Jimmy Butler dominated the NBA’s internet corner for nearly two months; but the saga officially ended eight days ago. He’s already hit a game winner and he’s allowed us all to move on to worrying about every passive aggressive behavior that Durant and Draymond exhibit towards each other. We may not need to talk about where Jimmy will end up anymore, but let’s take a moment to figure out where the Minnesota Timberwolves go from here.
Tom Thibodeau was brought in to teach the young Wolves how to clamp down on defense and learn how to win games. Wiggins and Towns were just too inexperienced to figure it out on their own. After his time with the Celtics and Bulls, Thibs was not only thought of as a defensive guru, but he was considered THE defensive guru. Thibs’ defensive schemes permeated throughout the NBA’s copycat league. But Thibs’ schemes didn’t rub off on the young Wolves. Wiggins mostly didn’t try and Towns just lacked the instincts you want from your rim protector. To remedy the team’s defensive short comings, Thibs did what Thibs does best; he went out and got his guys. It made sense for Thibodeau to bring in Butler and Gibson; players he knew would bring it every night; to be an extension of himself on the floor.
We now think of Butler as Jimmy G. Buckets the all-star, but he came into the league as a role player. Jimmy was the last pick in the first round of his draft. His job was to stay active off the ball on offense and lock up on defense. He had to work harder than everyone to become the All-NBA player he is today. He represents what hard work, a fuck you attitude, and a little ego could help you achieve in the league. Butler is the type of player you want rubbing off on your two cornerstones. The problem was that Butler’s leadership style didn’t rub off on either Towns or Wiggins. No matter how hard Jimmy and Thibs pushed, they couldn’t get Towns and Wiggins to play with that same grit and fire that they both approached the game with.
With two max contracts about to kick in, the Wolves are stuck with them whether they can develop that fire or not. Towns brings so much talent offensively that he is worth the deal even if he can’t anchor the defense. Wiggins makes so much money that he won’t be movable without giving up a major asset and even then it’s tricky. So how do you begin to build around two big contract guys who can score the ball but have major defensive short comings? Given the situation Thibs and Layden put themselves in, you could do worse than players like Covington and Saric.
Covington is the type of player that Thibs loves. A low maintenance grinder that will do his job every night. Covington allows the Wolves to keep an elite perimeter defender (2018 All-Defense First Team) at the wing spot without bringing any of the same drama that Butler brought. As a high volume off ball three-point shooter (nearly seventy percent of his shots are threes and about ninety percent are assisted), he’ll space the floor for Towns and Wiggins. Create any five man unit you want and RoCo fits in like a glove.
Saric is an intriguing fit for the Wolves. His 2018-2019 campaign has gotten off to a slow start as he’s struggled to shoot the ball. He’s slumping early in the season but he’s a capable shooter and his percentages should stabilize. Where Saric can really make an impact though is as a play-making four. Simmons arrival in Philadelphia made Dario an off ball player, but what always made Saric an intriguing prospect was his ability as a passer. When Saric replaces Gibson at the four, he gives the Wolves a completely different look. He doesn’t provide the same defense as Gibson, but he can come in and push the tempo as a ball handler off rebounds, attack off closeouts, and cause some big time mismatches in any P&R situations with Towns. Rose will act as lead ball handler with the bench unit but having Dario as a secondary creator is a great luxury.
It’s only been a few games post-trade but you can see that Saric and Covington balance the roster. Teams typically have a honeymoon period after a trade like this but the fit looks clean, the chemistry has improved, and the Wolves have won three of four.
The short term version of this Wolves team can be a fun watch. When the chips are down Thibs has shown the ability to get the most out of a group. After all, Thibs is the guy who got a Nate Robinson led Bulls team to the second round of the playoffs. Thibs can now focus on basketball and he’ll coach like he has nothing to lose. He’ll get the team to buy in and rally with an “us against the world” philosophy. Rose, Gibson, and even Luol Deng have already been in tough spots with him and they’ll provide the vet leadership that will push younger guys like Tyus Jones and Josh Okogie through the season long grind.
Even if the Wolves don’t make the playoffs in the short term, Thibs got back two legit two players who’ll ease the burden on their cap hit for the future. Saric has two more cost controlled rookie contract years before restricted free agency and Covington is locked into a value contract for the next four years. Finding rotation guys in the draft is equally important and outside of Justin Patton (who has busted due to injury), Thibs has done pretty well. Wolves fans have been clamoring for more minutes for Tyus Jones, Josh Okogie looks like he’s a rotation guy already, and Bates-Diop has some intriguing tools long term. Getting cheap rotation players who are useful is a necessity for managing your cap when you have contracts like Towns and Wiggins eating up so much of it.
The Wolves future cap situation is murky long term but it may not be that bleak in the short term. If Teague opts out of his option for next year (possible if he wants long term money) and the Wolves can get off of Dieng’s contract (this will be harder and they’ll have to attach an asset) in the off season the Wolves could add some impact role players in free agency. If they can get off both salaries and they renounce their free agents (which would release their cap holds), the Wolves could have almost $40 million in available cap space depending where their draft pick ends up. They may not be in the running for the Durant’s and Kawhi’s of the world; but a Paul Milsap, Tobias Harris, or Niko Mirotic could help. If Wiggins three ball percentage holds up, even a guy like Kidd-Gilchrist could help the team as a defensive Swiss army knife who can guard everybody on switches.
The Tom Thibodeau Timberwolves era may not have had the success many envisioned when he took over, but if it does soon end, it isn’t a catastrophe. Thibs did get the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years and playoff experience is extremely valuable for young players. Just like there’s an adjustment period for rookies adapting to the speed of the NBA game, the pace and intensity of the playoffs is way different and it usually takes a year for players to adjust to it.
We may have missed out on a core of Kris Dunn, Zach Lavine, Andrew Wiggins, Lauri Markkanen, and Karl Anthony-Towns; but you can’t fault Thibs for bringing in vets and swinging for the fences when he traded for Jimmy. It isn’t every day a top ten to fifteen player is on the market and vets win you games. Look at how much Tyson Chandler has helped the Lakers since he got to Los Angeles. Things haven’t gone as smooth as Thibs would have liked, but smooth was never his MO anyway. The chaos is much more fitting for him.
The Wolves owner, Glen Taylor, says he still has faith in Thibodeau. We’ll see if that’s true if the Wolves miss the playoffs. If Thibs does get relieved of his duties, he’s leaving the next front office some decent to great starter pieces. We probably won’t know Thibs fate until the off season, so I just want to enjoy the journey. As Prince once sang, “I don’t care where we go, I don’t care what we do, just take me with you”.