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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler, The Difference-Maker In Minnesota

The arrival of Jimmy Butler has turned the Minnesota Timberwolves into a team to watch out for, and Tom Thibodeau knows why.

Ben Nadeau

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Through half a season, Jimmy Butler has been exactly what the Minnesota Timberwolves needed — and more.

If the Timberwolves match their current pace — 26-16 and out in front in the Northwest Division — then the franchise will notch their first 50-win season since 2003-04. Beyond making the Western Conference Finals, it was also the last time Minnesota made the postseason at all, anchored by Kevin Garnett’s monstrous, MVP-winning campaign. That season, Garnett tallied a remarkable 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game — all averages that now stand as his career-highs after 21 years in the NBA.

Today, those are lofty shoes for any superstar to step into, but head coach Tom Thibodeau hasn’t been shy about praising his new franchise centerpiece.

“[Jimmy Butler has] played unbelievable, he’s playing at an MVP-level and he’s changed everything for us,” Thibodeau said. “Like his drive, it’s not really what he’s saying, it’s what he’s doing. And for me, it’s just watching his growth. He’s a perennial All-Star, All-NBA, an Olympian, all those things, but the biggest area of growth has been his leadership.

“I think the mark of a great player is not only to do great things himself but to also bring the best out of all his teammates and he’s done that.”

At 28 years old, Butler is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals over a staggering 36.9 minutes per game. As the franchise’s new grizzled veteran, Butler had been tasked with reversing the fate of a Timberwolves’ roster that ranked 26th in 2016-17 for defensive efficiency at 109.1. After shipping off Ricky Rubio for a single first-round selection, signing prominent free agents Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson and trading Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Butler last summer, Minnesota had an entirely new identity to shape around the remaining pieces.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were two of those teammates, and both are essential to Minnesota’s quest toward permanent revival. Towns and Wiggins, both 22 years of age, were back-to-back No. 1 overall picks and Rookie of the Year winners in consecutive seasons — but despite some significant individual achievements, the duo has come up empty-handed in terms of team success thus far.

For Towns and Wiggins, Butler’s much-needed arrival meant giving up some touches on the offensive end, but for a team that is already just five wins behind their total from last season, the trade-off appears to have been well worth it.

“I think whatever your situation is, you have to make the most of it. I think the most important thing is getting the playing time,” Thibodeau said. “In Chicago, we had Jimmy Butler, we had a 60-win team, so he didn’t play a lot and he came in the lockout season — so no practice, no summer league — but he still found his way. And so for Karl and Andrew, it’s a lot different — it was a team that wasn’t very good, so they were able to play through their mistakes and learn that way.

“Now as the team has gotten better — and Butler has done so many amazing things for us, just to change our organization — I think they’re sacrificing some of their individual statistics but their contributions to winning are far greater this year than they were last year.”

As usual, Thibodeau is correct.

Both players are averaging about five points less than they did last season, but with their summer acquisitions, the overall results have been positive. The Timberwolves are 7th in scoring (108.4), 5th in field goal percentage (47.5 percent) and 4th in offensive rating (110.2), in some cases only trailing a group of the NBA’s perennial contenders. The defensive side of things is where Minnesota has struggled, and the franchise carries a middling 19th-rated defensive efficiency of 106.8, slotted in around many non-playoff teams. As Thibodeau said recently, “Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses.” The unit has improved in recent weeks — plus, they rank 3rd in steals per game at 8.9 — but it’s still not enough to inspire confidence against conference powerhouses like the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets quite yet.

While Towns’ defensive plus-minus is currently at 1.4, which would be a career-high, it’s also an undeniable bounceback after posting a miserable 0.2 in that category last season. Likewise, Wiggins definitely still has work to do, but he’s no longer worthy of FiveThirtyEight’s “Least Defensive Player” title and that’s a worthy start to the climb in of itself. Hailed as a defensive guru, Thibodeau isn’t fully satisfied with the pair but understands that they’ve begun to swing to pendulum back the other way.

“I know how passionate Karl is about the game and how hard he’s working, so I see the improvement defensively,” Thibodeau said. “I think right now, we’re not where we want to be, but he’s blocking shots, he’s getting a lot of deflections, he’s seeing things better . . . Obviously, you’re going to be a lot better playing against a team or player the 40th time than you were the first time.

