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Will the Wolves Finally Go Dancing?

The loss of Jimmy Butler has put Minnesota’s first playoff bid in 14 years in jeopardy, but it has also given the team a chance to see what its young core is made of

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It seemed unfathomable as recently as last month that the Timberwolves would be in danger of missing out on the playoffs for a 14th straight season. But the team has sputtered since Jimmy Butler suffered a noncontact injury to the meniscus in his right knee February 23. After losing four of seven games since the All-Star break, Minnesota is now just a game and a half up on the three teams slotted 8 to 10. Even the team’s best in more than a decade might not be good enough to make the playoff field.

But the Wolves’ win Sunday over a Warriors team without Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala revealed the template for how they can produce with or without their do-it-all star. Led by veteran power forward Taj Gibson, the Wolves grinded all game on defense. Andrew Wiggins guarded Klay Thompson well and, for the most part, took quality shots. Most importantly: Karl-Anthony Towns was force-fed the number of touches he warrants as one of the game’s best scorers.

Butler is Minnesota’s leading scorer (22.2 points per game) and a vital playmaker, and he defended the opponent’s best player for 37 minutes a night. A collective effort is required to make up for his loss. As Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said last week, “It’s a good time to get more out of everybody. … You can’t replace what Jimmy does. But as a team, we can.”

Here’s a look at how the Timberwolves have evolved during Butler’s absence and what they need to do to ensure they clinch that long-coveted playoff berth:

Wiggins Turns Up

“Guys are looking for me to score and create for them, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” Wiggins said recently. “I see the ball a lot more, I’ve got to be more aggressive, make decisions.” Wiggins has turned up the intensity on offense in six games since Butler went down; he’s taking 2.3 more shots per 100 possessions and his usage has increased from 23.2 to 26.4, per The Wolves need to make up for Butler’s scoring, and Wiggins can attack from a wide variety of spots on the floor.

Over the past six games, Wiggins is averaging 21.5 points with 53.8 true shooting and 51.4 effective field goal percentages (up from 17.6, 50.5, and 48.2 before Butler’s injury). Thibs frequently says, “Play to your strengths and cover your weaknesses,” and the Wolves are doing that by featuring Wiggins in the post, where he’s excelled since entering the NBA as the no. 1 overall pick in 2014.

The Wolves finished 17.7 percent of their possessions with isolations or post-ups prior to Butler’s injury; that number has increased to 21 percent since, largely because the team is going to Wiggins more often. Wiggins has responded not only with his scoring, but by also showing off his improved passing.

Wiggins’s impact as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll remains minimal, and he still goes after rebounds less enthusiastically than you’d hope for a super-athlete. But he’s at his best when he’s picking his spots offensively and focusing his energy on playing consistent defense. Without Butler, the team has no other option to lock down wing players, and Wiggins did a heck of a job containing Thompson. Wiggins fought through screens, stayed focused off the ball, and denied passing lanes. “Jimmy is one of the best, if not the best, two-way player[s] in the league,” Towns told NBA TV after Sunday’s win. “Andrew has been just fantastic doing everything we need him to do to have a chance to win.”

Wiggins is frustrating and expensive (he signed a five-year, $146.5 million max extension that’ll kick in next season), but the flashes are encouraging. He just needs to cut out the fat—like his bad habit of hijacking possessions by hoisting contested jumpers early in the clock.

Replace these abhorrent jumpers with ball movement or a drive and his solid games could turn into good games, and then the good ones could eventually be great. Wiggins attempts 47 percent of his shots from midrange (near the top of the league for his position), per Cleaning the Glass, so change won’t happen overnight. But he’s only 23, and he’s shown too many signs for us to sour on him. “It’s in him. I see it. I know he sees it,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “And I want more. I want more aggressiveness. I want him to keep attacking.”

Go-to Towns

After DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles on January 26, it took only a week for Anthony Davis to realize he had to be in Monster Mode for the Pelicans to have any chance of making the playoffs. Then they rattled off 10 straight wins.

Prior to Sunday’s game, it seemed like the Wolves had forgotten what they had in their other All-Star. Towns’s role on offense barely shifted, while Wiggins, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford were all seeing more shots and touches. That’s despite the fact that Towns significantly out-ranks those players in three critical scoring metrics.

Where the Buckets Are Coming From Without Jimmy

Player / Rank TS% eFG% PPP
Player / Rank TS% eFG% PPP
Towns 4 7 3
Wiggins 130 121 113
Teague 81 102 115
Crawford 121 117 97

Wiggins’s progress is encouraging, but Towns should be carrying the load. He’s one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers, yet he’s averaging only 15.2 shots per game since Butler’s injury. (Also maddening: He averaged just 13.6 shots before Butler went down.) As of Sunday morning, Towns averaged 17.7 touches per game from the elbow, post, and paint before Butler’s injury, according to Second Spectrum, and has averaged only 18 per game since. That’s a minuscule increase. Of the 30 centers with more than 1,200 frontcourt touches, Towns ranks second in points per paint touch (right behind Davis), third in points per post touch (ahead of Joel Embiid), and seventh in points per elbow touch (far better than Marc Gasol). Towns also shoots 41.4 percent from 3. What all that data means is what you already know: Towns can score at a high level from every spot on the floor against any defender.

