When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers, it felt like a burden had been lifted off of the roster. The cloud of Butler’s trade request was gone, his months-long trade saga finally resolved. Some teams need a hard-nosed wing that is willing to scream and yell at everybody, but the Wolves didn’t, and Karl-Antony Towns in particular was clearly struggling.
So when Butler left, it was reasonable to expect improvement from the Wolves. They were trying harder and playing better, but it didn’t seem like it would last. Losing Butler was a clear loss of talent, even with Robert Covington and Dario Saric coming back in return. Those are solid players, but they aren’t an elite two-way wing that has shown the ability to win games by himself. As time goes on, it should theoretically show that the Wolves are worse without Butler.
From a talent perspective maybe they are, but the feeling of not having Butler around is telling a way different story. The numbers aren’t perfect, because of small samples, but right now, the Wolves are a better team. They’ve won seven of their last nine and look like one of the best defenses in the league. Turnarounds this quick are rare, so who’s responsible?
It’s actually one of the newcomers, as Covington has put a new energy into the defense and Minnesota is reaping the rewards of his work.
Minnesota is currently holding teams to a stunning 97.8 points every 100 possessions since Nov. 10, the day Butler was moved. That’s the best mark in the NBA. For context, the Wolves were giving up a league-worst 113 points every 100 possessions before the Butler trade. Everybody on the team that plays significant minutes now has a positive net rating, and Covington’s on-floor net rating is a 13.5. That’s an impressive mark, but it gets even better when you look at his defensive numbers.
With Covington on the floor the Wolves defense gives up a stifling 92.7 points per 100. When he’s off the floor, their defense plummets to giving up 107.2 points per 100. Covington is nominally a role player, but his role is crucial to the team’s recent success. Covington might not be a star, but he’s playing the role of defensive leader on and off the court.
“Gotta keep him engaged,” Covington recently said of Tows. “‘Cause that’s going to allow him to take his game to another level. I’ve seen it both ends. A guy that has great talent offensively, but when you engage yourself on defense, you can effect the game in so many different ways just by activity. I’ve been on KAT. I’ve been on a lot of guys.
“Overall just bringing that defensive mindset here is very contagious and a lot of people are picking up on it,” Covington continued. “That’s part of my character. I’m very approachable and I talk to guys in a way that I know how the game is going. I know how to read (with) emotions flying and everything. That’s just part of my character and always want guys to succeed in the most positive way. I pick the right moments and that’s when I approach guys.”
Covington talking to guys and bringing that leadership off the court was desperately missed when Butler was in Minnesota. Knowing how to read a locker room is an incredibly important skill and Butler’s personality just didn’t mesh with the players in Minnesota, that’s why he eventually had to be traded. When Minnesota traded him for Covington, though, they probably weren’t aware they were getting someone that can earn the respect of his teammates so quickly. He even managed to help Dario Saric, who told CBS Sports that Covington is “such a great person,” go through the whirlwind that is joining a new team.
With Covington anchoring the Wolves defense, there’s all of a sudden some energy back with Minnesota. The way the Wolves started the season, it felt like they were destined to miss the playoffs and maybe start a hard reset. They’ve already locked Towns into an extension, so they have one great building block, but they would have been required to waste so much time building the roster back up.
Now, Minnesota can keep its goal of making the playoffs. It probably isn’t good enough to make any noise beyond the first round, but this is an organization that just needs some consistency. Once the Wolves get that, they can start to build and try to create a team that can compete for a championship.
In a way, Covington saved the Timberwolves. If everything he’s done is legitimate and the Wolves are back on track, then he has completely altered the course. That’s extremely impressive from a defensive-minded role player, but sometimes that perfect piece is exactly what a team needs.