As the NBA heads to the stretch run, can the Timberwolves survive the loss of Jimmy Butler
Though it does not come as a total surprise given their talent, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the best teams in the West this season. However, one of the biggest catalysts for their success this season, four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, has been sidelined four-to-six weeks with a right meniscus injury.
While the Wolves currently sit 1.5 games out of third place in the conference, the stretch run will be significantly more difficult without their veteran star. If the T-Wolves still hope to make noise in the playoffs, who is going to pick up the slack for Minnesota?
The impact of Butler is clear to see, but it bears repeating; he leads Minnesota in average minutes (37.1), points per game (22.2), free throw attempts (7.0), steals (1.9) and is second on the squad in assists (5.0). With Karl-Anthony Towns a close second, Jimmy Butler is the most important player on the Minnesota roster, further exemplified by advanced statistics that paint an even more in-depth picture of how much Butler impacts the Wolves.
One of the more overlooked aspects of Butler’s game is his playmaking ability. However, you can see what he means to the team in his assist numbers, as well as the fact that he leads the team in usage rate at 24.7%. He’s also second to Towns in value above replace player (3.6) and win shares (8.6). Additionally, he affects both sides of the ball as one of the best two-way players in the game, and the Timberwolves are significantly better with him on the court. With Butler, the Wolves own a 116.4 offensive rating, compared to 110.0 when he’s off; on the defensive end, Wolves’ opponents are held to 108.1 rating when he plays, and 116.5 when Butler’s on the bench.
Butler’s contributions will be difficult to make up for, but Minnesota rebuilt their roster in the offseason with an eye toward positional depth. A natural player to start with is the man that has replaced Butler in the starting lineup: Nemanja Bjelica.
Though the results have been mixed when Bjelica has replaced Butler in the starting lineup (4-4), Bjelica has performed admirably in Butler’s stead. He had been one of the most effective players off Thibodeau’s bench, though the bench has largely underperformed in 2017-18. The Wolves tend to win off the strength of their starters, so the loss of Butler and the ascension of Bjelica will undermine an already-weak bench.
Bjelica has the ability to stretch the floor, and actually shoots the 3-ball at a higher percentage than Butler (42.9% to 35.6%), albeit in 1.2 fewer attempts per game. He has also demonstrated an aptitude for driving the lane, although his greatest utility comes from the 3-point line.
Bjelica has proven to provide a nice offensive spark off the bench, but he struggles mightily on the defensive end. When Bjelica starts in favor of Butler, the Wolves post a defensive rating over 111, which ranks in the league cellar. Though players like Towns and Teague are not defensive stalwarts, the Butler-Bjelica drop-off can be attributed to the Serbian’s defense; the forward currently owns a 108.6 defensive rating, and his defensive box plus/minus sits at -0.4. If the Wolves hope to compete in the West, they need to tighten up their defense when Butler is out.
Another player that should look to expand his role in Butler’s absence is Jeff Teague. Like Butler, Teague arrived in Minnesota in the offseason, and has been hit-or-miss in his first year for the T-Wolves. Though he has posted near career-highs in categories like field goal percentage and assists, he will be called on to handle the ball even more than he does now. While he is second on the team in usage rate, Teague will have to rise to the occasion if the Wolves hope to mitigate the loss of Butler.
Although the Timberwolves have been one of the most exciting young teams in the league so far this season, they stand on shaky ground as they look to complete the final stretch of their playoff push. Without Butler, the Wolves will need to rely on their young core, with players like Towns, Wiggins and Bjelica leading the way.
Additionally, Tom Thibodeau will need guards like Jeff Teague to step up and replace the playmaking the T-Wolves lost when Butler was sidelined, and get scorers like Towns easy opportunities. Most importantly, the Wolves will need to work hard to maintain their team defense without their defensive anchor on the court.
Unlike many Thibodeau teams, the Timberwolves are built to play offense (third in the league in offensive rating), and they often lack defensive consistency without Butler (26th in the NBA in defensive rating). Given the rest of their schedule, the Wolves will still most likely make the playoffs, but without Butler (or even with a hobbled Butler), they may not last long against the upper class of Western Conference teams.
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