I’ve only just realized that I’ve never been a fan of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team, but simply a fan of fun basketball. The Minnesota Timberwolves helped me realize this by playing the least fun basketball I’ve ever seen on Friday night, while the Milwaukee Bucks repeatedly made me smile and laugh. My first love, basketball, has returned.
I gave up professional basketball for a long time after Michael Jordan retired a second time in 1999, but I never stopped watching Duke University men’s basketball. I’ve been a fan of Duke University men’s basketball for as long as I can remember. And I wasn’t a bandwagon fan like I was with the Minnesota Twins, with whom I took an interest because of a chubby, gleeful center fielder who carried his team to a World Series Championship in 1991.
Even though the Duke Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and got there on the back of Christian Leattner’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” I attribute by Duke fandom to my aunt’s indoctrination of me. She was a campus dispatcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and hated it, so she sent me a postcard featuring an overhead look of the Duke University campus surrounded by the Duke Forest. I think I checked their academic standards and immediately wanted to attend after high school, but when I first witnessed the energy at Cameron Indoor on television, I was hooked.
I was a nerd who was always a better coach than player, so I appreciated the idea of smart kids beating the talented kids with schemes and heart. I was bringing up the rear in the top 10 percent of my high school class of 88 graduates, so I’m relatively smart given where I grew up. My best friends were the two smartest kids in the state. But when I watched the 1991-92 Blue Devils, it felt like I was meant to go there. I didn’t have a very good concept of my family’s fiscal situation, however.
So while I relentlessly rooted for the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s, it was because they were so fun to watch. They played my kind of basketball—above the rim and in the paint on offense, and physical on defense. That’s why I came back to the NBA in 2009, when Derrick Rose arrived on the scene as Rookie of the Year, then All-Star, then youngest MVP ever. But I didn’t come back because of Rose; I came back because the Bulls were holding teams to under 90 points with physical defense.
Besides Michael Jordan’s final game at Target Center, it was Tom Thibodeau who got me watching the NBA for the first time in six years. It was Tom Thibodeau who brought Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves and got me to spend money on a 10-game, season ticket package. And it’s Tom Thibodeau who now has me watching anyone but the Timberwolves.
I had already put down a $250 deposit to retain my season ticket package with the Timberwolves, but it wasn’t difficult to find 10 games I wanted to watch. In the NBA, there are enough athletic freaks to go around that aren’t playing for the Timberwolves and would be worth seeing. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one. Antetokounmpo alone, scoring just 15 points, made the $80 I paid to sit a little lower than I sat when Jordan played his last game in Target Center worth every penny. That and seeing Sterling Brown get into the game and score some points. His jersey was the first NBA jersey I ever bought, not for his play on the court, but because of the way he handled himself when questioned and then tased by Milwaukee police for parking in handicapped spaces. Despite a vast Milwaukee crowd, I was the only one in the building proudly sporting Brown’s jersey.
LeBron James is obviously another one of those athletic freaks worth seeing regardless of your team’s ability, and the Los Angeles Lakers visit Target Center twice this season. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are another two. Anthony Davis another. Joel Embiid is another. James Harden another. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving and his coach Brad Stevens make the list. Speaking of coaches worth paying to see scheme, Gregg Popovich is one. And with all the hoopla over Jimmy Butler’s trade request, the Timberwolves’ home opener against the lowly, LeBron-less Cavaliers was must-see. That’s 10 games worth watching regardless of whether Jimmy Butler or anyone else plays for the Timberwolves.
Now I’m even planning a basketball/ski trip to Utah during the first round of the NBA Playoffs. I don’t expect the Timberwolves to be playing Utah, and couldn’t care less who does. I like Utah’s game. They play pretty good defense. I also like the Lakers’ game. They score all the points they can in the paint and as fast as they can to make up for their collective inability to shoot the three. It’s exactly what the Timberwolves should be doing, but Tom Thibodeau’s in the way. I won’t let it stop me from enjoying my newfound love of fun basketball, and I don't even like the evolution of the game via the exploitation of the three-point line.
When I first looked at the Minnesota Timberwolves schedule when it was released, I figured there was no way I’d want to see the Timberwolves’ home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James leaving for Los Angeles. Even with a free ticket, I figured I’d skip the home opener and take whatever I could get for the ticket, if anything at all. Now the home opener might be the must-see game of the year, and perhaps the last game worth seeing.
The televised circus that has been the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history reached soap operatic status when the show’s star, Jimmy Butler, requested a trade on Sept. 18, dictating the teams for which he’d prefer to play and a date by which he’d like the deal done in a meeting with Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau. Butler’s dumping of his longtime partner in basketball crimes (and crimes against basketball) might have come as a shock to Thibodeau, but not to anyone watching at home. Butler was giving Thibodeau all the signals; he just was blind to them.
