By: Jonah Sprinkel
Last night marks one of most positive and impactful moments in Minnesota Timberwolves history. All Wolves fans are familiar with the selection of Karl-Anthony Towns at #1 in 2015. Then there's the infamous Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins trade in 2014 (and Anthony Bennett, but I'm going to pretend that didn't happen). Moving further into the past we find Garnett hoisting the league MVP trophy in 2004 . Even prior to that is the drafting of Garnett himself in 1995. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the dark period between Kevin Garnett's exit and the true arrival of a new era in Towns and Wiggins.
There are a few of you asking the question, "What about the Kevin Love era? Wasn’t there at least one bright spot?" To those people I must ask you this, ‘Do you really consider any of that to be a positive experience?’ I certainly don't. In retrospect, the Wolves only accomplishment was selling false hope to a fan base rabid for a decent basketball team. Up to this point, that's all the Towns and Wiggins era has been. Empty predictions. False hope. Promises of tomorrow. Each season, the Wolves have arrived in June and everyone around the team has felt that there is hope. That, maybe, if things go just right, the Wolves will be a competitive group. Tonight, those hopes, dreams, aspirations, whatever you want to call them, seem to have been replaced with a likelihood.
Ladies and Gentlemen. For the first time as a Timberwolf, I present to you, All-NBA shooting guard and Olympian, Jimmy Butler. The former Golden Eagle brings two key things that the Timberwolves have lacked for quite some time. First, and this probably goes without saying, Butler is a top-flight defender as evidenced by being selected to the All-Defensive 2nd Team three years in a row. He is constantly tasked with matching up with the best offensive guard or wing player on the opposing team. Secondly, Butler brings success, having been to the playoffs in four of his last five years.
This trade has been a year in the making. During the 2016 NBA Draft I sat in the lower bowl at Target Center during the Draft Party, constantly refreshing Twitter, hoping to see a trade announcement connecting Butler to the Wolves. It never came to pass and I moved on. Remember, Tom Thibodeau was new to his President of Basketball Operations role. It’s possible Thibs felt he could not accurately apply value to his own players without seeing them perform in person. It also seems very likely that Thibs was head over heels in love with then prospect, Kris Dunn. Whatever the reason, the Wolves moved forward into their 2016-17 season without the services of Jimmy Butler.
Last night, Tom Thibodeau made a move that takes not only guts, but also shrewd bargaining skills. Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the 7th overall pick became Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick. Before last night, I had little faith in Thibs ability to simultaneously turn around both the on-court production and the front office. Keep in mind, those are two separate jobs and Thibs is doing both. The most successful teams in the league, Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Boston have both a head coach and a front office leader. This is extremely common in the NBA. Scarcity is a word I would use to describe the kind of unique power Thibs currently holds. That being said, the execution of this trade gives me good reason to believe that Thibs will be successful as a front office leader. Whether or not he can effectively coach up this roster into a winning squad remains to be seen.
There is only one way to view this trade in the eyes of an armchair GM. It is a win now move. Butler is one of the best two-way players in the league right now and in turn this will dramatically impact the Wolves playoff odds. For argument’s sake let’s take the Win Shares statistics as truth. If that is the case Butler would have added 10.7 wins to this Wolves team. This number is found by taking Butler’s win shares from last season (13.8) minus both Dunn (0.1) and LaVine’s (3.0) win shares. In this hypothetical scenario, the Wolves would’ve ended the 2016-17 season at 41-41, tied for 8th in the Western Conference with the Portland Trailblazers.
Of course, numbers can be thrown around all day long but none of this will be confirmed until the new look Timberwolves hit the court. This is where I find a little bit of a hiccup in the Butler move. Before the trade, this team seemed to be forming an identity with each of the “Big 3” seemingly growing into their roles. Wiggins was being groomed to be a closer and defensive. KAT was becoming the un-guardable, hopefully do it all franchise superstar. LaVine was the mammoth sized spark plug capable of getting hot at a moments notice. The arrival of Butler and the exit of LaVine seem to signal a change in these roles.
