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.