by Fox Doucette
The Minnesota Timberwolves added Jimmy Butler to a team that already has Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They shipped out Ricky Rubio, who can’t shoot and who gets as many assists as he does precisely because he can’t shoot and has to get rid of the ball to guys who can (Rajon Rondo on the Celtics built his reputation that way.) They’re coached by a defensive mastermind in Tom Thibodeau.
But this is also a team that couldn’t guard anyone last year, that always seemed to be less than the sum of its parts, and that had a remarkably tendency to mess up the fine art of closing out close games. The franchise hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since Kevin Garnett was still the franchise player; the 2004 Western Conference Finals, in which they lost to the Super Lakers (the unit with Karl Malone and Gary Payton that got smoked in the Finals by Detroit), was their last appearance, and the 13-year drought is the longest in the NBA.
They’re two years away from tying the longest playoff drought by a franchise in NBA history; the sad-sack Buffalo Braves/San Diego/LA Clippers went 15 such seasons from 1977 to 1991.
But they have Jimmy Butler. Vegas likes them at 48.5 wins. But are they any good?
2016-17 record: 31-51
2018 over/under: 48.5
Wait, 18 Wins? Really?
Sure, there have been dramatic turnarounds in sports before (the ’08 Celtics, who won 66 games and the title after adding Garnett and Ray Allen to a team that won 24 games the year before, are the biggest example in basketball, and the ’99 Rams won the Super Bowl a year after going 3-13), but do we really believe that Jimmy Butler, a guy who was on a Chicago team that barely made the playoffs in the wretched Eastern Conference, is suddenly going to go to the West and put a team into home-playoff-series territory? You sure about that?
Sure, Butler’s a fantastic player, a true superstar (.236 Win Shares/48 and a 6.3 VORP), an excellent scorer despite being a mediocre deep threat (36.7 percent from three last year and 33.7 for his career), and a very solid defender (a 106 Defensive Rating in a year with a league average of 109), but 18 wins?
I mean, he’s pretty good, but he’s not five-dollar milkshake good.
So It’s Up to the KAT?
Exactly. Towns will be 22 on November 15. He cracked the .200 barrier for WS/48 that is the mark of a franchise-quality player. He’s a five-plus VORP guy (5.3 last year). His numbers jumped from his rookie to sophomore season pretty much across the board. He’s a 70 percent-plus guy in the restricted area, and his three-point range is surprising (the same 36.7 that Butler put up last year.) He’s a seven-footer who actually makes his free throws (83.2 percent in 2017.)
If Towns and Butler are, in either order, your two best players, you’re one piece away from the West playoffs in earnest.
Which leaves the question mark.
Is Andrew Wiggins Actually Good?
Wiggins scored 23.6 points per game last year, was sixth in the league in shots made, and generally wowed the counting-stat dinosaurs who point to those outdated metrics and say “Wiggins is awesome, a true star, almost as good as Butler’s 23.9!”
Yeah, great. Wiggins also led the league in minutes. You’d expect him to score nearly 24 a night just on principle given that he took the lion’s share of the shots.
His slash line (.452/.356/.760) suggests a league-average wing player. His defense (115 DefRtg) is atrocious, and it’s no accomplishment if you score 24 but your man hangs 40 on you.
Wiggins, if you believe the advanced stats, is not an improvement over a player you could drag out of the G-League and give NBA starter minutes to. A 16.5 PER, woeful .066 WS/48, and negative BPM and VORP numbers on offense and defense?
The guy led the league in minutes and couldn’t rack up a single full defensive Win Share. He clocked in at 0.9. That is horrendous.
Bluntly, LeBron James was right to run Wiggins out of Cleveland. He sucks.
So What Does This Mean?
Besides that the Wolves should trade Wiggins to whoever’s stupid enough to look at the counting stats and think he’s good? It means that you’ve got a team with two superstars, one selfish gunner who might just ruin the whole thing, and a coach with a reputation for defense who kept giving minutes to the worst defender on the team while presiding over the fourth-worst defense in the league.
Can Jimmy Butler, who’s never won anything in his life, actually fix that? Really?
Look, I’m not going to take a team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler on it and say they suck. They’ll be better than 31-51.
But I just can’t see this team, in a tough division and a tougher conference, standing out. They just don’t strike me as better than a .500 club. And .500 won’t win you that over/under bet unless you bang the under hard.
If either Butler or Towns gets hurt, this is a 30-win lottery team.
Are they any good? I can’t say confirmed and won’t say busted. Plausible it is.