Since 2014-15, Butler has been the number one option in Chicago when he burst onto the scene by winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Over the course of the last three seasons Butler’s usage percentage has risen from 21.6 in 2014-15, to 24.4 in 2015-16 and finally to 26.5 this past season. In comparison Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns posted a usage percentages of 29 and 27.5 during the 2016-17 season. It will be almost impossible for all three guys to maintain the same percentage of touches in the upcoming season.
Having coached Butler his first four years in the league, Thibs likely sees Butler as “his guy”. Butler puts the ball in the basket and most importantly in Thibs mind, he works over other players when playing defense. Butler is an established star, with vital playoff experience, in the very middle of his physical prime. Once you combine these factors it is reasonable to assume that Butler will shoulder many of the “alpha dog” responsibilities.
What does this mean for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? Well, for KAT I’m not sure it means much. He likely should have been an All-NBA center last season based on his offense alone. He will surely continue to improve on both ends of floor, he’s only 21! Karl, if you’re reading this, defense is key my friend. Andrew Wiggins’ role is where we’ll likely find some changes.
When Wiggins was traded to the Wolves many viewed him as a potential franchise savior. While I’m not sure that was ever in play, I do believe Wiggins has the talent and work ethic to become a All-Star level player. Either way, Wiggins was given alpha dog responsibilities from the moment he touched down in Minneapolis.
Two years ago, the arrival of Towns changed this narrative slightly. Wiggins was now seen as a member of a one-two punch duo that would lead the Timberwolves to the promise land. In their first two years together, Wiggins logged the higher usage percentage as both Sam Mitchell and Tom Thibodeau seemed to prefer the ball be in his hands more frequently. With Butler joining the team and KAT emerging as an unstoppable offensive force, the narrative is set to change for Wiggins once again.
It’s very possible that Wiggins becomes the third scoring option and even spends time as the second unit’s primary scorer. On the other end of the floor Wiggins will likely take on a reduced role. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but I cannot stress enough that Butler has both the experience and resume to lock down nearly every point guard, shooting guard and small forward. This will allow Wiggins to not only learn high level defense from a high level defender, but also to put the practices in place without the added pressure of guarding a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook.
Outside of the roles that each of these players have I also must question Butler's fit alongside Andrew Wiggins and with the current roster. During the 2016-17 year the idea that Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine were redundant was tossed around fairly often. It was easy to see why. They were both ball dominant yet explosive offensive players who you could envision leading a team in scoring. However, they were lackadaisical on defense and obviously need time to mature into their bodies. The pair of them favored iso-ball and seemed to lack the ability to create for others. While the reasons aren't the same, I think there might be some skill-set redundancy between Wiggins and Butler.
Andrew Wiggins checks in at 6'8, 199 lbs and a 7'0 wingspan while Butler stands at 6'7, 220 lbs and a 6'8 wingspan. Obviously they are not identical twins but you can see the physical resemblance. This bodes well for the Wolves defense. If Wiggins becomes a capable and reliable individual defender this will allow the Wolves to switch everything between these two. There are very few teams who will have this capability in a wing starved league. The flip side to this comes on the offensive end.
Percentage of Field Goals Attempted tells us where on the court and how frequently a player attempts his shots.
Andrew Wiggins Jimmy Butler
0-3 feet 29.1% 28.2%
3-10 feet 13.1% 12.5%
10-16 feet 13.9% 16.4%
16 feet > 3 point line 25.3% 23.2%
3 pointers 18.4% 19.8%
Wiggins and Butler shoot the same shots, from the same area of the court and nearly identical rates. This can be confirmed by their shot charts from last season. The right side of the court is heavily populated with shot attempts from both players. We're not even to free agency yet, but this raises some concerns. Courtesy of NBAsavant.
Let's put all the worrying and scrutinizing aside for just a moment and recognize what a wonderful and amazing time to be a Timberwolves fan! Without getting too far ahead of myself it seems like the Timberwolves will be relevant again. I have not experienced that feeling since the age of 10. My inner, darker Timberwolves fan continues to tell me that all of this is for naught and something will inevitably derail this season. But after last night I must believe that the odds have finally fallen in the Wolves favor for good. Too much has gone right for the Wolves since the re-arrival of Flip Saunders. The dark days are over! The “basketball gods” have smiled on the Timberwolves.