By: Dan Slaubaugh
It's opening night in San Antonio for the second straight year. This time around, however, there’s a much different vibe as General Manager Scott Layden fields trade calls back in Minneapolis to seek to Jimmy Butler’s request to be traded while Butler suits up for the team at small forward.
The Wolves roll into tonight’s season opener fresh off four consecutive lopsided losses in preseason play. Butler did not participate in preseason action after showing up late to training camp and then staying back in Minneapolis to “condition” while the team played in Milwaukee.
They’ll be facing a veteran savvy Spurs team, who shipped an unhappy Kawhi Leonard to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first round pick after Leonard requested a trade in June. DeRozan comes off possibly his best season in the NBA and should be motivated to perform following his trade from Toronto. Combined with LaMarcus Aldridge, the mid-range shooting is going to be quite good with those two.
While I don’t quite know what to expect tonight, the Butler drama alone makes it a worthwhile watch.
What: Wolves @ Spurs
When: 7:30 PM CT
Where: AT&T Center
Where to watch: Fox Sports North
Where to listen: 830 WCCO
What to watch for:
Butler back with the starters: Because Butler showed up near the end of training camp, he missed important practice time needed to prepare for a rigorous 82-game season. As a result, it may take a few weeks for the starters to get acclimated with each other. Looking at it from an individual perspective, Butler playing well would not only help the team's chances at a win but also drive up his trade value. So, as difficult as it might be, we should be cheering hard for Mr. Buckets tonight.
Minnesota's defense: Thought to be a defensive mastermind when hired, Tom Thibodeau has failed to engineer a competent defense in his time thus far in Minnesota. With a 110.9 defensive rating, the Wolves finished 27th in defensive rating in his Thibodeau’s first year. Many people, included me, expected the newly-acquired Butler to sew up some of their defensive holes. He did not, as Minnesota finished 25th in defensive rating last year at 110.1.
The pressure is on Thibodeau to deliver an adequate defense in his third season. If he can’t do that, there’s nothing that makes him stand out as a coach.
Plagued with injuries: It’s been a rough few weeks for Spurs fans. When training camp opened, Dejounte Murray was the indisputable starting point guard and had the chance to break out as a third-year player. That won't happen, as Murray suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the Spurs third preseason game. White, a talented young guard who's impressed in the G-League, was the next man up but he went down with a heel injury that takes him out for 6-8 weeks. Add in Lonnie Walker IV's knee injury, and the Spurs point guard depth was depleted. The plan now is for Bryn Forbes to start while Patty Mills serves as the team's primary backup. Mediocre point-guard play can dramatically limit a team’s ceiling, and there’s no certainty that White will even thrive in that role when he’s back from injury.
Minnesota: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
San Antonio: PG Bryn Forbes, SG DeMar DeRozan, SF Rudy Gay, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C Jakob Poeltl
Minnesota: OUT - Justin Patton (foot)
San Antonio: OUT - Dejounte Murray (right ACL), Lonnie Walker IV (right medial meniscus) and Derrick White (left heel pain)
Neither team is in a particularly good spot heading into tonight’s game. The Wolves, well, do I really have do explain? On the other side, the Spurs lost five rotation players this offseason, three guards during preseason, and most of their players are past their prime.
Because Tom Thibodeau is still employed, I know more people who want the Wolves to suffer than succeed in hopes Glen Taylor steps in and relieves Thibs of his duties. While I’m not openly rooting for the team to fail, I think that outcome could prove beneficial to the organization.
And to be honest, I don’t think I’ll have to root for that, nor should you. The Western Conference is incredible. From what we've seen, the Wolves have no desire to play hard for their head coach and their best player has no interest in being on the team. Things will work themselves out. Until Butler’s traded, things will likely continue to be a drama show on broadway.
Heck, maybe they come out with fire, steal a win in San Antonio’s home opener, and prove (for one night) that Tom Thibodeau was right in holding on to his beloved star. But if the last few weeks have told me anything, I shouldn’t expect anything but a fiasco.
After looking straight allergic to defense in their last four preseason games, don’t anticipate their deficiencies on that end to be magically cured with Butler returning. The defensive tactics employed by Thibodeau are outdated and ineffectual, so one could argue the defense can't improve no matter how much intensity the players give due to its inefficient nature. Couple that with the Wolves 1-24 record in their last 25 games in San Antonio, I'm preparing for a big fat L.
Wolves lose 116-99. Back to Minnesota Friday for what should be quite a night at Target Center.