Meet Jimmy Butler, the basketball-obsessed alpha the Timberwolves needed
MINNEAPOLIS — There were only six players left on the court a few minutes after Timberwolves practice ended on Oct. 10. Players were quick to leave the day after landing back in Minneapolis after a 16-hour return trip from China that completed an 18-day trip to open training camp.
But the six who stayed on the court refused to leave. They went on to play a series of one-on-one contests that lasted more than an hour.
There were Melo Trimble, Amile Jefferson, Anthony Brown and Marcus Georges-Hunt — four young guys with no guarantee of making Minnesota's 15-man roster, all trying to get in any extra work possible and maybe make a good impression on the right person in hopes of earning a roster spot. The fifth player was ageless veteran Jamal Crawford.
The sixth? Jimmy Butler, the Wolves' new All-NBA wing, one of the best two-way players in the world, who Minnesota acquired via a draft-night trade with Chicago this summer.
Maybe 30 minutes into the post-practice contest, Tom Thibodeau, the team's coach and president of basketball operations, emerged from his office and walked over to the corner of the court to stand alongside general manager Scott Layden and get a better view of the action. As he looked on, he smiled.
There were many reasons Thibodeau, Butler's coach in Chicago for four seasons, created this reunion between star and coach in Minneapolis. This was one of them.
"I always say, I've enjoyed the young guys we have, because they come in and they're eager and they want to learn and they have a freshness to them," Thibodeau said. "There's a lot of energy. The attitude is great. And then sometimes, as guys get older, they lose that."
"He hasn't changed," Thibodeau said. "As he's gotten more experience and he's achieved more things, his approach is the same — high energy, great preparation, all the things that have made him who he is today, what he's been doing for years now, those are ingrained habits. So I think as long as he continues to approach it that way ... he'll continue to improve. And that's what makes him so good."
A teammate of basketball's best ever during Chicago's dynasty in the 1990s, John Paxson called Michael Jordan "the greatest worker, competitor that I've ever seen."
But Paxson, now the Bulls' executive vice president of basketball operations, acknowledged it's different now with players having the ability to get personal trainers and develop teams to help them work even longer and harder away from the team facility. Nobody does that more than Butler. Paxson pointed out that for years Butler rented out a place in California, brought teammates in and worked out three times a day.
"At least from the outside looking in, it's always been kind of like Jimmy became obsessed with this ability to work and to improve himself, improve his body and to hold other people with a higher standard," Paxson said. "I think this day and age has something to do with players' ability to do that (work), but he kind of even took that a step further."
Butler said his training schedule every summer is the same. Wake up between 6-6:30 a.m., "break your body down until you think you can't go anymore," then do the same thing the next day. Rinse, repeat.
"We do that whether I'm going to be playing 15, 25, 48 (minutes)," Butler said. "Hell, if the game goes into however many overtimes and makes it 100 minutes, I've got to be ready to do that, too."
Thibodeau is the hardest-working coach in basketball. If there's a player who can come close to matching him, it's Butler.
"I'll go hit the gym tonight," Butler said after that Oct. 10 practice. "I love this. Damn. I'm so fortunate and happy that I get to play basketball every day. And I don't know what else to do, like it's crazy. I'm up there with (Thibodeau). He just don't leave the office. I leave the office, but I go home and work. I've got weights at the house, we got a gym right there. I'm working. I'm on you, Thibs, I'm on your tail."
Even after making it to the NBA, Jimmy Butler was still that kid from Tomball, Texas, wearing cowboy boots and listening to country music.
He still listens to country — he passed time on the team's flight to China this month by listening to Thomas Rhett's new album, "Life Changes" — but the boots are a thing of the past. A couple years ago, Butler got into fashion, a perfect fit for his detail-driven personality.
Butler doesn't watch television. When Bernie Lee, his agent and good friend, went to turn on the TV at Butler's place in California this summer, two months after Butler moved in, he found the remote's batteries were missing. Butler legitimately doesn't watch TV, including basketball. He didn't even watch the NBA Finals series in June between Cleveland and Golden State. He bought a video game console this summer, but not to play NBA2K — he just wanted to play Crash Bandicoot a few times.
Butler's list of hobbies, which is nearly endless, mostly involves activities or games that can be competitive. He plays the piano, dominoes, cards, football, track and field, baseball, checkers and Connect 4, to name a few. He swears he's the best at dominoes, "a dominotician," as he called it. Whatever he's playing or doing, Butler wants to win.
"I've seen him get into heated, passionate debates about (the game) Catchphrase," Lee said, "more so (heated) than I've seen him maybe in debates that we've had about basketball. I can say without a doubt, he's the most competitive person that I've ever come across in my 39 years of living."
Still, while the competitive fire burns wherever Butler goes, Lee said the all-star is more than capable of compartmentalizing the rest of his life away from basketball. On draft night, when a major trade was going through that would have a major impact on his professional career, Butler was more concerned about winning a game of Spades. There's a reason for that.
"I love this game, and I love to work at this game, but I don't want that to be my entire life," Butler said. "I tell everybody — I tell the fans, I tell the coaches, even other players, if I'm just known for being a basketball player, then my career wasn't the right thing. I wasn't doing it the right way. I just like to have fun. I'm not bothering anybody whenever I do stuff. Some of it is just funny because I like to do it, but all in all, I give so much of my life to this game, to take my mind away from it, I have to do something else I love."
