For Timberwolves fans, nothing could have felt worse than seeing All-Star guard Jimmy Butler be carried off the floor by teammates Friday night. He is their guy; their superstar, their best player, and as SI put it this Summer, their answer to the Warriors.
Now a torn meniscus could completely derail that chance to face the Warriors.
Somehow, it also could have been so much worse. An ACL not only would have knocked him for the rest of this season, but the start of the 2018-2019 season would have been no guarantee either.
Butler is slated to come back in 4-6 weeks. So essentially, he’ll be back for the Playoffs. But does that really matter?
Currently the Timberwolves are in the 3rd seed out West. They’re keeping up with their projection; a 50 win-ish team landing somewhere between the third and six seeds.
They’re stunningly 3rd in offensive efficiency, a feat that I certainly didn’t expect. That’s what a superstar like Butler gets you. He’d been putting up 22.2 points a game with five assists and 5.4 rebounds, plus two steals and a 47.3% clip from the field. Also, he gets buckets when they matter.
The defense as a whole has been an issue, but that wasn’t surprising. What did you think would happen when you’re running out Karl-Anthony Towns (OK, he’s been better lately), Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague on the other end? The metrics disagree (We still have no good defensive stats for basketball), but the Wolves haven’t been able to rely solely on Butler and Taj Gibson defensively. Since they don’t have the best personnel for switching (KAT’s lacking lateral quickness has been the biggest reason why they can’t… it’s not necessarily all an effort thing with him on that end), a help scheme gets burned with Wiggins and Teague goofing off.
To give the Wolves credit, their schedule has been brutal this season. Some metrics have it ranked 5th toughest in the league.
It doesn’t get any easier the rest of the way. Minnesota has Golden State, Houston, Boston and San Antonio (Who could have Kawhi Leonard back then) left, plus a couple other tough matchups (Washington, Philly, and Portland tonight).
As we’re seeing with Oklahoma City, a bad, sub .500 stretch in the West can be costly. The Thunder have plummeted to the 7th seed after bad losses and as their stars go through horrid shooting slumps. Perhaps this is just catching back up to the mean after an eight game win streak that got everyone fired up about their playoff hopes, though.
Still, Minnesota has to avoid a stretch like that. This isn’t a Finals team; it wasn’t and never has been; the problems they’re having now were evident enough in the beginning of the year to hold back those aspirations.
The biggest reason why the Wolves have to stay afloat is because of the peculiar matchups they face in the first round of the playoffs. A series vs. OKC should go nine games simply because of each team’s inconsistency, but the star power of OKC along with their defensive switch they can flip should power them through if that’s the scenario. San Antonio is scary enough without Kawhi; who knows what Pop will be able to pull possibly without him. But with Kawhi?? Forget about it. Portland has become one of my favorite teams this season. They’re also inconsistent, but CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard love the Playoffs, and the Blazers are sneakily 10th in defensive rating. Minnesota should probably be able to beat them, but I wouldn’t want to test it (Hot take: It won’t happen, but Portland vs. Golden State could be a long, intense and even scary series).
New Orleans has stayed afloat without DeMarcus Cousins (They’re gonna get spanked by whoever the play in the first round though). Minnesota has to stay out of their way. The Pelicans are up to 5th (!!!!) in the standings, leaping OKC. New Orleans just doesn’t deserve anything higher than 7th, or maybe even 9th for that matter (Sorry, that was mean… I’d just rather see Donavan Mitchell!)
Put it this way: Minnesota falling to 7th or 8th is a death sentence. The first round is gonna be hard enough depending on the matchup. Golden State and Houston are unbeatable for the Wolves.
The problem is that the odds of it happening are a little too high.
In the first half of their game against Sacramento Monday night, Minnesota went back and forth with one of the worst teams in the league. Sacramento is terrible. Yet the Wolves got no stops, and it was a three point game at halftime.
They pulled away, as they should have. It could have just been Warriors-syndrome first half, where effort was low against a bad team. But unlike Golden State, games matter for Minnesota now. They can’t afford to lose or fall behind. A poor first half may not matter against Sacramento, a young team that doesn’t know how to win at the end yet, but against Boston, Houston and Washington, it will. They’ll capitalize on the slow starts.
Minnesota’s offense was already very isolation heavy before Butler’s injury. Now, they’re relying on Jeff Teague to play more pass first instead of trying to draw fouls on ridiculous three point attempts (He, like this team as a whole, has been better lately). Andrew Wiggins also has to step up. He’s been a little more consistent lately, shooting 47.1% in the last 10 games. But the three point percentage is down (30.8%) and there’s still those ugly, 3-10 from the field-like games that happen just a little too often.
KAT’s been a monster all season, putting up 20.2 PPG and 12.2 RPG while shooting 41.3% on threes. Feeding him and limiting ISO scenarios is probably the way to go; more Tyus Jones minutes helps to move the ball around as well.
Against Sacramento, Minnesota threw out a lineup that included KAT, Gorgui Dieng and Nenjma Belicia. That was… big for me. Sure, Belly gives them some of the shooting they’ll miss with Butler out, but offenses can throw those guys in the pick and roll and destroy them.
Butler unlocks a lot for the Wolves. He’s crunch-time scorer, their leading scorer, their defensive stopper and their alpha-dog. That’s a lot of responsibilities, and Minnesota doesn’t really have anyone there to fill all of it. A rough stretch, especially considering the schedule, is likely, and it couldn’t come at the worst time.