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Monday Musings: The Value of Stars

Jimmy Butler has changed the landscape of the Wolves’ future

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls - Game Six Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There is a fair argument to be made that the Jimmy Butler trade was the most second most important move in the entire NBA over the last two years. Kevin Durant heading to the Warriors was the first, but Butler, in this context, may be more impactful than Paul George going to the Thunder, Chris Paul heading to the Rockets, or Gordon Hayward to the Celtics.

This idea is based upon a recent article from 538 written by Nate Silver, where he was trying to ask the question, “how much talent do you need to win a championship in the NBA?”

To briefly summarize his approach, he used 538’s “Consensus Plus Minus” or CPM, which is an amalgamation of BPM, RPM, PER, and Player Win Shares. Essentially, it boils down to if a player has a CPM of 2.5, then he helps his team outscore the opponents (on both ends of the court) by 2.5 points.

Silver then breaks down NBA teams that have won champions by their star players, who are either “Alphas,” “Betas,” or “Gammas.” Alphas are the legit MVP candidates, the Betas are usually perennial all-stars, and the Gammas are players who are usually top 20-30 players in the NBA, such a Klay Thompson.

The Alphas have a CPM of 6.0 or higher, the Betas are between 3.5 and 6.0, and the Gammas are between 2.0 and 3.5.

There are 35 players in the NBA who project to be in these groupings next year.

To make it simpler, Silver then allocates “star points” (there really must be some overlap between NBA analytics language and those who are into role-playing video games) to the Alphas - 3, Betas - 2, and Gammas - 1.

Looking at teams who have won the finals, from 1985 onwards, in this way shows that teams that have 7, 8, or more star points have about a 30 percent chance to win the finals. Teams with 6 star points have a 14 percent chance and 4 star points have a 2 percent chance.

For one, this shows just how important it is to have the best players in the NBA in order to win championships. There just isn’t any other way to win. Now, how best to acquire those few players is a question of debate, as well as what inspired the 76ers’ tankathon.

This is really interesting for the Wolves though. As there are two Timberwolves players who are lumped into those top 35 rankings, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Butler has a CPM of 5.5, just below the Alpha rating, and is the 2nd highest rated Beta. Towns is at 4.1, right in the heart of the Beta pool.

That gives the Wolves 4 star points, with about a 2 percent to win the championship, which seems about right.

If the Wolves had signed Kyle Lowry (3.7 CPM) or Paul Millsap (2.6 CPM), they could have had 6 or 5 star points, which would have intuitively increased their real contention ability quite considerably. However, this current team should certainly be competing for the playoffs with Towns and Butler.

So why is it such a big deal that the Wolves signed Butler? Other than Kevin Durant going to the Warriors, the other big moves are Paul George to the Thunder, Hayward to the Celtics, and Chris Paul to the Rockets. That’s an additional 2 star points for the Rockets (going from 3 to 5), 2 for the Celtics (going from 1 to 3), and 1 for the Thunder (going from 3 to 4). It moves the needle, but these transactions are much less long-term than the Wolves acquisition of Butler. Over the next few seasons, Paul can always leave, not to mention he is getting older, George and Westbrook can very easily separate, and the Celtics are going to have a hard time bringing anyone else on board and will be relying on their draft picks to make the leap into this pool.

Butler and Towns are likely here to stay. Of course, Butler can always leave in a few years, but one would think his long-term relationship with Tom Thibodeau gives the Wolves a major advantage in retaining him.

This means that the Wolves have two of the projected best 12 players in the NBA under contract for several years to come. If Towns continues on his charted path, he can certainly vault into that discussion of being a top-six NBA player, a real MVP candidate. Butler is probably going to be just outside that discussion, but the pairing of an MVP candidate and an almost MVP candidate is already enough to get you to 5 star points, so about a 10 percent chance to win the Championship.

The wild card in this is the player who has been notably absent from this discussion, Andrew Wiggins. He, unsurprisingly, does not grade out too well by his metric, in the same way that every advanced statistic does not portray Wiggins too well.

538’s CARMELO projections anticipate Wiggins taking a big leap next year (although the projections showed the same last year), but his CPM numbers never really rise above 0.3, which is not good enough for Gamma ranking. The Wolves will need him to live up to his potential if they are truly going to be good enough to win a championship. Wiggins will, most likely, have to be a top-30 player in the NBA.

But this offseason was a coup for the Wolves. Acquiring a top ten player in the NBA to pair with young player of the caliber of Karl-Anthony Towns is extraordinarily rare. The Wolves have turned a young core whose potential was always uncertain into a team that should be having a real shot to compete for championships.