Predicting the NBA awards during the offseason is always tough to get right, but everyone loves whacking together a few bold predictions to see how wrong they are this time next year.
It never looks easy for Jimmy Butler. It always looks hard. That is his gift.
When Butler’s teammate Andrew Wiggins scores, he does so with grace and inevitability. He somehow floats and bounces at the same time, cruising to the rim, elevating, and making defenders look ground-bound and inadequate. When he scores, it feels like he was always supposed to.
Butler isn’t as blessed. Every bucket is a battle. He puts his head down, charges to the rim, gets knocked down and goes to the line. His legs flail awkwardly on his mid-range jumper. When he takes threes, he jumps emphatically into the shot, like a kid trying to get the extra oomph to make the distance.
He never stands and admires his jumper – he always follows it in, which is the most responsible and least cool thing a player can do.
If Wiggins’ success is a testament to athleticism, then Butler’s is a testament to relentlessness. It’s that relentless that is restoring the Timberwolves to mattering again, giving them an integrity that has been lacking ever since Kevin Garnett left.
The Wolves have been an afterthought for the past decade, a team that has topped out as an interesting failure. In the last 12 seasons, they’ve eclipsed 33 wins just once, a 40-win 2013-14 made famous for shortcomings in the clutch.
This year, Butler is grasping opportunities that were once let go by others. The OT victory against Denver was Butler’s first veritable Minnesota masterpiece, a game he won essentially by himself. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson fouled out, Jeff Teague injured, and Andrew Wiggins characteristically faded into the background, Butler dragged his team across the line, by getting there time and time again.
When he wasn’t drawing contact, he was finishing at the rim with a delicateness that belied the violence it took to get there. Or he was pulling up in the mid-range, stopping on a dime for a Kobe-esque jumper, without the art or the nonsense of Bryant.
Throughout the overtime period, it felt like one man against five, and you felt for the five.
Butler cuts an odd figure in the NBA. He sits on the bench or stands calmly at the line in a pose of Zen that you can’t but feel is tinged with a certain small but unmistakable anxiety. He is a champion, but one who seems to be perpetually figuring things out.
He is a superstar, but one whose crowning achievement is dragging Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade to an eighth seed. He’s never really had a moment in the playoffs, and has always played in the shadow of bigger personalities, be it Wade or Derrick Rose.
The shadow is gone in Minnesota. This is Butler’s team, unambiguously. Things are finally being figured out, for a star and his franchise.