It’s no secret that Minnesota Timberwolves All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns rarely clicked last season. The situation between the two—which has been simmering for a while—became so rotten that the former Bull reportedly requested a trade this week, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, just days before training camp.
But to see the depth of dysfunction between Towns and Butler, it might help to hit the rewind button to a night in Brooklyn in early January.
With four-and-a-half minutes left in the game and the Timberwolves trailing by five, Butler drove to the rim and needed to call an audible midair. He had just run a pick-and-roll with Towns and left his feet in the paint with three Nets defenders collapsing onto him, creating a wall. With nowhere to go, Butler changed course midflight and lobbed the ball awkwardly toward Towns’ vicinity. The 7-footer snatched the ball with his right hand, landed with both feet, rose back up and laid it in over Quincy Acy and DeMarre Carroll.
Why is this play notable?
Because over the six-month span from November to April, that was the only Towns basket Butler assisted during clutch situations (a game within five points in the final five minutes). If that isn’t surprising enough, consider that over the same six-month span, Butler assisted a role player—former Bulls teammate Taj Gibson—three times in clutch moments.
Gibson’s scoring average last season was about half of Towns’. But during crunch time, it seemed as though Butler trusted his longtime teammate far more.
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Butler’s time in Minnesota may be short-lived due in no small part to his lack of chemistry with Towns, the franchise cornerstone. According to Charania, Butler met with team president and head coach Tom Thibodeau on Tuesday and asked to be traded. Butler’s preferred destinations are the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks or Los Angeles Clippers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. With training camp only a few days away, Butler’s reunion tour with Thibodeau could be coming to an end. Minnesota’s signing of Luol Deng last week couldn’t prolong it any longer, apparently.
It all can be traced back to Butler and Towns not hitting it off.
With Butler at the helm, Towns, one of the game’s best scorers, all but disappeared from the offense in clutch situations. That almost never happens. Towns was one of seven bigs in the NBA to average 20 points per game last season, but none of their roles diminished as much as Towns’ role did in critical moments. For example, DeMarcus Cousins‘ involvement jumped significantly even though he shared the floor with Davis and Jrue Holiday, a point guard who averaged 19 points per game last season. However, Towns’ usage rate fell from his overall 22.9 percent of team possessions to only 15.1 percent in clutch situations, per NBA.com.
Every other 20-point-scoring big man saw their usage rate either rise in clutch time or dip slightly. That wasn’t the case with Towns.
By proxy of his usage rate, Towns’ role down the stretch was smaller than Willie Cauley-Stein’s (15.9 percent) and Dwight Howard‘s (16.8 percent). Neither of them made an All-NBA team last season, whereas Towns did.
Why did Towns have such a diminished role in crunch time? You could point to his young age—he turned 22 years old last November—as a reason. You could point to Butler’s ability as a closer, which likely motivated Thibodeau to bring him to Minnesota in the first place. Bigs generally have a tougher time getting the rock in critical moments, and it seems as though Towns has a tougher time than most. After Towns scored only eight points in his playoff debut against the Rockets, Thibodeau told reporters that he had “to be more active.”
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But when the Timberwolves needed a bucket last season, the ball was largely in Butler’s hands. His usage rate in clutch situations ranked sixth-highest in the NBA, putting him among the game’s top closers. Few of those other closers have a teammate with an offensive skill set like Towns, but regardless, Towns was mostly an afterthought in those circumstances.
One player on Minnesota who didn’t have a problem finding Towns was Jeff Teague. On the season, he assisted on 12 of Towns’ 20 baskets in clutch scenarios. Butler only accounted for three of Towns’ buckets, two of which came in the opening two weeks of the season. During clutch minutes, Butler launched 96 shots and handed out 10 assists, shooting a pedestrian 38.5 percent from the floor.
The lack of chemistry between Butler and Towns was a source of uncertainty, laying bare an enormous divide in the organization. Was this Towns’ team, or was it Butler’s? Normally, such a question is merely fodder for talking heads. But it might explain Towns’ reluctance to commit to the T-Wolves. He still hasn’t signed his max extension, opting to hold that leverage over the organization’s head. Butler, meanwhile, turned down a four-year, $110 million extension offer in July, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, which was the most the T-Wolves could offer him at the time.
Rubber, meet road.
