OAKLAND, Calif. -- Tom Thibodeau's summer from hell started in the back of a gym in Las Vegas. Long before Jimmy Butler demanded a trade from the Timberwolves, Thibodeau stood in a corner of the Cox Pavilion at the Vegas Summer League in mid-July answering questions from a small group of reporters.
As a mariachi band played behind him, the basketball lifer faced the uncomfortable questions he figured were coming. After brushing off one regarding Butler's potential contract extension that he didn't intend to sign, Thibodeau listened as the next query started about Butler and young star Karl-Anthony Towns' precarious relationship. Before Towns' name could even be dropped, Thibodeau's answer was ready.
"We know how important both guys are to our team, so we're just getting ready for next year," he said.
The problem for Thibodeau is that, for one of the first times in his head coaching tenure, he couldn't keep all the issues going on inside his locker room from leaking out.
It was an open secret throughout the league last season that Towns, and fellow max player Andrew Wiggins, didn't show the type of consistent work ethic that Butler respects. There were far too many lapses from both players, especially Wiggins, that left Butler and others within the Timberwolves organization shaking their collective heads. As usual, Thibodeau figured he could get through the summer, get the players into camp, and put in more work so that his team could improve together. After all, one of the veteran coach's favorite mantras is that "the magic is in the work."
Only this time, Thibodeau didn't take into account just how fed up Butler was with the situation.
For a man who thrives on order and control, Butler's declaration for wanting a trade sent the tranquility that training camp annually brings Thibodeau into a tailspin. As hard as he tries to stick to the familiar script of staying focused on the task at hand, even trusted veterans like Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose acknowledge that Butler's request caught them off guard.
It was almost a year to the day the Timberwolves took the floor against the same Golden State Warriors on Saturday night. It was the 2017 preseason opener in Shenzhen, China and Thibodeau, who serves as both coach and president of basketball operations, beamed with confidence after constructing a roster he felt could contend in the rugged Western Conference. Having just acquired Butler from the Chicago Bulls and then signing Gibson, Thibodeau was certain his team would not only qualify for the postseason for the first time in 14 years but would make some noise once it got there. Towns and Wiggins were expected to take the next step in their development led by the leadership of Butler and guidance of Gibson.
A year later, Thibodeau's group has even more questions than before:
Wiggins never lived up to expectations.
Towns signed a max deal but still struggles regularly on the defensive end.
Butler, who was supposed to be a stalwart for Thibodeau for years, is waiting to play elsewhere.
"It's tough," Gibson acknowledged. "It's a business. Right now you really see it's a business aspect of this. I know [Butler and Thibodeau] got a strong, a good relationship, but it's a business."
From the moment Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor hired Thibodeau as Minnesota's basketball czar in 2016, league personnel wondered how the hard-charging coach would balance both roles. Now as the structure he worked so hard to build is crumbling around him, the whispers about Thibodeau's dual role as both coach and top basketball decision-maker are growing louder around the league.
"I'm sure it can. But it wouldn't work for me."Golden State head coach Steve Kerr on if dual coach/GM roles work in the NBA
"One of the reasons I wanted to coach is because frankly it's easier than being a GM and facing some of those choices," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "So I'm lucky, I've got a great GM, a great friend in Bob [Myers] and when we've been faced with difficult decisions the collaboration and the process that we've had has been really sound and I've learned a lot actually from being part of it. We're in the midst of a good run obviously and we're lucky to be where we are and it's been smooth, but we're all going to face our moments. It's the NBA, it's tough out there."
Kerr is one of a handful of coaches who has worn both hats as a coach and an executive, albeit not at the same time. He has also been a vocal supporter of Thibodeau through the years and made a point not to reference the Timberwolves' current situation, speaking in more general terms about how difficult both roles can be.
"I'm sure it can," Kerr said, when asked if someone could still be successful in a dual coach/GM type role. "But it wouldn't work for me. It depends on the circumstances, the situation. It depends on relationships within the organization. Everybody is going to be structured a little differently. But having sat in both chairs I would not be comfortable doing both jobs."
As much as Thibodeau has tried to place his team in a comfort zone, surrounding himself with players and coaches he succeeded with during his run with the Bulls, the old coach can't escape the reality he created. Most notably, that Butler, his star pupil, doesn't want to be with him and the team he handpicked anymore.
While it remains unclear exactly what the Timberwolves might get in return for the All-Star swingman, what was unmistakable on Saturday night was that Thibodeau was going back to his past to try and right the course of his future. Enter 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, now 29 after multiple knee surgeries (turning 30 on Thursday), scoring 16 points as a starting shooting guard.
Whether Rose can maintain that level of performance over the course of a season, in a position at which he doesn't have much experience, remains to be seen. Rose originally joined Minnesota as a free agent in early March after the former MVP was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived by the Utah Jazz after the February 2018 trade deadline. The fact that Thibodeau believes that Rose, re-signed to a one-year deal in July, is his best option at the moment shows just how undermanned this current roster is without Butler.
"I'm around them every day so I see how they practice," Thibodeau said. "I see how they prepare, I see the film sessions, I see the walk-throughs and right now it's about building habits. These are the guys that we have and then it's getting ready to compete and I think they've done a great job with that. One preseason game you don't have it all figured out, there's still a ton of work to do and that's all I want us focused on, what we have to do. The only thing we care about is doing what's best for the Timberwolves."
Timberwolves staffers have noticed a calmer Thibodeau in recent days as trade talks continue to heat up. The fiery coach is noticeably slimmer heading into the season and has shown a much calmer demeanor than in years passed.
"He's been doing a good job of maintaining and doing the right things for the guys that are here," Gibson said. "Tonight it was a testament to that. He was sitting down the whole game. Not really yelling at all. And he cracked a couple jokes with the refs so it was a good night."
The Timberwolves will take the good nights when they can get them given the way the past few months have played out -- but nobody is quite sure what the future holds for a team whose future appeared so bright just 12 months ago.