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.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.