“I think he’ll continue to grow, I feel the same way about [Wiggins],” Thibodeau continued. “It has to become important to do it on every possession and can’t take plays off or you can’t take a game off. Just understanding what goes into it is really important.”

Butler, who was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team three consecutive seasons from 2013-16, has undeniably been a catalyst for transformation in Minnesota, both for those new and old. Still, Thibodeau knows the Timberwolves have a long way to go.

Thibodeau will often talk about the Warriors’ rise to prominence, noting that their uptick in defense is what took them from just prolific scorers to back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals. The Timberwolves — and every other team for that matter — have tried to emulate the Warriors’ blueprint and come up empty-handed. But teams are always evolving, and it’s simply unreasonable to believe that adding Butler and Gibson would immediately build a brick wall for the opposition to fruitlessly run through.

Crafting an elite defense takes time, and Thibodeau, the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011, is certainly no stranger. In fact, Thibodeau led the Bulls — along with Butler, Gibson and prime Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — to finishes in the top five for defensive rating in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). There’s room to grow in Minnesota and Thibodeau hopes that this is just the beginning.

“[With] Boston, when Kevin, Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] left, they went through a little bit of a lull,” Thibodeau said. “Then they got the defense going again and there were steps that they made along the way, so I think we have to do the same thing. We have to understand how important it is to play defense and that’s why I think Jimmy and Taj have really helped our younger players.”

Adding Gibson to teach Towns the intricacies of hard-nosed defense was always going to be key, but Butler is still the linchpin in Minnesota. Just as Garnett’s growth once coincided with the strongest stretch of basketball in Timberwolves history, Butler is the leader that can recreate those past successes for the franchise. And just as the Celtics needed Garnett’s fiery passion to put that 2007-08 roster over the top on the defensive end, Butler can be that guy too.

When asked about Butler and his expectations following that offseason blockbuster, perhaps inspired by his visit to the TD Garden — where he was the associate head coach from 2007-10 — Thibodeau didn’t shy away from drawing comparisons to those Celtics teams once again.

“We were fortunate, we had Kevin, Paul and Ray, and they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of the team winning a championship,” Thibodeau recalled. “And it wasn’t necessarily the things they said, it was more what they did. Like when we got here, those three guys, every practice, they were leaders — they were the first ones up in every drill, they didn’t want to take practice off, they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of winning a championship.”

After 42 games, it’s clear how much Butler has done for this Minnesota squad. They’ll likely surpass their win total from last season sometime this month, and although the Timberwolves are not yet a defensive juggernaut, it’s headed in the right direction. By continuing to defensively craft Towns and Wiggins, Butler — with the help of Gibson, of course — has galvanized a talented, blossoming team in Minnesota. Only time will tell if Butler can help the Timberwolves reach new heights, but Thibodeau has found his spiritual successor to Kevin Garnett and things appear brighter than ever.

After all, in Thibodeau’s own words, it’s not what leaders say, it’s what they do.

And Jimmy Butler is doing everything.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 1/17/18

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s been two weeks since we last checked in on the Most Valuable Player race in our beloved National Basketball Association.

Since then, the leader, James Harden, hasn’t played a minute of basketball. The man behind him, LeBron James, somehow having a career-year in his 15th go-around, even more surprisingly hasn’t completely blow Harden’s chances out of the water due to his Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles as of late.

Steph Curry is back and better than ever for the Golden State Warriors, bolstering his chances at a third MVP award, while simultaneously hurting his teammate Kevin Durant’s chances.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a freak of the Greek variety, and DeMar DeRozan continues to be a master of the midrange.

Halfway through the NBA season, this race is getting as fun as ever. Let’s get into the current standings.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Since last checking in, Kyrie Irving hasn’t necessarily been knocking it out of the park with his performance, but the Boston Celtics are still winning, so that counts for something.

Despite being stuck in an obvious shooting slump over the last two weeks (36 percent from the field and 24 percent from beyond the arc), Irving has led the way to four straight Boston wins, along with a big come from behind victory against the Philadelphia 76ers over in London.

