The final days of the Butler saga, and why it could cost Thibodeau his job

As Tom Thibodeau's plan disintegrated, owner Glen Taylor lost his last remnants of belief in this crumbling regime. Taylor had delivered Thibodeau a long and rich contract as the Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach, control of basketball operations and the trust to be a steward of a franchise forever in disrepair.

Taylor's judgment has been perpetually suspect, from a secret Joe Smith deal that cost Minnesota draft picks to wasting Kevin Garnett's prime to the David Kahn catastrophe. In getting things wrong, Taylor has been spectacular in his mishaps.

In the end, Taylor didn't sign off on a Jimmy Butler trade as much as he surrendered to one of the most embarrassing episodes in franchise history.

Thibodeau sold Taylor on trading a starry young core and a high lottery pick to Chicago for Butler on draft night in 2017, sold him on waiting out Butler's preseason trade demand for two months.

He sold him a strategy of publicly excusing Butler's disruptive behavior, compromising his own credibility within his locker room, because Thibodeau believed he could navigate the dysfunction and win games.

Thibodeau sold Taylor on passing on a strong Miami trade package, because he was sure Pat Riley would come back with a better offer, and the league would chase in a bidding frenzy for Butler.

Taylor kept doubling down, and when he hung up the phone with Philadelphia owner Josh Harris on Saturday morning, Minnesota had lost everything -- the four-time All-Star in his prime, the trade standoff, and ultimately, the trust to stay with Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden beyond this season.

Even at the expense of sullying his professional standing, Butler played them all in Minnesota -- and shamed the Timberwolves into trading him to a big market contender. The Timberwolves couldn't find a team to bail them out of this debacle, and Thibodeau couldn't sell Taylor on one more basketball game with Butler in a Timberwolves uniform.

Eventually, Thibodeau had lost hope that he could convince Butler to stay for the long term, but his ego still believed he could coach these Timberwolves into playoff contention before the February trade deadline. He underestimated this saga's impact on the rest of the team, especially his young max-contract players, as they watched Thibodeau excuse behavior and beg Butler to play games.

Minnesota desperately tried to cobble together trade offers in the past week, including extensive discussions with New Orleans, league sources said. The Pelicans are limited on tradeable assets, but desperate to find star power to keep Anthony Davis for the long run. The Pelicans wouldn't include point guard Jrue Holiday in its offer, nor multiple draft picks, league sources said.

Minnesota passed on a Miami deal weeks ago that would've included guard Josh Richardson, and the Heat never returned him into talks, sources said. Washington wouldn't offer guard Bradley Beal, sources said.

Through it all, the 76ers lurked. When Philadelphia principal owner Josh Harris talked with Taylor at the NBA's board of governors meeting in September, Taylor made it clear that he hoped the 76ers would become part of the trade process. Harris was eager to engage, but GM Elton Brand -- still new to the job -- intentionally resisted for weeks as the Timberwolves whiffed on unrealistic asks for Butler, including finding a third team for Gorgui Dieng and the three years, $48 million left on his contract.

The Sixers initial offer was restrained, letting the Timberwolves choose between Dario Saric or Robert Covington, sources said. Within the past 10 to 14 days, the deal finally included both players -- but no first-round pick. Philadelphia's salary structure made the Sixers reluctant to pay Dario Saric $16 to $20 million annually on his rookie extension next year, allowing them to trade Robert Covington's four years, $46 million to clear the way to make Butler the third major financial investment with Joel Embiid and the max contract that will eventually come for Ben Simmons.

The Sixers believe they're working out of a position of leverage with Butler. They want to sign him to a long-term deal this summer, and Butler is hellbent on a massive financial score. Philadelphia's locker room is a temperamental mix, and Butler needs to discover the best way to grow his young teammates. Based on his time in Chicago and Minnesota, that apsect of the game hasn't been Butler's strongest resume line.

As one league executive who pursued a Butler trade told ESPN, "He has to be on his best behavior [in Philly], and he knows it. If he screws up that team, that'll be three straight teams. Someone will sign him in free agency, but he won't get all that he's asking for."

Only the Sixers can sign him to a fifth guaranteed year, and only they'll be able to pay him the most on a four-year deal. The Sixers will get to study his body, and get to measure the medical risks of signing him into his mid-30s, too.

In a lot of ways, Butler is perfect for the Philadelphia marketplace: tough-minded, fierce and unafraid. The fans will love him. As the Sixers fell behind Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee in the standings -- and July free agency offered no guaranteed solutions -- this deal made sense on every level for the Sixers.

As Philadelphia ramps up its rise into contention, Minnesota is sorting through what's left in Butler's wake. Taylor considered firing Thibodeau and Layden in the summer -- well before the Butler situation escalated -- and has continued to consider possibilities to eventually replace both of them, league sources said. There's immense pressure on Minnesota's management structure to see dividends on this trade.

Thibodeau gambled using every fiber of a coach's short-term sensibilities over those of management's longer view -- and lost on them all. Butler deserves his blame for an unseemly two months that dented the NBA brand, but Thibodeau didn't trade for a stranger in June 2017. Butler was his guy, and Thibodeau will be accountable for the fallout.

Commissioner Adam Silver disdained the optics of these past several weeks, and that has left plenty of owners convinced Silver is a strong believer in the separation of front office and coaching powers. Silver was one of several league powerbrokers who Thibodeau visited in his season out between Chicago and Minnesota. Back then, Thibodeau sold himself as a rejuvenated renaissance man, promising to bring a different disposition to his next job.

Thibodeau the coach turned out to be Thibodeau the president and coach: embroiled in turmoil, entangled in needless clashes and chasing today over tomorrow.

His big score as an executive turned out to be his undoing as a coach. Jimmy Butler's gone now, but the price to get him, appease him and ultimately trade him could cost Tom Thibodeau everything.

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