The Jimmy Butler Way: Teammates Not Friends

Take the best teams of all time. You will find more teammates who didn’t hang out together and didn’t party together and didn’t spend birthdays together and didn’t have family vacations together than you will find best friends. Friends are hard to come by in any walk of life and most of the time your closest friends are not the people you work with. The co-worker is often the one who annoys you but the one who you have to spend time with in order to get paid. No one thinks anything of it when the department secretary and the accounting assistant can’t get along. It’s a personality thing.

But we have all of these romantic ideas of what we want sports to be and we ratchet the emotion up a notch when it is the team we root for. If Jimmy Butler is friends with Andrew Wiggins we stupidly think the Wolves are a better team for it than, say, if Jimmy Butler and Wiggins tolerate each other but still achieve. Friends, when together, are defined by their closeness but friends and their closeness can get in the way.

Jimmy Butler is meeting with Tom Thibodeau in a heart to heart about his future. He will be an unrestricted free agent in July 2019 and most believe he is out of Minnesota. It’s not that the kids are immature and don’t have game. It is that they aren’t  tough, they don’t compete, they are in a different part of their career than Butler who wants to play in June. What Thibs says to Butler will go a long way. What the Wolves don’t want him to say is that he wants to be traded. We saw how that went last year with Kyrie Irving. The team trading the star gets shafted.

Butler has been here before when he was with the Bulls. The Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler partnership had issues. One game in Sacramento, Derrick Rose took 34 shots. Most of the shots were not out of the offense but jacks where Rose froze out a lot of his teammates as if he had to prove something to the league about how Steph Curry was following him. The next game was on national television, the Lakers, a seemingly easy game but once again Rose didn’t defer to Butler when he should.

A few years later, it is Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Butler still figuring out how to make it all work, how they can depend upon each other in games and what their chemistry is. That is no different than any teammates who have to learn about each other. They don’t have to be friends to do that which is what Jimmy Butler acknowledges.

My read on Butler is that he doesn’t care about Wiggins or Towns off the court, just about what they can do together when they play.

The NBA is built on relationships similar to Butler, Wiggins and Towns and the game has survived for 60 years. Consider that Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar are the top 5 players in NBA history. They went to 9 NBA Finals together. Yet Magic and Abdul-Jabaar went their separate ways once the games were over. Magic’s best friend was Byron Scott.

Kobe Bryant frequently references Derek Fisher as the teammate he was closest to and yet he admits he’s not a very good friend, he doesn’t remember birthdays or to call people. Yet he and Fisher went to 7 NBA Finals.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s friendship is the exception, not the rule, and even then their closeness didn’t save them from two NBA Finals losses. A few years ago, Mo Williams said LeBron is your friend in one moment and then will step over you to get out of the door.

It all means that friendship in the NBA doesn’t really matter which is the point Jimmy Butler is making. He isn’t happy with the baby Wolves. He isn’t going to pretend he is. He wants assurances that this year will be different. He doesn’t care about friendship, just winning. He’ll probably be in New York or  L.A. next year.

Without Butler, the Wolves are a mess. Thibs has to keep Butler from going rogue. The Wolves resurgence may be over before it had a chance to start.