October & November: Jimmy Butler Defers
The 2017-18 Wolves tipped off the season confronting playoff expectations for the first time in over a decade. After trading for Jimmy Butler on draft night, the rest of the team anticipated fitting around one of the league’s most brute high-volume scorers; a player who whose 4.3 points on average in clutch-time situations - defined as a game within five points with less than five minutes to play - was third in the NBA last season.
To start the year, Butler did bare great responsibility within the game plan, but it was with a different style than the one that made him an All-Star in Chicago. Instead of waring opposing defenses down with his incessant ability to get to the rim, he chose to divert attention and defer to his talented, young wing-men: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Through the first month and a half of the season, Butler averaged just 17.5 points per game, a far cry from the 23.9 he posted in 2016-17. His 22.3% usage rate was more than four percentage points below what he saw last year. And during the same timeframe, both Towns and Wiggins scored more points on more opportunities than Butler. He chose to curry favor amongst his new teammates by demonstrating what an unselfish player he can be.
It seemed to pay off. Not only did Butler penetrate the good graces of his new squad, the Wolves managed to win games. They were 13-9 through the end of November, including two highlight victories against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a statement win over the San Antonio Spurs. In those three wins, Butler averaged just 15 points and six assists while Towns piled up almost 29 points and 16 rebounds. Even Wiggins bested Butler with over 17 points per game in those matchups.
When pressed on whether getting his teammates involved would be the best way to win early in the season, Butler remarked that “If Wigs is open I’m gonna throw him the ball, if KAT’s open I’m gonna throw him the ball, if Taj open I’m gonna try to look him off, throw it to KAT or Wigs.” In one sentence Butler demonstrates both the charm and the basketball IQ that helped him integrate with a new team.
The transition into a new season also saw a number of other key Wolves both struggle and flourish. While Gorgui Dieng had a difficult time adjusting to his new role coming off of the bench, Jeff Teague played his best basketball so far this season. Teague averaged 14 points and 7.5 assists on over 40% shooting from three-point land, taking advantage of a bevy of new, talented running mates. And through this point, Nemanja Bjelica led the NBA in true shooting percentage.
Finishing this stretch 6-2 in games decided by six points or fewer, clutch victories carried the Wolves to a respectable record as they integrated three new starters.
And they wouldn’t have to wait to embrace the totality of Butler’s brilliance.
“I’m going back to putting the ball in the basket. I like to put the ball in the basket.”— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) November 14, 2017
- Jimmy Butler pic.twitter.com/IgN1TT9bmp
December: KAT Plays Defense
He wasn’t joking. In the ensuing month, Butler increased his scoring by an inspiring nine points per game. Not only that, he also saw a bump in both efficiency and assists, all the while starting to take over games in the fourth quarter and make his MVP case to the rest of the league.
After starting 1-2, the Wolves took advantage of a 9-3 stretch to double up their losses and finish the month 10-5. They tallied the league’s third best offensive (112.7) and net (4.9) ratings over the stretch. Both marks remain their finest of a single month this season.
But the reason December saw the Wolves elevate their game was not as simple as Butler’s improved scoring prowess; It seemed Towns learned how to play defense.
During the first month of the season, Towns was an easy target for his seemingly constant defensive lapses. Had you asked most around the league whether he deserved to be an All-Star on December first, the answer would have been a resounding no. While his offense has been brilliant for the entirety of the season, it was his deficiencies as a back-line of defense that kept the Wolves from truly breaking out.
As the calendar year ended, a dominating five game win streak demonstrated that Towns’ ability to impact the game on that end will be the difference maker in what this team is capable of achieving. After ranking 66th of 78 qualified centers with a 109.5 defensive rating through November 30th, Towns found himself 26th of 72 such players in December with a defensive rating of 104.5 – and they looked like a completely different team as a result.
While putting together his best month of the year protecting the paint, Towns led the Wolves through a stretch in which they could reputably be spoken of with the league’s elite. He was the best big man in the NBA, and it reminded us why General Manager’s chose him as the player they’d prefer to start their franchise with before the season.
“I think part of it is experience. The more you do it,” coach Thibodeau explained when asked about Towns’ improved defense after a game in early January. “He’s got a lot of pride and works at it. Now he’s been around for a while. I think for our team to make another jump we’re going to have to be better defensively. We’re headed in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, Wiggins hit a scoring slump that has persisted on and off, Bjelica suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss 11 games, and Jamal Crawford saw a bump in minutes after remarking that he expected to play more.
January: Schedule gets Tough, Team gets Tough
When the NBA’s schedule was released before the season, we expected January to be the Wolves’ toughest test. Not only were they slated to play 17 games over 31 days in 10 cities, 12 of their opponents figured to finish the regular season with a playoff spot. They also faced three back-to-backs and nine road games, five of which would come against dreaded Eastern Conference foes.
But the Wolves seemed up for the challenge. Despite dropping a number of winnable matchups against teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, and Atlanta Hawks, they finished the month with a winning record. It was highlighted by a perfect 5-0 home stand in which they won each game by an average of 17.8 points.
Towns and Butler bolstered their all-star cases scoring with over 60% true shooting, and Wiggins showed glimpses of his former self.
The crown jewel of January, though, was Tyus Jones. After Teague went down with a frightening knee injury during one of the last games of December, Jones took his spot in the starting lineup. He made the most of the opportunity leading the Wolves to a 4-3 record while racking up over seven points, four assists and two rebounds per contest. A local favorite since he was just a teenager, Jones endeared himself to players and fans with his fast-paced, selfless play style.
February: A Mid-Season Lull
As it sits, the Wolves’ 61 games played is the most in the NBA, up to five more than their competitors. An 82 game season is grueling as is, so to hit the floor almost 10% more times than another team through four months is a real disadvantage; one the Wolves will enjoy the flip side of for the remainder of the regular season.
Such an enduring schedule will take its toll, and it began to show through the first seven games of February. After starting the month with two convincing wins over playoff caliber teams in the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans, the Wolves suffered a pair of heartbreaking losses in Cleveland and Chicago. Then, two narrow victories over the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers sandwiched a defeat to the Houston Rockets, and the Wolves seemed in dire need of a break.
While Butler and Towns have combined for almost 50 points per contest, Wiggins struggles have gained steam and the team’s defense hit a snag.
Entering the break, the Wolves sit at 36-25 – tied for third place in a crowded Western Conference.
Following the team’s penultimate game before All-Star weekend, a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, veteran Jamal Crawford was asked about having some time off and the team’s performance thus far this season: “I think we’ll recharge some. I think if you would have told us coming into the season at All-Star break [we’d] be third in the West, we would have signed up for it. And there’s still a lot of work to be done and we can still get better so we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Crawford’s positivity rings sincere. And while it can be convenient and constructive to point to frustrating aspects of their performance such as continued defensive struggles into Thibodeau’s second season, a sluggishly effective offensive game plan, and a seemingly never ending cycle of inconsistent point guard play, I often remind myself of an old saying: beggars can’t be choosers.
After stringing together five consecutive winning months, the Wolves are tied with the San Antonio Spurs more than three-fourths the way through an NBA season. Andrew Wiggins hit a near half court buzzer beater to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jimmy Butler went ballistic in the fourth quarter and overtime to beat the Nuggets in Denver, Tyus Jones got his revenge on LeBron James, they toppled both the Spurs and the Cavaliers for the first time in the Wiggins/Towns era, they were represented by two players in Sunday’s All-Star game for the first time since 2003-04, and I didn’t mention free agent acquisition Taj Gibson one time because he has yet to have a bad game.
At long last, the Wolves are back.