Most teams spend years looking to acquire an All-NBA talent, whether it be through the draft, free agency, or via trade. In the Timberwolves’ case, they spent months looking to get rid of one.
The Jimmy Butler saga during the summer was one of the most interesting story-lines to develop and had Minnesota looking like a laughing stock. From Butler teaming up with third-stringers and beating the rest of the starters, to him yelling at coaches and staff that they couldn’t win without him, the situation was a disaster.
Butler’s distaste for the team’s past two number one overall picks, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and the lack of heart they showed on the court was the tipping point for him, as made clear in his interview with Rachel Nichols shortly after the drama unfolded.
“Who’s the most talented player on our team? KAT. Who’s the most god-gifted player on our team? Wigs. Wigs got the longest arms, the biggest hands, can jump the highest, can run the fastest. But like who plays the hardest? Me. I play hard. I play really hard. I put my body on the line every damn practice. Every day in the games. That’s my passion. That’s how I give to the game. That’s how I give to you guys.”
ICYMI: Jimmy Butler shed some light on what happened at his first practice today.
Take a listen… pic.twitter.com/Vlhq4gFEJH
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) October 11, 2018
Well, Jimmy, they’re doing just fine without you.
On November 10th, the 76ers traded Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Jerryd Bayless to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton. Since that day, the 4-9 Minnesota Timberwolves who had just come off five straight losses and the loss of a top-25 player, have gone 9-3 and have seen tremendous improvement from top to bottom.
In the 13 games played before the trade, the Timberwolves were 19th in the league in offensive rating and 28th in defensive rating, with a 25th ranked net rating of -7.2. Since the trade, the team has seen decent improvement on the offensive end but an overwhelming change on the defensive end – jumping up to 12th in offensive rating and an unheard-of leap up to 2nd in defensive rating. The Wolves’ net rating since November 10th is 8.4, second in the league only behind Oklahoma City’s 9.5.
Karl-Anthony Towns’s efficiency and defense has been the biggest boost to the Wolves since the trade. Towns has gone from a 109 offensive/114 defensive rating split to a 111/100 split, which shows dramatic defensive improvement for someone whose Achilles heel has always been on that side of the ball. His raw volume stats haven’t taken much of a leap since the move, but his FG% is up from 45.9% to 52.3%, his 3PT% is up from 40% to 42%, his true shooting percentage is up from 58.8% to 61.7%, and his effective field goal percentage has improved from 52.6% to 57.6%.
— NBA (@NBA) December 6, 2018
These percentage leaps need to be considered in context; with Jimmy Butler gone, the threat of Jimmy Butler on the court goes with him. While Towns becomes the clear first option on offense, he becomes the opposing defense’s first option too. So, despite losing an All-NBA player beside him and becoming the guy that teams are game-planning to stop, Towns has still managed to make great strides on both ends since Butler’s departure.
Many laughed at the value the Timberwolves got back for Jimmy Butler, but Robert Covington’s play since his arrival has been spectacular. Even including the horrible day he had against the Bulls on November 24th in which he went 1 for 18 from the field and 0 for 10 from beyond, finishing with just 4 points in 35 minutes, Covington’s numbers are phenomenal. In 35 minutes per game, Covington is averaging 14.6 points on 45% shooting from the field and 39% from distance, 6 rebounds, 2.7 steals, and 1 block per game. His 2.7 steals mark since the trade are first in the league by far, with the next closest player, Darren Collison, at 2.1. His defensive rating is even lower than the 99.1 rating that helped him snag First-team All Defense last year, and if these numbers find any sustainability, the Wolves may have stolen the Defensive Player of the Year for a player they desperately wanted off their team.
Blocks Capela’s dunk from behind to force a jump ball, wins the jump ball, hits a three on the other end.
My heart 😭😭 pic.twitter.com/Lv2B4znp3B
— Eric Rose (@ericrose6) December 4, 2018
The spotlight has been shining bright on Jimmy Butler and his two mirror-image game-winners in Philadelphia, but Minnesota is sneakily playing some of the best basketball of any team in the league. Who would’ve thought when this year started that the Timberwolves would be out of the spotlight? This might end up being one of the rare win-win trades as both teams seem to be playing great basketball and right in line with their respective timelines. But, Butler’s goodbye has sparked something in the Wolves into an improvement nobody expected.