BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Fans who haven’t witnessed a Minnesota Timberwolves playoff appearance in 13 seasons lined the rails around the four-story rotunda at the Mall of America for Jimmy Butler‘s introductory news conference Thursday, welcoming the All-Star small forward and the hope he represents for the franchise.
“Our expectations are going to be to win,” said Butler, who joins recent No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to form a talented trio after the Timberwolves acquired him in a blockbuster draft-night deal with the Chicago Bulls. “That’s why they brought me here. These young guys are really, really, really talented. I’m just here to push them to the best of their ability.”
As Butler embraced the opportunity to join a young team with untapped potential, he humorously brushed off criticism of his leadership out of Chicago, much of it anonymously sourced. He announced his cell phone number and invited his critics to call.
“You’ve got to want to win. You’ve got to want to win every game. You’ve got to want to win a championship. With that being said, that’s my goal, and that’s going to be our goal when we step into that practice gym.”
“Somebody’s got to take the blame. I’ll be that guy. I’m OK with it. I’m fine. Everybody is entitled to their opinion,” he said. “But with that being said, my phone is in my back pocket right now. If whoever has anything to say to me, feel free 773 899 6071.”
The phone was actually in the hands of Butler’s brother at the time and constantly buzzed the rest of the morning. The number wasn’t to his personal phone, however, sources told ESPN’s Michele Steele. Earlier this week, Butler’s team came up with the stunt to reveal a cellphone number at the news conference. The phone was one that belongs to a member of his team or, if it belonged to Butler, wasn’t the one he uses most frequently.
Butler, 27, who averaged career highs in scoring (23.9 points per game), rebounds (6.2), assists (5.5) and steals (1.9) last season, was reunited with former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau after a season apart when the Timberwolves gave up high-flying guard Zach LaVine, 2016 No. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn and the seventh pick in this year’s draft for Butler and the No. 16 pick.
The Timberwolves, who made only a two-win improvement to 31-51 during Thibodeau’s disappointing debut season in Minnesota despite Towns and Wiggins posting impressive individual statistics, might value Butler’s competitive character almost as much as his production. Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden repeatedly praised Butler’s leadership and toughness, elements that are critical to Minnesota’s need to drastically improve a defense that ranked among the league’s worst last season.
“The way he worked, that’s what makes him so special,” said Thibodeau, who opened the news conference by fondly reminiscing about Butler’s determination as a rookie late first-round pick in Chicago. “Obviously, you can’t do the things that he’s done without a lot of talent, but it’s his drive and his intelligence. He’s never lost that. He’s chased excellence from the day he got in the league to where we are today, and I think that’s a great example.
“We have a great young core obviously with Karl and with Andrew, and we’re excited to have Jimmy. He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympian gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Towns, who ranked among the league’s leading scorers (25.1 points per game) and rebounders (12.3) as a 21-year-old last season, sat in the front row with a beaming smile during Butler’s news conference. Afterward, Towns boldly declared that the Timberwolves’ stars belonged in discussions about the NBA’s elite trios with the addition of Butler.
“We should be great,” Towns said. “I mean, this is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties.
“We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league. When you have a person like that on your team, it’s a given that the game is going to be changed and the league is going to be looking at us differently. When you’re talking about one of the top players in the NBA being added to your squad, the whole focus changes.”
“We should be great. I mean, this is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties.”
Butler’s reaction: “I just want to help win. Big three, big whatever, let’s get some big wins. Let’s get into these playoffs and make some noise.”
But Butler, who plans to work out with Towns in Los Angeles this summer, agreed that the bar should be set high for the Timberwolves despite the franchise’s recent run of futility.
“The reason that you play this game is to win a championship,” Butler said. “That bar is really, really high with the teams that are playing now, but I’m not going to say [the goal is] making the playoffs. You’ve got to want to win. You’ve got to want to win every game. You’ve got to want to win a championship. With that being said, that’s my goal, and that’s going to be our goal when we step into that practice gym.”
Besides answering his critics, Butler intends to use his phone for recruiting purposes with the free agency period opening this weekend. Thibodeau is confident that Butler’s arrival along with the potential of the Timberwolves’ young stars can make Minnesota an attractive destination for free agents, which has traditionally not been the case.
“The big thing with a guy like Jimmy, he’s been around for a while,” Thibodeau said. “So when you look at the relationships he has in the league — the fact that he’s played All-Star, the fact that he’s been an Olympian — those guys get to know each other and there’s friendships. Then those guys are always looking around to say, ‘OK, where might I fit best?’ I think what we have here is very attractive to other players. … Whatever relationships he has, if those players are looking for places to play, hopefully we’ll have a good shot at them.”
Butler played coy about which free agents he would target and declined to discuss specifics of his pitch. But he’s not shy about his belief that the Timberwolves can be a factor as teams load up to try to challenge the champion Golden State Warriors.
“You’ve got certain moves that are happening now,” Butler said. “I think we can be with the best of them, though. We definitely can.”