TIMBERWOLVES COULD BE NBA’S “DRAMA” TEAM IN 2018-19
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For those of us in the media who have covered Tom Thibodeau over the years, it’s easy to conclude that the last thing Coach Thibs wants is an 82 game regular season filled with off the court drama.
 
Well, sorry Thibs, but it looks like that’s exactly what you have to look forward to in the upcoming season.
 
The Timberwolves weren’t exactly team harmony last season in making the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Jimmy Butler sent veiled comments through the media about his unhappiness with the work ethic of young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the T-Wolves had to go down to the final day to squeeze into the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoff field.
 
Now, with the start of training camps less than a month away, an article on Bleacher Report last weekend suggested Butler is already looking towards L.A. and signing with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent next summer. That should come as no surprise to Bulls’ fans who read annually about Butler’s summer workouts in L.A. and his love for that city. Plus, teaming up with LeBron James and the Lakers’ talented young core looks like an attractive option for all of the top 2019 free agents.
 
Which leads us back to Thibs, who is already bracing for the inevitable questions at the start of training camp. Thibodeau told Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he’s not concerned about the Butler rumors, saying winning will take care of all that. Thibs told the Star-Tribune, “I’ve been around a long time; I don’t buy into any of that stuff. You have to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. You never heard any of that come from Jimmy’s mouth. It’s always a source close to Jimmy. If Jimmy has something to say to someone, he usually says it directly.”
 
If he hasn’t done it already, you can bet Thibodeau plans to sit down with Butler before training camp to find out exactly what his star player is thinking. Butler already passed on signing a contract extension with the Timberwolves this summer because he can make a lot more money by waiting until he becomes a free agent next year.
 
Even though it makes perfect sense financially, Butler’s decision still had to make Thibodeau and Wolves’ ownership more than a little nervous. They’re already stuck with the max extension they gave to Wiggins last year, and now All-Star center Towns is suggesting he wants to have a heart-to-heart talk with the front office about some of his concerns before signing a max extension.
 
Thibodeau has never been the easiest coach to play for, and if both Towns and Butler are seriously thinking about finding a better situation, the plan to build a contending team in the Twin Cities could unravel very quickly. Odds are good Towns will get the assurances he seeks from the front office and sign the max contract offer, which star players coming out of their rookie deals have rarely, if ever, passed on. But Butler’s looming free agency will cast a huge shadow over everything the team is trying to accomplish this season, and in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, a lack of team chemistry could send the Timberwolves careening back into the lottery.
 
Keep your eyes on Minneapolis this season. It figures to be a very entertaining show.
 
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
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It’s the end of an era in San Antonio with Manu Ginobili announcing his retirement earlier this week after 16 seasons. Ginobili was a part of four championship teams with the Spurs, and he combined with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to win more games (575) than any other trio in league history. 
 
Ginobili came to the NBA at the age of 25 after establishing himself as one of the best players in Europe, and had to work hard to earn the confidence of coach Gregg Popovich and many of the veteran players on the Spurs’ roster. But once he figured out to assimilate his unique skill-set into the San Antonio system, Ginobili became a key component in the San Antonio run of championships.
 
Manu’s ability to score in a variety of ways, along with a fierce competitive mentality earned him respect from coaches and fellow players around the league. Now, he retires at the age of 41 as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
 
With Duncan also retired and Parker now in Charlotte, things won’t be quite the same in San Antonio. The Spurs never did get the back-to-back championships some analysts require in defining pro sports dynasties, but it’s hard to argue with five championships in the span of 16 seasons.
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Speaking of championships, are the Celtics poised to add to their NBA-leading total of 17? GM Danny Ainge told ESPN’s Chris Forsberg both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are ready for full-scale 5-on-5 work, and will begin training camp without any limitations.
 
Adding a healthy Irving and Hayward to the team that took Cleveland to Game 7 of the Conference Finals last season makes Boston the favorite to win the East this time around. The biggest challenge for head coach Brad Stevens will be finding the best rotation to utilize all the weapons on his roster. Should he start 3rd year wing Jaylen Brown or use him as a high-scoring 6th man? Do the Celtics go big up front with Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum, or let Tatum play the four, with Hayward and Brown at the wing spots. And, what’s the best way to utilize impact guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier off the bench?
 
Any way you look at it, the Celtics are loaded and ready to take full advantage of the LeBron-less East.
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I hope you’ll check out our latest Bulls Talk Podcast for my conversation with Bucks’ radio analyst Dennis Krause. New Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer will try to blend free agent additions Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Muhammad, along with 1st round draft pick Donte DiVincenzo into an athletic young core led by 2nd team All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. If Budenholzer can get this talented group to buy into the share the wealth system that produced a 60-win season in Atlanta, the Bucks could challenge Philadelphia and Indiana for a No. 3 seed in the East behind conference heavyweights Boston and Toronto.
 
Krause also offered an encouraging take on Bulls’ new addition Jabari Parker, who played his first four NBA seasons in Milwaukee. Krause says when Parker is fully engaged he’s full capable of playing solid defense, and he still has the scoring skill that made the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 draft. Even after two ACL surgeries on his left knee, Parker’s explosiveness was evident in the playoff series against Boston last spring, and Krause tells Bulls’ fans the former Simeon star could be primed for a big season in his return to Chicago.
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Finally, in case you missed it, the NBA has abolished the uniform code for sneakers in the upcoming season. Players will now be able to express themselves with any type of color or design they prefer, no matter how badly their shoe choice might clash with the team’s color scheme. The only restrictions involve the use of 3rd party logos, protruding objects, or reflective elements like gleaming chrome.
 
Michael Jordan had a big influence in bringing color to the NBA’s shoe game back in the 80’s. Now, the choices will only be limited by the imagination of the players and their shoe companies.
 

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