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Big-Game Jimmy: Butler Leading the Wolves’ Rise

After a sluggish start, Minnesota is on course to finally end its playoff drought, and it has Jimmy Buckets to thank for it

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Butler provides the Timberwolves with whatever they need, whenever they need it. “He’s changed everything,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau recently said in praise of Butler’s scoring, passing, and defending. “That’s probably the most important statistic—the winning. To lift a team that’s lost as much as we have lost over the last 13 years, to change the culture, has been very important for us.”

Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, back when Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell helped support an MVP season by Kevin Garnett. Now, a younger generation of Wolves fans is witnessing its favorite team win big for the first time. This season’s team is 25-16, with a plus-3 net rating. Butler is at the center of their surge as just one of six players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists this season (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins are the others). Unlike the other five, Butler is a blip on the All-Star radar, tallying 88,009 fan votes (which accounts for 50 percent of the formula for starters, with media and players splitting the other 50) in the first update provided by the league.

But, as Thibodeau also said recently, Butler is “playing at an MVP level.” With starting point guard Jeff Teague out with a left knee injury, playmaking responsibilities now fall on Butler, and he’s come through with an uptick in assists per possession and drawn fouls, while the team has maintained its scoring margin, per Meanwhile, Butler defends the opponent’s best players on a nightly basis, no matter their size or position. This season, Butler’s first in Minnesota after a trade, he has been tasked with defending everyone from Ben Simmons to Klay Thompson to Russell Westbrook.

“He doesn’t have to score to help us,” Thibodeau said. But he’s also still scoring, because right now that’s what his team needs. After a mild start, the 28-year-old dropped a then-season-high 33 points on December 3. From then on, he’s exploded by dropping 30 points seven times while averaging 26 points with a 52.7 effective field goal percentage. His premier scoring night came two days after Christmas, when he put the team on his back by dropping 39 in an overtime win over the Nuggets.

After Butler’s huge night, Thibodeau opened his press conference by saying, “I hope everyone realizes how special he is.” It seems Thibodeau loves having Butler back on his side. And why wouldn’t he? Butler is one of the rare five-tool NBA players—he scores inside, scores outside, passes, defends, and rebounds. But he won’t win MVP. LeBron exists. So does Giannis Antetokounmpo. Point guards posting big numbers like Harden, Westbrook, and Stephen Curry will hog the spotlight. But the mere thought of Butler possibly receiving fourth- or fifth-place votes reopens the discussion about the definition of “Most Valuable Player.”

When fans and media were debating Westbrook versus Harden last season, most executives I spoke with thought that James was the rightful MVP. One exec called LeBron the 10-year MVP, because he should’ve won it every season. Others complained that fans and media get too obsessed with numbers. Another exec said LeBron was the real MVP because of his intangibles, like how he leads off the court, during cross-country flights and late-night dinners that he organizes, as much as he does on the court. I agree with the executive’s line of thinking; Thibodeau seems to as well. “The challenge of being a great player in this league,” Thibodeau said this month, “is also to bring the best out of your teammates.”

Butler has done that all season. Hidden in the highlight video of his 39-point game is a late-overtime assist that shows just how versatile Butler is. After he scored 11 straight points, Denver doubled him late in the clock. So he fired a cross-court pass that put Jamal Crawford in position to score a clutch bucket.

Crawford put it like this: “Great players make everybody better, and we saw that tonight with Jim.” Simple, but true. Even after wins, Butler will say in his postgame interviews that the team’s defense still needs to be better. And he completely backs it up. He communicates. He leads. He hustles.

Butler was becoming the alpha with his combination of scoring, passing, defending, and leading. But the team was disconnected on defense early in the season. They won, but it was ugly. Minnesota’s defense ranked 25th on the morning of December 6. Since then, it ranks fifth.

The Wolves have one of the NBA’s older rosters, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are still just 22 years old. Minnesota’s youth—and lack of depth—is one of the reasons it was bad last season, Thibodeau’s first there. But the example set by Butler and Taj Gibson—upon whom Thibdeau typically heaps praise—has helped Towns, who was a defensive eyesore early in the season. Increased aggression and better effort and focus have led to a leap on that end. His effort busting through screens is Butleresque:

Towns has done a far-superior job of containing pick-and-roll coverages, and his efforts have rippled through the rest of the defense. Wiggins is still massively frustrating. With his inefficient scoring, subpar shooting, and nonexistent passing and rebounding, Wiggins will soon replace Jeff Green as The Player Who Isn’t As Good As He Should Be. Lately Wiggins has had some strong defensive moments, and has seen an uptick in his defensive rebounding, but too often his effort runs on empty.

Overall, there’s so much to feel good about. The defense has been much better. Their fifth-ranked offense is still rolling. Butler is totally balling. The Wolves are in fourth in the West. And yet, Minnesota’s season has been called “joyless” and “a slog.” Browse any Timberwolves forum and you’ll find complaints about how the team plays at a snail’s pace, or how it takes the third-highest share of midrange jumpers, or how the starters still play too many minutes. I also—too harshly (sorry!)—ripped Thibodeau for his rotations. Even after a thrilling December 3 victory against the Clippers, Butler said, “A win’s a win. But I want to play some defense one of these days.” Making the playoffs doesn’t feel like it’s enough for this team, even though it’s on the verge of breaking a 13-year playoff drought.

It shouldn’t be enough. While breaking back into the postseason is a reasonable short-term goal, long-term expectations should be sky-high. Butler is an elite player. Towns is already a dominant offensive force. Wiggins has shown occasional flashes of greatness. But they’re not quite title contenders yet. In addition to Wiggins’s inconsistency—both on defense and in terms of his shooting—the bench also needs to get better. Exec Thibs has made it hard on Coach Thibs. The minutes for Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are trending downward since Christmas but not by much (they’ve each seen their playing time drop by less than one minute per game); overall, the Big Three average more than 35 a night. In other words, of the 18 players averaging that many minutes this season, three are Wolves. You can understand that Coach Thibs wants to play the guys he thinks give him the best chance to win, but if that is indeed the case, then Exec Thibs needs to step in.

The future also gets a bit thorny. Salary-cap challenges are coming soon, as detailed by ESPN’s Nick Friedell. The Wolves won’t have much space this summer under the projected luxury tax line of $123 million to improve their shallow depth. Looking ahead, Towns will likely require the max (either via a rookie extension before the 2018-19 season or by matching a restricted-free-agent offer sheet in the summer of 2019), and Butler can choose to hit unrestricted free agency in 2019 by declining an option worth $19.8 million. That’s a big commitment to three players, one that will create luxury-tax complications for the small-market franchise. But that’s fine if Butler, who will be 30 in 2019, still produces at a high level after averaging the most minutes per game in the league over the past five seasons, and if Wiggins can prove to be worth more than a midrange chucker who only teases his upside.

It isn’t inconceivable that Butler could develop a wandering eye if Wiggins or the overall depth doesn’t get better. Minnesota will be able to offer Butler far more financially than any other team, but as we’ve seen recently with Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, proving that your team can compete at an elite level matters.

The Wolves are on the right track. Their early-season chemistry concerns have disappeared, and their fragile defense is now locking down. Towns is making a leap. Butler is doing it all. A sense of uncertainty looms for these young Wolves, but their collective potential, much like their leader, roars.