The Jimmy Butler era ended on November 9 in Sacramento after a 121-110 loss to the Kings. Butler decided that would be his final game and Tom Thibodeau decided enough was enough. By lunchtime the following day, Butler was a Sixer.
Being able to return Robert Covington and Dario Saric met the team’s need on the court. Furthermore, Covington’s team-friendly deal and Saric’s rookie contract relieved some pressure from the team’s payroll. In fact, Covington is one of the biggest bargains in the league when you weigh his production versus his salary.
Expectations, however, shifted. You don’t just move on from a multi-time all-star and not expect a drop-off. There wasn’t much further for the team to fall. The Wolves were 4-9 and had just been swept on a five-game road trip. That’s roughly a 30-win pace for those scoring at home.
Whether it’s the remaining players setting out to prove Butler was wrong about them or relief that the situation was over, the team has moved to 3-1 since the trade, including last Monday’s contest versus the Nets. This improvement couldn’t have come at a better time for Minnesota. The Wolves’ slow start put them in a tough spot but have remained afloat thanks to their current home stand.
Beating the Blazers after losing on the road was significant given how close the Western Conference has been. As slow as the Wolves have started, they’re just 4.5 games out despite being 14th in the conference standings as of Monday night. Things are close but you don’t want to start jeopardizing critical tiebreakers before Thanksgiving.
The way the team has played without Butler has changed. Yes, these are small samples but that’s not a huge deal when you’re comparing a four-game sample to a 13-game sample. You also have to factor areas of impact that would have been better before the trade had Butler not cherrypicked the games he wanted to play.
It’s odd for a team to lose a good rebounder like Butler and improve but they have. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, at times, have combined to offset some of that loss. Towns, in particular, has been a monster on the glass with two 20-rebound games in the last four games. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The addition of Covington, a 5.5 per game rebounder, has helped lift the team from 25th in total percent of rebounds grabbed to eighth. That’s a four-percent increase from before the trade.
As much as I’d love to trust that the Wolves’ 100.5 defensive rating over the last four games will hold, it won’t. Certainly not this team based on its recent history. But what I would trust more is their improved point differential and opponent points per game.
Just last week I discussed how point differential did not like the Wolves and that they had rated out as one of the worst teams in the league through 13 games. And yeah, they had gotten blown out badly and that was part of that, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that they were consistently losing big and winning narrowly.
As a result, the Wolves were once 25th in the league at -7.2 but have since climbed to an acceptable 13th with a 4.2 point differential. I like point differential because it usually separates the best and the worst teams. The worst teams typically wind up at the bottom and best at the top. Spotting a good team with a negative point differential or vice versa is typically a red flag.
This team is giving up fewer points in the paint, points off of turnovers and fast-break points without Butler. But they are giving up a lot of second-chance points still, though that’s unsurprising because they’ve been an average rebounding team all season.
This team may not be the second-most efficient team in the league overnight, but it’s not a stretch to say that they’re better from beyond the arc with Covington taking some of Butler’s shots. It turns out that this is likely a decent shooting team now that can take at least a league-average number of 3-pointers per game now.
Arguably the biggest determinant of this trend’s sustainability will be Saric. The newcomer shot 31.1 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie before nailing 39.3 percent last season. That number is back down to 32.1 percent this season. Who knows which shooter is the real Saric, but it’s worth noting that Saric is shooting over 40 percent on 4.7 attempts per game since joining the Wolves.
You might believe this one without having another ball-dominant, high-usage wing on the floor. We’ve seen how the ball seems to stick less with the newly constructed roster, too. Yet, Butler can pass well and has racked up some good assist numbers in Philadelphia. And again, it’s not as if Butler was playing every game before the trade.
Regardless, the Wolves have become one of the better ball movement teams in the last 10 days or so. They’ve assisted on two-thirds of their made field goals in that stretch and every assist-based metric is improved from before the trade. In particular, their assist percentage has gone from 27th to third in the NBA. While that may not hold, especially with offensive spark plug Derrick Rose off the bench, it’s an encouraging sign to see a more egalitarian form of team basketball so far.
Before: 19.9 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.1 apg on 45.9 percent/40.6 percent shooting (FG/3FG)
After: 19.8 ppg, 16.5 rpg, 2.3 apg on 56.6 percent/63.6 percent shooting (FG/3FG)
Towns has been an absolute flamethrower since Butler’s departure. This is what you want to see because without the presence of a player like Butler, the onus was going to fall on Towns to rise to the challenge and he has in a big way. His efficiency has soared while his usage has only ticked up slightly. He’s averaging just three more points than rebounds in the last 10 days. Yes, there are concerns over his fouls and turnovers in the last four games but he will settle down. He’s even appeared engaged on defense, which is encouraging to see. Now, comes the hard part of continuing that over the course of several months.
Before: 17 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 apg on 41.6 percent/39.9 percent shooting (FG/3FG)
After: 18.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.8 apg on 38.4 percent/41.7 percent shooting (FG/3FG)
We’ve seen Wiggins start out hot from beyond the arc before but it should not be dismissed when he’s taking six treys per game right now. What we’ve also seen in the subsequent games after the trade is a more dynamic and aggressive Wiggins than we’ve seen before. He’s making 3-pointers and driving the lane where he causes problems. If Wiggins can sustain this efficiency, he, Towns, and Covington provide a potent punch from deep range in the starting lineup. Jeff Teague can make shots too.
His counting stats are up noticeably, especially his assists. This is closer to the type of player you feel more comfortable paying $27 million per year. There are still flaws and remains to be seen if he can keep this up against, say, Atlanta in mid-February when the stakes are low but this is encouraging to see from him.
Like I said before, it’s too early to tell what’s for real or not. This could be the real thing or it could be a group of players desperate to prove that they weren’t the problem. Yet, there are some signs that say this could be a long-term norm to some degree. They can exert more defensive effort every night and they can work to get more valuable shots like 3-pointers. They can also continue to move without the ball and look for the extra pass.
It’s appeared that the chemistry is there and the Wolves may be laying out their formula for success in the 2019 season. But what will matter is how they respond to the wave of relief over the Butler situation being over. Sunday afternoon basketball is generally hard to watch, so I don’t count last weekend’s game against Memphis. However, watching how they respond to close out the homestand and on the road against lesser opponents will be something to observe further.
The answer to these questions will also be likely to determine if they can climb the standings higher or not.