Things have been going according to plan in Minnesota. Acquire young elite talent and let them grow together, enter Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Hire someone to put together a winner and coach the team, enter Tom Thibodeau — the hard-nosed ex-Bulls coach who decides to get some of the old band back together from his previous coaching stint. Enter veteran All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler and defensive veteran big man Taj Gibson.
Lastly they needed a floor general and some shooting, therefore acquiring former one-time All-Star veteran point guard Jeff Teague, and former 3x Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford. The league started to take notice that something special might be brewing in the land of lakes.
Chemistry Through Repetition
The Timberwolves had the foundation set and now it was time to see how well the plan could be executed. If there’s one thing about Thibs it’s that he doesn’t deviate too much from what has worked for him in the past. That means rely on your veterans and ride your starters for the majority of your minutes.
I see the idea behind it: Build chemistry through repetition with your best players on the floor as much as possible and good things will happen. This is quite different from the direction some teams have taken in recent years of resting their players throughout the regular 82-game season so that they are fresh come playoff time.
Now with the exception of a few bumps in the road when Teague had MCL sprain, the team has improved considerably to the tune 37-26 record in the brutal Western Conference. According to NBA.com stats, the Wolves have scored at least 110 points per 100 possessions in eight straight games (something the Warriors haven’t done since Dec. of 2015), with Karl-Anthony Towns shooting 60 percent from the field, 58 percent from 3-point range, and 96 percent from the free throw line over that stretch.
All the while, Jimmy Butler has turned into a nightmare for opponents, particularly in the clutch. Butler is third in the NBA in total clutch-time points with 123, behind only LeBron James (138), and Kyrie Irving (137). While his efficiency has taken a slight hit compared with past seasons, he’s still without a doubt the team’s best option in crunch time.
Then it happened. As the team returned from the much needed respite provided by the All-Star break, and was brimming with confidence while currently sitting in 3rd place in the Western Conference, Jimmy Butler went down grasping his knee this past Friday on a non-contact play against the Houston Rockets. The diagnosis? A meniscus tear on his right knee. It was decided that he would immediately undergo surgery. While the procedure was declared a success, and it likely it won’t cost him the rest of the season, it’s always unclear at what level Butler will be at if he’s able to return come playoff time — assuming, of course, the Wolves can keep the ship afloat that long.
Injuries happen and most teams have to deal with them. This NBA season has been one of the more brutal injury-laden seasons in recent memory, particularly to major franchise-cornerstones like Gordon Hayward, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul Milsap, Kristap Porzingis, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, and John Wall. The difference between good teams and great teams is how they respond to adversity. The ability for a team to adjust on the fly and get other players to step up is crucial.
Wolves Left at a Distinct Disadvantage
Unfortunately this Timberwolves team is at a distinct disadvantage than most teams to overcome the loss of Butler. Butler is leading the league at 37.3 MPG. He’s leading the team in scoring and usage. He’s the only starter that can create his own shot consistently. The Wolves have used less than a handful of player combinations on the floor that exceeded 100 minutes on the floor together and Butler was part of each and every one of those. The team has the 27th ranked bench in the league and without Butler on the floor the team free falls to a -8.7 net rating, effectively placing this team on par with the bottom dwellers of the NBA.
Thibs has been on this path before, everybody still remembers Derrick Rose right? While many will question whether his tactics are running his starters ragged through an 82-game season, and therefore putting them at greater risk of injury, is a hot topic of debate. Either way, Thibs has always pushed to get the most of out his team and he will now have to do something he’s not use to; relying on his youngsters to carry the load.
Wiggins and Towns need to take command of this wolf pack. The talent is certainly there but the experience is lacking. The next two weeks will give us a clear idea if this team is up to task when matching up against the Blazers, Jazz, Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs, and Rockets respectively. The numbers say this ship may be heading for a crash, and it won’t be pretty.