It’s not as if Towns can’t handle a heavy workload. The 7-footer averaged 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds over the final 35 games of his rookie season. Then he posted a virtually identical stat line through the first 41 games of his sophomore season before finding another gear over the second half, putting up 28.4 points and 12.7 rebounds. Over the latter stretch, Towns was averaging 18.9 shots per game, which is exactly what he should be doing now. That’s what most superstar scorers do.

You know when you’re playing pickup basketball and one of your friends is a little better and a little taller than all of your other friends? That person in my friend group is named Bryan. When the game was close, we’d get Bryan the ball and tell him to channel his inner Kobe. On Sunday, the Wolves realized Towns is their Bryan. They were feeding him on the block, targeting him on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops, and running out-of-bounds sets for him. Towns is one of the only players in the league who can make Draymond Green look small, and he did that over and over.

“We forced it [to him],” Teague said. “[He’s] one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. We need him to be big down the stretch.” Towns had 24 field goal attempts, tying his second-highest total on the season. This is more like it. Towns can’t wear an invisibility cloak again. As frustrating as it is to watch his teammates not feed him accurate entry passes, it’s also on Towns to do better by demanding the ball and the responsibility of carrying his team, like he did against the Warriors.

Even though Towns frequently operates as a facilitator, there’s nothing stopping him from making decisive reads and deciding to attack. When battling for post positioning, sometimes it looks like Towns is going through the motions, or he doesn’t hold his spot and gets pushed out too far. Last Thursday against the Celtics, potential All-NBA defender Al Horford steered Towns where he wanted him to go.

This didn’t happen Sunday as Towns bulldozed whoever the Warriors threw at him. It’s taxing for a player to battle for every shot, and maybe that’s why the Wolves don’t feed Towns more, knowing it might hurt his defense. But as Thibodeau said Sunday, Butler’s absence means other players have the chance to get experience in a new situation.

“This is an opportunity for [Towns and Wiggins] to lead,” Thibodeau said. “We don’t want leadership to fall on any one person, and that includes when Jimmy is here. We want to have a team of leaders.” Minnesota is tied for the fewest games remaining, so it’ll have time to rest. The team needs to enable and empower Towns as the new alpha, or he needs to seize the opportunity.

Towns can help his cause by leading by example on defense. After being an eyesore defensively to start the season, Towns turned it around in December and became the rangey shot blocker that the team needed. The Wolves were strong on defense for a few weeks, albeit largely against inferior opponents. Towns still sometimes gets lost in coverages:

And other times he misreads the situation:

He can’t give Durant this much space to breathe when Golden State’s lineup featured no other major shooting threats. The correct play would’ve been to force Durant to drive, and trust that the help defense would be there, rather than allow two open pull-up 3s.

Towns is only 22 and can’t be expected to be perfect, but it’s improving on these little things that can make him great.

The Good and Bad of the Role Players

Towns, of course, isn’t totally at fault for Minnesota’s defensive shortcomings. “We have to understand how hard and physical you have to play,” Thibodeau said on Thursday. “That’s the difference right now in us being a really good team and a good team. I looked at them and the physicality with which they play, it’s the difference.”

They got their best team effort on Sunday. Gibson was outstanding; he defended virtually every player on the floor and set a tone with his intensity. If it weren’t for Gibson’s defensive contributions this season, Minnesota might very well be at the bottom of the defensive-rating barrel.

The rest of the roster should take note. Teague can’t keep letting ball handlers go by so he can swipe for a steal. Derrick Rose, who signed a deal on Thursday for the rest of the season, was horrific in his short stint against the Warriors and has no business playing over Tyus Jones, whose gritty effort makes him Minnesota’s best guard defender.

Meanwhile, the team has been fine offensively in Butler’s absence, posting a 110.3 offensive rating in the past six games. Teague and Crawford have also seen an uptick in touches. Jones is still rock solid as a playmaker. Nemanja Bjelica has seen his minutes and field goal attempts more than double (15.7 to 37.7 and 4.4 to 10, respectively). Bjelica’s shooting prowess gets a lot of love (43.9 percent from 3), but his defending, passing, and rebounding have been just as much of a delight.

The best teams receive contributions from players up and down the roster, which is what the Wolves must aspire to now that Butler is out indefinitely. Their schedule this week is difficult (they play against the Wizards, Spurs, and Rockets), but it lightens up from there (five of their last 11 games are against tanking teams).

The Wolves must show they have enough to finally end the franchise’s long playoff drought. They might be going through growing pains without Butler, but this team is too good on paper to be holding on by a thread.