On one hand, Towns might be the best young big man in the game. Last October, the annual NBA general manager survey picked Towns as the best young player to build around. Not among centers, mind you. The entire league.
Towns followed up that hype with his first All-NBA selection and a monster 56-point, 15-rebound masterpiece in late March. You hand the keys of your franchise to that guy and go along for the ride.
On the other hand, Towns isn’t flawless. Defensively, he’s a work in progress, to put it lightly. The Timberwolves ranked in the bottom 10 in defense last season, and they would have been even worse if not for Butler.
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When Towns played with Butler, the T-Wolves allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which would have tied the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 10th-best mark in the NBA. But without Butler on the court, the Towns-led T-Wolves hemorrhaged 112.6 points per 100 possessions in 1,069 minutes of action last season. That rate would have ranked last leaguewide.
By wearing the hats of both president and head coach, Thibodeau must help forge a strong, lasting bond between Towns and Butler. But it can’t be overstated how little basketball chemistry the two All-Stars shared with each other. Towns’ 56-point and 15-rebound outing came against the lowly Hawks, with Butler in street clothes. Overall, the Timberwolves went 10-13 without Butler in uniform last season, getting outscored by 3.3 points per game.
Maybe you don’t hand everything over to Towns just yet.
Yes, the T-Wolves made the playoffs last season for the first time in over a decade. But it didn’t come without serious drama.
Butler’s frustration with the Timberwolves’ lack of energy came to a head before a do-or-die Game 82—the team was vying for the final playoff spot in the West—when he called out his team for “playing soft.”
“Right now, we have to play harder than anybody on every possession for what’s at stake,” Butler said. “I think we lose control of that at times, and it’s really frustrating to a lot of guys that are in this locker room, but we got to play harder.”
Again, that was ahead of Game 82, not 12. Though Butler didn’t mention Towns or Andrew Wiggins by name, it doesn’t take a linguist to parse his words.
Jim Mone/Associated Press
To their credit, the T-Wolves won the regular-season finale against Denver to clinch a spot in the playoffs. However, the Houston Rockets dispatched them in five games in the first round of the postseason.
Wiggins, meanwhile, took a sizable step backward last season. Owner Glen Taylor made headlines by demanding that Wiggins verbally agree to commit more effort before handing him a $146 million max deal. Wiggins predictably paid his lip service and signed on the dotted line.
The pairing of Butler and Towns figured to be one of the game’s most dynamic duos, but when push came to shove, the two operated in separate silos on offense. By comparison, Kyrie Irving assisted Al Horford eight times last season in clutch situations. Heck, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got more assisted buckets from Kemba Walker in the clutch last season than Towns did from Butler (five and three, respectively).
If Butler wants to find a more defensive-minded star to finish out his prime, it’s unlikely he’ll find it with the Clippers, Knicks or Nets. Though Kristaps Porzingis may provide more resistance at the rim than Towns, he’s coming back from an ACL tear and may need a starting center—not a swingman—to ease his burden underneath. Additionally, it’s hard to imagine the Knicks coming up with a non-Porzingis package to entice Thibodeau, given that they’ve decided to keep their picks, according to Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic. But the calculus might change with Butler’s decree.
The Knicks might have something up their sleeve, too. Things would get interesting next summer if they landed potential free agent Kevin Durant, who is repped by Rich Kleiman, a man not shy about hiding his aspirations to take over Madison Square Garden. If Knicks president Steve Mills truly won‘t give up first-round picks in a trade, Butler could be a one-season rental and then bolt for New York.
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The Nets and Clippers aren’t exactly brimming with trade assets, which makes a deal for Butler a stretch. Would the Timberwolves want a package headlined by D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson? Similarly, it’s difficult to see how a Clippers package involving Tobias Harris and rookie combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets it done. There will likely be far better offers from elsewhere.
The Clippers and Nets could try to sign two-time Defensive Player of the Year and Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard to pair with Butler next season, but they’d be hard-pressed to bring in Butler first. And they could go after Cousins, but he isn’t the defensive mastermind that Butler might seek. Other defensively intriguing names to watch in 2019 free agency are Horford, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan.
All told, none of those options may be as promising as Towns, who remains an all-world talent. But Butler has already made his assessment of the situation.
It’s time to take the ball and go home. Wherever that might be.
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count the Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back to Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.