So. Kyrie Irving.
Andy G: Let’s get through what we know before we dig into what it might mean: according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Kyrie Irving requested that he be traded from the three-time defending East Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are one of his four preferred destinations. Windhorst reported details on the Irving-Wolves potential link that are possibly more significant than the potential for a trade itself:
League sources told ESPN that both Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns have been doing their part of recruiting Irving on the idea of playing alongside them in Minnesota, and they’ve made it known to Wolves management that they want to add the Cavs star to the mix. Butler and Irving became tight in their time playing for USA Basketball together. Towns’ father, Karl Towns Sr., and Irving’s father, Drederick Irving, are connected through the basketball scene in northern New Jersey, where they both reside.
The elephant in this tampering room is Andrew Wiggins. On the current Wolves roster, richer than most teams with trade-chip resources, Wiggins is the only player — aside from the recruiters, Jimmy and KAT — whose value would approximate Irving’s in a realistic trade discussion. Put simply: if Butler and Towns are “recruiting” the still-under-contract-for-two-years Kyrie and making their desires known to Thibs-Layden, LLC, they are implicitly, if not directly, asking the team’s decision-makers to trade away their teammate, Wig.
Oh, and just to make things even more awkward: literally the day before the Kyrie stuff broke from ESPN, it was reported by Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune that the Wolves were working on a five-year contract extension for Wiggins; one that would make him one of the team’s two possible “designated players” and about $150 Million richer than he is right now.
In other words, while Thibs is telling the media that he is working on a huge Wiggins extension, Butler and Towns are working back channels to set up a Wiggins trade.
This is risky, isn’t it?
Patrick J: Not necessarily – especially if Thibodeau is conspiring with Butler and Towns to bring Irving to Minnesota. What struck me about the Wiggins contract extension news was that it seemed to get more media and internet play than it merited. Remember, Wiggins’ max extension is a deal everyone already expected in due course. So why make a big deal, now, about moving on it? When the Irving-to-Minnesota trade rumors got hot and heavy, one possible explanation is that Thibs wanted to signal to other teams that he believes Wiggins is a max player and has trade value representative of the same.
This is all speculation, of course. But hey, that’s July NBA.
Andy G: While that is precisely the sort of conspiracy trafficking that I enjoy (see, this tweet from a few days ago)…
Obligatory conspiracy trafficking: maybe Thibs went so public about maxing Wig to boost his value, knowing Kyrie's intentions. (k carry on)
— Punch-Drunk Wolves (@PDWolves) July 22, 2017
…I think the most likely scenario here is the simpler one: Thibs is serious about maxing Wig and keeping him around, and Butler and Towns went off script and thought they’d play Big 3 Recruiters behind the scenes. In this case, I think we can assume that no Kyrie trade actually happens (Thibs has been patient in his management of the Minnesota roster and flipping 6 years of Wig for 2 years of Kyrie would be a serious deviation from this trend) and we’re left with dissension in the Wolves new core.
Remember, this recruitment of Kyrie implicates not only Wiggins but also Jeff Teague whose sixty million dollar deal was just celebrated alongside Taj Gibson’s about two weeks ago. Of course, Kyrie is better than Teague, but that isn’t my point. I’m assuming Kyrie does not actually become a Timberwolf and the team is left wondering how to feel about itself after a failed covert operation planned and fumbled by its two best players.
I know that Kyrie is one of your favorite players ever — and I love his game, too — so you’ll err further on the side of, “of course the Wolves do everything they can to add him,” but I want to stay on this “Big 3” thing for a moment, because I think it’s a fascinating revelation to come out of all of this.
Leave the specifics out of it — Kyrie/Wiggins swap, what exactly remains, etc. — how do you feel about the Thibodeau Timberwolves dipping their toes into the waters of this new era of Player Power, Banana Boats, and friends recruiting friends? I understand that it isn’t entirely new to the 2010s — players have been forcing trades for decades (see: Stephon Marbury, Timberwolves) — but the back channel player-player scheming seems new, post-LeBron’s Decision. It hit a new level when Golden State lured Kevin Durant from their arch conference rival. Do you think that this is a good, bad, neutral twist in the state of the Wolves franchise? I personally don’t see how it reconciles with a heavy-handed boss like Thibs at the wheel. When he came here to run the franchise I envisioned a high level of organizational stability that would lead to long-term success; not short-term home run swings. I’m pretty conflicted about all of this if you can’t tell.
Patrick J: You can’t make the playoffs and win championships without great players. The Timberwolves need great players. The backchannel player scheming that leads to supergroup teams like LeBron’s Heat and Durant’s Warriors is the new normal. To me, it seems a bit juvenile. But if that’s what it takes, well, the ends justify the means.
That said, I have my doubts that Jimmy and KAT’s freelance recruiting of any player, including Irving, would get very far without Thibs’ approval. Butler has built a reputation as an extension of Thibs’ right arm as a coach on the floor and a leader in the locker room and off the court, but Butler still answers to the man in what almost seems as much a father-son type of relationship as a mentor-mentee relationship.
Thibs and Butler presumably keep in touch during the offseason, and given that Kyrie demanded a trade privately about a week before the news of his trade demand was made public, there’s a reasonable chance that Butler–who is very close to Kyrie–knew Kyrie wanted to be traded before the public did and had plenty of time to plot strategy with Thibs.
Again, not saying this is how it went down. But it might be how it went down.
Here’s some lighthearted evidence of Jimmy and Kyrie’s bromance.
- They sing together.
(Eds. Note: I don’t know for a fact that adding KAT to Jimmy and Kyrie would make for a great a capella trio, I just know it’s true.)
- Jimmy goes on-the-record back in February saying he’d rather play with Kyrie than anyone else in the League.
(skip to 50 seconds in)
- Jimmy is having his self some fun with the recent RUMINT.
Andy G: If Thibs really secretly deployed Butler as his soldier in this game of modern NBA offseason warfare, he might even be smarter than I realized. If the Wolves end up with a Kyrie-led Big 3, that’s the version of reality that I’ll welcome the most; that everything went according to plan. If, instead, it was Butler strong-arming his way to pair up with his best buddy for two years before who knows what else, I’ll be worried. And if instead of landing Kyrie, the plot fails, Wiggins hates his teammates, and this becomes Thibs’s Bay of Cleveland Pigs, I don’t even know what happens after that.
Patrick J: Andrew Wiggins doesn’t strike me as a hater. That said, the palace intrigue at 600 First Ave. is going to be interesting from multiple viewpoints, so stay tuned.
To wrap this up with a bow, here’s a PSA: Don’t sleep on a previously-unmentioned and underrated reason to dig on a trade for Kyrie -with Irving and Jamal Crawford, the Wolves would have the two filthiest ball handlers and bucket-getters in the NBA. Even if you’re a “No” vote on the issue of trading assets for Irving, the idea of seeing all of the crossovers 41 times a year at Target Center is super fun, if only at a theoretical level for the time being. Till next time.