Once again, a team has tried to fast-track relevance in the NBA's Western Conference during the tyrannical rule of the Golden State Warriors, and once again – boom!
This time, the fulcrum is Jimmy Butler, the mega-unhappy Minnesota Timberwolf who is hard at work trying to destroy the team he is currently on so that he can go somewhere else. Butler came to his first practice with the Wolves Wednesday, yelled at anyone currently an employee of the team, took the team's third-stringers and beat the other four starters, and screamed at general manager Scott Layden, "You f---ing need me, Scott! You can't win without me."
For confirmation, Rachel Nichols of ESPN interviewed Butler on the subject.
Whether Butler stays or goes, the Wolves are done, barely a year after bringing in Butler to position themselves to make a run at the Warriors (or least the silver medal). If he ends up in Miami, where the warmest rumors have emanated, the Warriors don't have to worry about him. If he ends up in Houston as part of Daryl Morey's rotating Roster of Justifiable Envy, the Warriors will be intrigued but not yet bothered.
Either way, Butler is another lesson in what happens when a team chases something it cannot legitimately have, and confuses talent accumulation for what the Warriors have – talent and compatibility.
True, Golden State lucked into four players (Wardell S. Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala) who came and created an atmosphere of "job first, fun on the side," and a fifth (Kevin Durant) who grafted onto an already going concern and made it almost unfairly good.
Thus, chasing Golden State simply by grabbing good players means you're spending lots of money and telling players they are more important than the ones you already have, which is how Minnesota ended up with Butler not talking to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and screaming at Layden because Towns got a new contract and Butler didn't.
As for Houston, Morey's resistance to losing P.J. Tucker in any Butler trade is a measure of restraint he has not always shown, but he brought in Carmelo Anthony on the same theory that got Minnesota owner Glen Taylor to sign off on coach/basketball ops head Tom Thibodeau bringing in Butler. That theory: Chemistry takes care of itself.
Truth is, the Warriors didn't know what they had until they got it, but they recognized that whatever they were going to be, they could do it with players who valued themselves a close second to the greater good of championships.
And that's the part that owners, coaches and general managers aren't quite as skilled at deducing. They think in terms of assets and metrics, both of which are easily quantifiable but don't guarantee cohesion, certainly not in players who just now are learning how much leverage they actually have, and how much easier it is to get what they desire if they are firm enough.
Butler is 29, and doesn't want to spend any more time being underpaid, underappreciated or underheeded. LeBron James made that decision twice, mostly because he could. Kawhi Leonard got out of San Antonio, though not to the place he would have chosen. Carmelo Anthony has moved twice.
The Warriors, who have assets and metrics too, have not been confronted by this because they have won, and because so far they have gotten paid. Kevin Durant may be itching to see what free agency has in store this coming year, but he will find that he will never have it as good as he has had it here, unless his prime motivation is to be a LeBronian center of attention.
But it is also noteworthy that the Warriors have been included into the franchise's bigger picture, so that they have more skin in the game emotionally where they are at than, say, Butler. They have bridged the difference between "they" and "we" when talking about their bosses so that leaving won't be as easy, if it happens at all.
In the meantime, they also have the ego strokes of watching how frantically the rest of the NBA has been scrambling and drama hunting to catch them five minutes before they allow themselves to be caught, likely through age, though late-career greed might play a factor as well.
They can look at Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves and say, as their parents might have, "There but for the grace of God go us." After all, while being good is great, being good and lucky is better, and being good, lucky and compatible is best of all.