While Irving continues to put up dazzling performances, his slip as of late, coupled with the fact that Brad Stevens and Co. have found ways to win without him, have caused Irving to lose a bit of footing in the most recent update of the MVP race.

  1. DeMar DeRozan

Over the last two weeks, DeMar DeRozan has continued to put the Toronto Raptors on his back. Granted, the Raptors are just 4-3 during that span, but with one loss coming to the Golden State Warriors 127-125 after giving up 81 points in the first half. DeRozan was also left without Kyle Lowry for two of those contests.

With the continued evolution of DeRozan’s skill set, this season has been the star shooting guard’s best chance at an MVP trophy. Improved shooting from downtown turns DeRozan into a more modern version two-guard without sacrificing the midrange prowess that makes him nearly impossible to guard.

Toronto has morphed into arguably the second-best overall team in the entire league. With impressive showings on both ends of the court that result in top 10 ratings, the Raptors are quickly becoming the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference crown. None of that would be possible without the big steps DeRozan has made in his game this season.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak’s drop in the current rankings aren’t necessarily an indictment of his play, but more of a tipped cap to how strong Steph Curry has come on since returning from injury.

That being said, Antetokounmpo is still very much a part of the MVP race with his 28.3/10.1/4.5 averages. As Milwaukee clings to a bottom half playoff spot — their 23-20 record and 7th place standing is just a three-game advantage over the Sixers, who are currently out of the playoff picture — Antetokounmpo will need to continue to put the Bucks on his back as he’s done throughout his breakout season so far.

While his season has been more than impressive and certainly puts him on the radar across the league as one of the best players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is still getting lost in the shuffle behind the top-tier contenders due to his team’s lack of dominant success.

  1. Steph Curry

What a return it’s been for Steph Curry. Since last checking in on our MVP standings, Curry has played in six games for the Warriors and sat out one. Golden State is 6-1 in that seven-game span, and I don’t need to spell it out for you which game they lost.

During his return, Curry is averaging 30.8 points, seven assists, nearly six rebounds and two steals per game, while also shooting 45 percent from three-point land.

His on/off rating for the Warriors is higher than any of his teammate’s, even Durant. The Chef is the Warriors’ main catalyst on offense, and despite their star-studded cast, when he isn’t on the court you can tell the difference.

I’ve always been one to say that because they’re both on the same team, it would be hard for either Curry or Durant to win this award, but given the absurd affect Curry has been having on his team’s success and offensive continuity, he’s forced himself right into the conversation. Should he keep it up at this current pace for the second half of the season, he may be the favorite.

  1. James Harden

James Harden has missed the last seven games, and the Houston Rockets are 3-4 in that time frame. Granted, one loss is to the Warriors, a team the Rockets hope to be able to compete against when at full strength.

While being sidelined, Harden’s importance to Houston’s sustained success has become more apparent than it was was before he went down with an injury. His numbers, were his season to end today, would be MVP-caliber if not for the number of games played. But it’s hard to keep a grasp on a lead when you’re not participating, which explains Harden’s drop on the ladder this time around.

Once The Beard returns, however, fully expect him to be right back in the thick of claiming his first ever MVP award.

  1. LeBron James

Since Harden’s injury, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t necessarily set the world on fire to their best player a clear distance in the MVP race.

Amid a serious slump that has the rest of the league questioning if this Cavs team is capable of returning to a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, James is currently searching for his fifth MVP award. While there has been a slight dip in The King’s numbers over the last few games, with the slump and the reintegration of Isaiah Thomas to the squad, he’s still been on the court and dominating in his 15th year. Until Harden can return to put up a fight, James is the current frontrunner despite the recent decline. His full-season body of work, this late in his career, speaks for itself.

But with Curry hot on his trail, Harden set to return, and his team floundering more and more by the day, James’ chances to win his latest award are currently at their bleakest point.

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Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18

Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.

Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.

Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?

6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.

However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.

Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.

Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.

Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.

Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.

Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.

There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.

In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.

The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.

Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.

Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.

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NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor

Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.

Michael Scotto

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When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.

“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.

“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”

Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.

In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.

“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”

The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.

The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.

The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”

Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.

“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”

Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).

On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.

“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”

If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.

Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?

Absolutely.

However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.

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