selfie), in which he played both Wiggins brothers and said that Andrew has “no heart.” Translation: Jackson suggested that neither Wiggins brother could talk about Butler in a negative way, because Jimmy plays with heart and Andrew does not.
Wiggins, as is customary in I just got called out on social media situations, responded with a message typed out in white lettering on a black background. That’s when you know it’s serious.
Tell us how you really feel, Andrew Wiggins pic.twitter.com/wSsCJvtBN4— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 20, 2018
I want to, if I can for just a second, home in on the sentence “I keep that same energy everywhere I go.” I’m sure Wiggins meant that as a self-boost, but it reads more like a self-own. After being drafted no. 1 overall in 2014, he’s largely failed to live up to his draft standing. Barring a breakout season, he might also find it hard to live up to his four-year, $148 million extension. His first four seasons were defined by his inability to keep the same energy going.
Of course, Captain Jack wouldn’t let that go without responding, and, yes, he took it there:
I don’t know what’s better: Jackson puffing smoke before diving into his rant, him saying, “I’m cut under the old law” (which probably isn’t a saying but absolutely should be), or him saying he’d “catch [Wiggins] in traffic.” Actually, I know what the best part is: He followed this up by Instagramming a screenshot of his Basketball-Reference season-by-season stats. Let’s count it as a win for analytics. Jackson capped it off by replying to Nick Wiggins: “I am on TV more than your brother.” Woof.
Ricky Rubio also weighed in, in the way you’d expect Ricky Rubio to weigh in—with a facepalm emoji. Rubio and Thibs’s relationship did not last long; when Rubio returned to Minnesota last October, Rubio said he hadn’t spoken to Thibs since being traded to the Jazz. Rubio hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinions about his former workplace. “Here, we play more as a team,” Rubio said in April.
Thursday morning, Lauri Markkanen, who was drafted by the Wolves and sent to the Bulls in the Butler trade, also got in on the mess:
#tbt pic.twitter.com/MUGgcgwb2K— Lauri Markkanen (@MarkkanenLauri) September 20, 2018
Markkanen’s subtle jab was met with approval from Joel Embiid, which is like getting complimented on your golf swing by Tiger Woods.
Then there’s the man of the hour. Butler’s response to Nick Wiggins was an Instagram Story of him working out, repurposing the “Hallelujah” that set into motion all of this auxiliary drama. But he stayed silent while the Wiggins-Jackson saga ensued. That Butler can muster up this kind of reaction from both his detractors and supporters is telling and fascinating. The 29-year-old has always had a reputation for being hard-nosed and dedicated to putting in the work, which can be seen as caustic to those who don’t share his temperament. Remember the mess in Chicago?
And we might not even be talking about the pettiest aspect of all this drama. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that one reason the Clippers, not the Lakers, are a preferred destination for Butler, is because he’d prefer not to play on a team where LeBron is already installed as the alpha. But that detail appears to have been removed from the news story.
Thursday morning, Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported that, according to a league executive, Thibs would rather leave the Wolves than stay around to rebuild after trading away Butler. This saga is a crossroads moment for everyone involved, not just Butler. If ownership forces Thibodeau to trade Butler and the coach doesn’t want to rebuild, where will he go from there? Back to life as an assistant coach? NBA TV? And if Butler somehow stays in Minnesota for the season, what will be the collateral damage for the Wolves? Could Wiggins (and his massive new contract) be traded? Could the Wolves opt to pay Butler over the younger Karl-Anthony Towns to compete in the short term? There’s no good outcome for Minnesota, which has gone from possible contender to tire fire since Thibodeau took over in 2016.
Once a defensive savant, Thibs is now completely out of touch with the league. That wouldn’t make him the most attractive head-coaching candidate. Minny was supposed to see a renewed Thibs. Instead, it’s gotten more of the same.