Butler's lifestyle, and the people he enjoys it with, are a few of his primary motivations for putting in the work he does.
"I just don't want to go back to Tomball, to tell you the truth," he said. "I love where I'm from, I don't want to be that kid no more. I have my brothers, my trainers, my people around me all the time. I think we like the life that we live, to be able to be a professional basketball player, them to come on the road, go to every game, like that's fun. That's the life that we always dreamed of. That's halfway the motivation."
The other half is simply that he loves basketball. All Butler said he wants to do, save for the occasional game of dominoes, is go to the gym, shoot and work on his game.
"This is what I dreamed of, so I wouldn't trade anything in the world for it," he said.
What a dream it's been. Butler is a bona fide superstar on a team that appears fit to contend for championships sooner rather than later. That doesn't happen to kids from Tomball, a town in southeast Texas with a population of fewer than 11,000. It doesn't happen to kids whose college careers start at junior colleges, kids who are only two-star recruits before committing to top Division I programs. It doesn't happen to players selected with the very last pick of the first round in the draft.
But Butler made it happen.
In his rookie year in Chicago, playing for Thibodeau, Butler averaged just 8.5 minutes a game. Still, there he was every day, putting in extra work at the team facility before and after practice. Thibodeau said he believed Butler would be a role player from the beginning, he just didn't know when.
"I do think the fact that he didn't play early on, in his case was probably a good thing," Paxson said. "Often times in our league, we kind of hand things to players and say, 'Here's your opportunity.' Jimmy did really have to earn it. I think that first year under Thibs, when he didn't play that much, I'm guessing he realized that I'm really going to have to put my heart and soul into this thing."
Butler started 20 games the next season. By his third year, he averaged 13.1 points a game. By his fourth year, he was an all-star. In six seasons, he went from a non-factor at the end of the Bulls' bench to a legitimate star at the front of the franchise.
"I understand the chip he's had on his shoulder, I understand his defiance toward his opponents and that type of thing. It's what's made him great," said Paxson, who traded Butler this summer. "We'll miss that (in Chicago). That's what makes him great.
"You have to feel good about the people in our league that make themselves into great players, the ones that have earned everything that they've been given. That's unique. A lot of guys tend to lay down sometimes and have these expectations to be given things, and he certainly hasn't done that. He just continues to work at it and find ways to be better."
Top NBA players are always compared with one another. Is Kevin Durant better than LeBron James? How about Kawhi Leonard? Is Russell Westbrook ahead of James Harden?
Lee said anytime someone tries to start one of those conversations with Butler, the all-star glazes over. Paxson said Butler is a top 10-15 NBA player, and he's not close to done yet. But Butler's only competition, Lee said, is with himself.
"Meaning that he realizes that he's to a level and he's trying to exceed that level," Lee said. "And the question that he asks himself on a constant basis is, 'Am I doing that? Am I getting better? Have I plateaued?' His career is a reflection of that. Every single year he's been in the league, he's gotten a little bit better. Whether that's reflected in the numbers that he has or whatever it is, there's been a constant state of improvement. And I think for him, I think he's interested in 'How far can I take this?'"
Jamal Crawford was asked to gauge Butler's value to Minnesota. His response: "I'm not sure it's measurable, to be honest with you."
Butler checks nearly every box.
The Timberwolves struggled to finish games late last season — Butler is one of the league's best closers.
They lacked experience — he is a six-year veteran and three-time all-star.
They couldn't play defense — he has made three NBA all-defensive teams.
But what Minnesota needs the most is a leader. This pack needs Butler to be its alpha, a role he appears ready for. Paxson said success empowered Butler in Chicago. As he ascended to new heights throughout his career, he became more confident and forceful.
"He's always seemed to me as the kind of guy that once he kind of set a bar for himself, he expected everyone else to work toward that same level," Paxson said.
Butler can translate Thibodeau's system to something that resembles English. More important, he can teach up-and-coming stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins the importance of defense and sacrifice, and he can hold people who don't do their job accountable.
He actually enjoys the latter. If you're doing something wrong, Butler will point his finger at you. If the roles are reversed, he wants you to do the same. After 13 years of Timberwolves futility, Butler might be the shakeup this franchise needs.
"You can't be scared of a little conflict and what somebody else may think of you on the floor, because you want to win, you want to play at an extremely high level," Butler said. "Nobody likes losing and we want to get out of that (losing) mentality as soon as possible here. If you can't take a little constructive criticism ... it's a grown man's league, so you've got to be alright with it."
That all stems from Butler's will to win. He admits, when he first came into the NBA, he wanted to prove he could play with anyone — mission accomplished. Now, he wants to win at the highest level. He wants a championship. He thinks he can get one in Minnesota.
Asked about this year's Western Conference, which is stacked with super teams made up of numerous superstars, Butler said, "Doesn't scare me any."
While others are discussing if this is the year the Wolves end their playoff drought, the franchise's newest cornerstone is thinking much, much bigger.
"I'm not going to say, 'Hey, if we make the playoffs, then oh, what a great season. Let's just make the playoffs and then get swept,' " he said. "No, that's not OK. I think, right now, everybody's mind should be to win a championship. If it happens, if we're playing our best basketball at the right time, then that's the goal for us this year.
"I want to win a championship."
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