Butler is a free agent when he waives his player option after this season and will likely sign the final max deal of his NBA career (he’s 29). But Butler stands to make the most money with whichever team is paying him at the end of this season, so he obviously doesn’t think the Timberwolves are a championship-caliber team now or maybe ever. Given Golden State’s addition of DeMarcus Cousins, Houston’s addition of Carmelo Anthony, and the Lakers’ addition of LeBron, he’s probably right. Things don’t look promising for any other Western Conference team either, but at least the Timberwolves with Butler are ahead of those other teams.
Before Butler went down with a torn meniscus last season, the Wolves had the eighth best net rating in basketball (2.6). After Butler’s injury the Wolves were 19th in net rating (-1.0), so to say Butler’s valuable to the Wolves would be an understatement. He’s invaluable, which is why Thibodeau is having such a hard time finding what he perceives to be a fair trade. Butler has allowed Thibodeau to not only minimize the defensive deficiencies of the young Towns and Wiggins, but hide his own offensive incompetencies. The Wolves took more contested shots than any team in the NBA last season and attempted the second fewest wide open shots.
Thibodeau isn’t putting his players in positions to succeed on offense; he’s relying on players to create their own scoring opportunities and always has. His dependence on Derrick Rose, trading of Ricky Rubio, a premiere facilitator on a team with three, top-flight scoring options, and his head-scratching acquisition of Jeff Teague, a score-first guard on a team with those same three scoring options ahead of him, are indicative of Thibodeau’s disinterest in offensive strategizing while the rest of the league enjoys an offensive evolution. It would be like seeing the earliest humans figure out upright walking for the first time and not only refusing to follow suit, but continue resisting after seeing the obvious advantages of having hands free to hold things like tools.
If championships aren’t part of the benefits package teams can offer Butler in contract negotiations, why wouldn’t he play where he wants to play for as much money as he can make? One thing Butler’s made pretty clear is that Minnesota isn’t where he wants to play with what’s left of his prime. I sensed this when I saw how much he was enjoying California during the offseason. Minnesota weather during basketball season is enough to make most any employee consider relocation, whether they’re playing a game for a living or waiting tables. Unfortunately for Timberwolves fans, the weather this winter won’t be as cold as Butler’s relationships with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The feud between Butler and Towns has long been alleged and finally confirmed. Butler’s made it pretty clear that Towns and Wiggins are not the players with whom he wants to play for the rest of his prime years. calling Towns and Wiggins soft after a climactic clubbing of the Timberwolves’ first team while scrimmaging with the third team. And I don’t think Butler’s wrong.
In basketball just as in life, there are haves and have-nots. Those born into money don’t know what it’s like without it, and those without don’t forget what it took to make it without money. The same goes for athletic talent. Those with exceptional talent never know what it’s like to live without it, and those without talent never forget what it took to live without it. Towns and Wiggins are haves; Butler is a have not.
There aren’t many NBA players of Butler’s caliber who had to work harder and longer than Butler to get where they are today. Not even Michael Jordan, who was famously cut from his high school team, had a more difficult path to NBA superstardom. Butler didn’t have LeBron’s build or talent to enter the league out of high school; he didn’t even have the game for NCAA Division I basketball. After a year at Tyler Junior College he transferred to Marquette, where he spent another three years honing his skills. Then, after the Bulls drafted him with the final selection of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft, he didn’t play in an NBA game until Jan. 1, 2012, with his first start coming 80 games later. He was already 25 years old when he was first named an All-Star. As of this writing, Towns is 22, and Wiggins is 23.
Obviously things came a lot easier for Towns and Wiggins relative to Butler, and Butler’s probably frustrated that a couple of gifted kids who haven’t put in the work he has are already earning max money. But he’s definitely frustrated that they aren’t meeting his demands when it comes to effort and intensity. He might be demanding more of his teammates than anyone else in the league, but so did Michael Jordan. Butler just doesn’t have the rings to justify his expectations for his teammates, and frankly, with this generation, I don’t know that rings would be convincing either.
Towns and Wiggins might think Butler’s demands are unrealistic—even unhealthy—but making youngsters uncomfortable and challenging them physically and mentally in practice prepares them for in-game adversity. You learn a lot about yourself when faced with adversity, but you can only learn to overcome it if you embrace it. Towns and Wiggins don’t seem to be the adversity-embracing types.
"Every time I get switched out onto you, you pass it,” he said of Towns in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. When faced with adversity in the form of Jimmy Butler, Towns and Wiggins are passers; they avoid the adversity. It’s unfortunate for fans of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball that Towns and Wiggins aren’t willing to be led by Butler because what they need in order to get what they want are Butler’s lessons in leadership they’ve dismissed. They aren’t going to get what they need from anyone else, and what they want—to lead themselves—is more unrealistic than Butler’s expectations of them.
Regardless, Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are still, as of this writing, on the same team. But when the Cavaliers visit Target Center for the home opener, I urge Timberwolves fans in attendance to support their team. Booing Jimmy Butler during pregame introductions is not going to make him change his mind about playing in Minnesota, and even if nothing will, he’s not responsible for turning the Timberwolves franchise into the butt of a basketball joke. If you’re going to boo someone on Friday, boo Tom Thibodeau, because the guy who hired him, owner Glen Taylor, won’t be announced.