MINNEAPOLIS — When Jimmy Butler first requested that the Timberwolves trade him at the beginning of training camp, it was reported he gave them a list of three preferred destinations, including the Nets, Knicks and Clippers. An NBA source told Newsday at the time the Nets were not serious players in the negotiations, but according to another report published Monday, they dangled D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, among others, as trade bait.
Both reports were denied by officials of the Timberwolves and Nets, who faced each other Monday night at Target Center after Butler’s trade to Philadelphia became official. The Timberwolves received Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Harris plus a second-round pick in 2022, but none of those players dressed against the Nets.
Addressing the report that Butler gave the Timberwolves a list of destinations, Timberwolves president and coach Tom Thibodeau said, “That part I don’t think was true. Jimmy never made that request about specific teams. Once he made the request, we got a lot of calls from all over the league, which is normal.
“Almost every team in the league made a call regarding Jimmy. We knew we had to be patient until the offers improved.”
Thibodeau said the Timberwolves were looking for an offer that included “multiple rotational players.” That criteria would seem to lend credence to a report on Monday from The Athletic that said Russell and Hollis-Jefferson, both of whom will be restricted free agents next summer, were made available.
Asked to comment on that report, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said, “I have no knowledge of that, no knowledge of that at all. I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t.”
While the possibility of Russell and Hollis-Jefferson landing at Target Center Monday night and changing locker rooms was roundly denied, both understand this season is a proving ground of sorts for them if they want a qualifying offer or a new long-term contract with the Nets next summer.
Russell has said his ultimate goal is a maximum-salary deal, so he is under a magnifying glass this season. His play during the three-game winning streak that ended with a loss to the two-time defending champion Warriors Saturday night in Oakland undoubtedly elevated his stock, especially because of his improvement on defense.
“I mean, it’s always something people are going to say about your game,” Russell said after playing the Warriors. “People say ‘defense.’ I hear that more than anything. That’s something I can control, my effort every night, bring it every night and competing. So, I’m trying to take pride in that.”
Russell’s improvement has not gone unnoticed by Atkinson, who said it has been a point of emphasis. “I think we’re on him,” Atkinson said recently. “I just think he’s a talented offensive player, and that comes naturally to him. The defense is . . . he’s shifting his focus there and it’s helping him.”
Russell was especially effective in a road win over the Nuggets, when he helped hound Jamal Murray into a 5-for-21 shooting night. It seemed like a sign of growth.
“It takes time, and I think it’s just more of a maturity thing,” Atkinson said. “I think the physical part plays a role in that, and he worked his tail off this offseason and that’s showing. But he’s still, what,  years old? Think about it: Caris [LeVert] is a little older than him, right? D’Angelo still hasn’t reached that prime age yet. But he’s coming along.”
From the sound of something else Russell said after the Warriors game, it sounds as if, unlike Butler, he wants to stay put. “It’s a privilege just to put on a Nets uniform,” Russell said when asked about their development. “They’re making major changes, and I think success is around the corner.”