TORONTO — A couple hours before his Minnesota Timberwolves tipped off against the Toronto Raptors, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting his workout in on the main court at Scotiabank Arena.
When it was over, he started stretching with a trainer, bracing against the stanchion and bending one leg up at the knee. He lifted a giant Nike sneaker off the court, and it waved around like a snowshoe for a normal-sized human.
Not part of this scene: Jimmy Butler. Minnesota’s other All-Star is not likely to be Towns’s workout buddy anytime soon. Or poker buddy. Or fishing buddy. They don’t like each other, is the point, which probably isn’t all that unusual for professional teammates. But what is very unusual is that we all know it. We all know it very much.
It makes watching the Timberwolves a bit of a weird experience. On the one hand, there is the game taking place. On the other, there is a whole book for those who like to read between the lines. Did Butler and Towns share a dirty look? Did they exchange a high five? Was it a perfunctory high five or did it have a deeper meaning? Was it a high five that bridged the chasm between them, that said, from one to the other, “I know we have had our differences, but I am ready to work through them, because we are better together, friend.”
The high five probably didn’t say that.
What is unfolding with the Timberwolves is simply one of the weirdest sports stories in recent memory. Weirder still, it is playing out game by game, in front of full arenas.
A brief recap: Butler, who was acquired by Minnesota coach and basketball-operations boss Tom Thibodeau before last season, has said he wants to be traded. Exactly when this demand was first made is unclear, but it emerged on the eve of training camp, and the only time Minnesota apparently tried to move him came at that late date. Butler has clashed with his young teammates, particularly Towns and Canadian swingman Andrew Wiggins, and following the usual pattern of leaks to media, it emerged that Butler felt he could not co-exist long term with those guys.
This made, obviously, for an untenable situation, and Thibodeau engaged in trade talks but he sure didn’t sound all that thrilled about it. A trade to Miami was almost made, then it fell through, and now the consensus is that Thibodeau doesn’t want to sell Butler at a discount. The team’s owner, Glen Taylor, is said to not want to lose Butler for nothing at season’s end — he’s a pending free agent — but he also doesn’t want to have to fire his coach, even though that coach seems to be expressly ignoring his orders. The Wolves must have a very busy HR department.
And so, Thibodeau is trying to make something tenable out of all this. It is a tough ask.
Before Wednesday night’s game, which ended in a 112-105 Raptors victory in which neither Butler nor Towns were particularly effective, Thibodeau said everyone was just going about their business. He said it was just life in the NBA. “You don’t want to get locked in on what’s coming tomorrow or what happened yesterday, you have to focus on today.”
Thibodeau is not the cheery sort, and he could easily play a grizzled homicide cop on television, so it sounds a bit odd when he starts listing off motivational clichés straight out of the 365 Good Thoughts For The Day desk calendar.
“The big thing is, don’t get distracted,” he said. “If you want them, there’s an excuse or a distraction every day. The focus is on who’s here, who we’re playing, and what we have to do next.”
That all sounds simple, but it ignores the reality of the cold war that has broken out on his team. Butler demanded a trade, and Wiggins’ brother made a celebratory post on social media. Then Towns signed a long-term contract extension. Then the trade that everyone assumed would happen didn’t happen.
Butler showed up at the end of training camp and infamously took part in some kind of hard scrimmage in which he blitzed the starters while playing with a bunch of bench guys. He reportedly yelled at his teammates and Thibodeau about how much they needed him. He used language that would have required many trips to the swear jar. Not much of this is in dispute.
“I think that I was honest,” Butler told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, in an interview that must have been planned ahead of his practice outburst. “Was I brutally honest? Yes. But I think that that’s the problem. Everybody’s so scared to be honest with one another.”
Embracing the honesty theme, he went on to say that not everyone on the Timberwolves had “winning as their number one priority.” He said he wouldn’t name names. Then he named names, saying Towns and Wiggins were gifted talents but that he was the hardest worker on the team.
He was asked if his relationship with the team was fixable.
“It could be,” he said. “But do I think so? No. Because you gotta be honest. I’m being honest. Do I think so? No. I’m being honest with you.”
That much we are clear on, Jimmy.
And so, Towns is here, and Butler is here, and the guy who could change that does not seem inclined to do so.
“He’s just got to focus on what he has to do,” Thibodeau said of Butler. “Be ready to go.”
That’s kind of the problem, coach. He is ready to go.
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