Jimmy Butler has loomed over the Timberwolves like a dream catcher, delivering the Wolves’ young stars from evil—and often protecting them from themselves—on not only a nightly basis, but often on a play-by-play basis. The aggressive draft-night move to acquire Butler was Tom Thibodeau’s secure deposit on Thibodeau’s unspoken promise to the franchise to make the postseason for the first time in more than a decade. But the webbing on Minnesota’s dream catcher has started to come undone, and it’s unclear if the team is ready for the uphill battle ahead of it without its safeguard.
According to Yahoo Sports, Butler was diagnosed with a torn right meniscus on Saturday after an apparent noncontact injury suffered in the third quarter of Friday’s loss to the Rockets. He has opted for surgery, and reports estimate a recovery time of four to six weeks, though the team says an update will be made after the procedure. An optimist would sigh in relief. Losing Butler for around one month isn’t a death knell for the team, and his injury isn’t an ACL tear, as some initially feared; that would have guaranteed Butler’s absence for the rest of the season and playoffs. But there is still a lot we don’t know: whether it was the lateral meniscus or the medial meniscus that was torn, and where precisely in the layer of cartilage the tear occurred. It’s a capricious injury with not only a wide spectrum of recovery periods, but also a tendency to linger. Those factors will determine just how dire Minnesota’s situation will be moving forward.
By now, you’ve likely seen how advanced metrics have painted the Butler injury as near apocalyptic for Minnesota in this final-quarter stretch of the season. Butler has the largest on-court/off-court net rating differential among all All-Stars this season: The Wolves outscore their opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and are outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s off it. He is only behind the backcourt duo of James Harden and Chris Paul in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, a variant of adjusted plus-minus that measures the individual impact of a player on the court. Without Butler, the Wolves play at the capacity of the lottery-bound iterations of the team we’ve seen since the end of the Kevin Garnett era. That is not ideal for a no. 4 seed only three games out of dropping all the way to ninth in the West.
Thibodeau’s near-fixed rotation patterns have made it almost impossible to gauge just how much development we’ve actually seen out of their young core of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Neither player has played even a quarter of his total minutes on the season without Butler alongside him. It’s clear who will be tasked with ramping up his workload: In the Wolves’ quasi-superteam structure, Towns has become a paragon of efficiency, ranking fifth in the entire NBA in true shooting percentage, behind the greatest shooter in NBA history (Steph Curry) and two centers who almost exclusively score within three feet of the rim (Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan). Towns finds himself somewhere between those two extremes—60.5 percent of his field goal attempts occur around the rim or behind the 3-point line. In the 25 games before Saturday’s matchup with Chicago, Towns is averaging 20 points, with a miraculous 56-46-91 shooting split. The third-year center is currently averaging a career low in field goal attempts per 36 minutes (14), though it wouldn’t be a shock to see him average 20 attempts per game as long as Butler is out.
The Wolves will have to live with Towns’s inevitable lapses on defense during what should be a massive surge in offensive usage, but the team isn’t constructed to compromise on the wings. Butler was the team’s primary on-ball defender, its main communicator, and its best help defender. Now, unfairly, that designation will likely fall on his partner on the wings. Wiggins will be asked to assume the Butler role. The fourth-year player has yet to produce the kind of impact you’d expect from someone who signed a $146.5 million extension in October, but he doesn’t really have a choice now. Their current lot of Butler stand-ins is depressing. Shabazz Muhammad and Marcus Georges-Hunt are two strong, bully-ball wings who at the very least have the body type to approximate the amount of space Butler takes up on the floor, but that’s exactly where the similarities end. In the interim, Thibs might elect to give a washed-up Tony Allen a call, or wait it out until the postseason eligibility deadline for buyouts on March 1, which could potentially include 3-and-D wings like Wesley Matthews, Vince Carter, Arron Afflalo, or former Timberwolf Corey Brewer.
It’s Thibs’s decision, though his decision-making has increasingly been called into question through the past few years. Thibs’s starters consistently play more minutes than any other team in the league; Butler, for instance, has been in the top five in minutes per game in each of the past five seasons (including two under Fred Hoiberg’s watch). The Thibodeauan principle of riding your star players as far as they’ll go runs contrary to contemporary practices. That clash has magnified the degree to which we notice Thibs’s substitution patterns (or lack thereof). In turn, it makes the separation of correlation and causation harder to accept when considering Butler’s injury. Meniscus tears are commonly a result of degeneration—the gradual wearing away of the cartilage that keeps the bones from rubbing up on one another. It’s hard not to read into that.
Thibodeau has a specific type of player he likes to coach: hard-nosed, no-nonsense, no-quit (also diminutive one-dimensional scorers, but that’s neither here nor there). Butler might as well be his Vitruvian Man. But their relationship can almost come off like a Shakespearean tragedy: They belong together, but the ways in which they enable each other’s worst impulses can turn toxic. Butler now-famously cited the need for rest when asked about his controversial decision to sit out the 2018 All-Star Game completely. Last month, Butler sat out four games because of right knee soreness—the same knee he injured. When Thibodeau was asked in January if Butler had undergone an MRI, Thibs demurred: “He might have.”
Butler’s recovery estimate being only four to six weeks is incredible news for the Wolves and for NBA fans at large. Still, it’s at least worth wondering if the team has a more systemic issue it needs to address in order to maintain its long-term trajectory. For at least a month, the Wolves will once again be the Young Pups navigating an increasingly harsh environment out West. They’ll want their safety net back as soon as possible. The worry going forward is how quickly Thibodeau and the Wolves might fall into old habits once Butler returns.