Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.
In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.
If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.
Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.
Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.
But, not all hope is lost.
David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.
MRI Saturday will give final word, but there is some optimism in @JimmyButler camp that he may have at least avoided the worst—an ACL tear—on Friday.
— David Aldridge (@davidaldridgedc) February 24, 2018
Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.
On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.
So, let’s dig a little deeper.
When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.
Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.
Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.
Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.
Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.
Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?
In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.
Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.
Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.
The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.
Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.
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