The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler this summer, and the price they paid seems to be greater now than it did when they made the move — both Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn are looking much more promising than most anticipated. Butler, meanwhile, seemed to be taking a step back through the first part of his tenure with his new team.
Playing alongside up-and-coming stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Butler deferred early on, concerned more with keeping them involved than putting up impressive numbers of his own.
Lately, though, that’s started to change. Butler is finding his way — and his voice as a leader — as he’s making the Timberwolves his own team. As he’s doing that, he has Minnesota playing winning basketball.
And here is what he’s been doing since Dec. 3.
Notice anything different there?
Before Dec. 3, the Wolves were 13-10, with a net rating of plus-0.6. That’s not great, but it’s pretty happy-dance worthy of a team that hasn’t made the postseason since George W. Bush was in his first term. They were essentially slightly above average, which hey, it beats the heck out of being a perennial doormat.
But Butler wanted more, and since he stepped up his game, the Wolves are 9-4 with a plus-4.3 net rating, which is third in the league, per NBA.com. Prior to his taking over, the Wolves were minus-22.9 in clutch situations with Butler on the court. Since then, they’re plus-4.9, in large part because Butler’s usage percentage has gone from 28.5 to 51.8.
His 65 total points in the clutch in that span is the most of any player in the NBA and includes some monumental performances, such as when he scored 12 of the Timberwolves’ overtime points against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 27th.
The Timberwolves are essentially the NBA version of puppies. They’re promising and unbelievably talented, especially if they can ever get the defensive side of the ball figured out. They’ve had guys like Kevin Garnett come in to mentor them before, and that’s certainly helpful.
What they haven’t had is an alpha, in his prime, to be the lead wolf, to scruff the pups when they get out of line and to lead the attack when necessary. It took Butler some time to figure out how to establish his dominance, but he’s now seizing ownership of the team, and the rest of the pack is falling in line.
He does it on the court, and he does it by word and deed. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune describes it:
Without Butler, this team would lack clutch scoring, a defensive stopper and perimeter rebounding.
And leadership, which is difficult to define in many contexts but is obvious when it comes from Butler. He leads by playing hard on both ends and by repeatedly reminding teammates — to their faces, and in interviews — that they aren’t playing hard or well enough.
If swagger was a measurable commodity, Butler would lead the league in it by a mile (sorry, Nick Young; if you can’t back it up, it’s just bravado). He’s overcome a lifetime of being left behind, overlooked, second-guessed and spurned. But he eats that stuff up. It’s what made the last player chosen in the first-round of the 2011 draft arguably a top-10 player in the league today.
Let’s face it. To be a wolf, you have to have swagger. While Butler’s sometimes acerbic nature might have ruffled some fur at first, winning has to work wonders. Rumors of rumblings on the sidelines seem to have subdued as Wiggins and Towns are finding more of a mediator than an adversary with Butler.
Allow me to illustrate.
I got myself a real-life puppy (Winnie) a couple of weeks ago to give my three-year-old dog (Honey Bear) a little sister. Now, Honey Bear loves Winnie and enjoys playing with her, but sometimes that “alpha” instinct kicks in.
Winnie was wandering into my office (where she’s not allowed to go) one morning, and Honey Bear leaped up and scruffed her right back out the door, as though to say, “That’s daddy’s office. You can’t go in there.”
Winnie hasn’t even tried it since then. Sometimes, pups like KAT and Wiggins need alphas, and Butler is an alpha.
When they make a mental lapse and Butler “scruffs” them, the lesson takes hold. Towns seems to be more engaged and less prone to mistakes. He’s recognizing coverages better and communicating to perimeter players what’s going on behind them. The lessons are sticking with them.
That shows up in the on/off ratings. They’ve improved slightly defensively when they’re playing with Jimmy, with their defensive rating going from 104.7 to 103.4 after Dec. 3. But what’s interesting is what happens when they play without him.
Their defensive rating when they played without Jimmy before was 134.3, according to NBA.com. Now that’s all the way down to 108.7. That still needs work, but it’s an indication the lessons are sicking. Butler is making the ‘Wolves his pack by seizing the alpha role, along with all the responsibility that implies.
That, more than anything, is why the Timberpups are growing into Wolves.