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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.

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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 Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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