The NBA has tipped off again and we’re set for a season of thrilling results in the western conference. But who will take top spot?
During the third quarter in Houston on February 24, Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler suffered a meniscus injury in his right knee, which saw the 2018 All-Star carried off the court in his team’s 120-102 loss to the Rockets.
As of now, there is no timeline on the former Marquette University player’s injury and with the final part of the regular season still to play, there is no doubt the Wolves will miss their main man.
However, since Butler’s unfortunate fall, Tom Thibodeau’s team has not shown signs of tumbling without their star man as the franchise have gained back-to-back wins over the Chicago Bulls at home and most recently the Sacramento Kings on the road.
The franchise’s record now sits at 38-26, which sees them occupy the third seed in a stacked Western Conference.
Although it took a little time to adjust to life in Minnesota, Butler soon became the focal point in the Timberwolves team, leading the team in scoring with 22.2 PPG and steals with 1.9 SPG.
His injury is no doubt a setback, meaning the current crop of players needs to step up to cement a playoff berth for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging 20.3 PPG and 12.2 RPG, and Andrew Wiggins (17.7 PPG) are both young prodigies that have showcased abilities that have seen them claim rookie of the year honours in back-to-back years (Wiggins in 2015, Towns in 2016), but they have yet to taste playoff basketball.
Having signed a bumper five-year contract nearly worth $150 million last October, the 23-year-old Wiggins has had a lot of faith put in him by the Timberwolves organisation and though he is averaging a career low in scoring, part of that has been because of Butler’s influence on the floor.
But now is the chance for the sixth youngest player in NBA history to reach 6,000 points to prove further of being worthy of a deal of that magnitude.
Towns made his first All-Star appearance this past All-Star break and will look to continue his fine form that warranted that selection.
Though the 22-year-old out of Kentucky has also taken fewer shots this season for the same reason as Wiggins, the talented big man leads the NBA in double-doubles this season with 54, meaning his skill of scoring points in various forms on offence and grabbing boards on both ends are crucial if the team wants home court advantage come playoff time.
All in all, more responsibility will be lifted onto the duo’s shoulders to lead this Wolves outfit and that will be tested down the stretch. It will be curious to see if Wiggins is as ball dominant late in the fourth quarter as he was earlier this season or if Towns will be given more of the ball as the Wolves aim to maintain closing out games regularly, something the Minneapolis outfit struggled with last year.
Point guard Jeff Teague will also see his usage rate uplifted and must look to be the main floor general in Butler’s absence, which means frequently finding his teammates or taking the ball to the rim with his speed.
Former Chicago Bull Taj Gibson has also played a very important part in this new look Wolves team, chipping in with 12.5 PPG as well as providing good defence throughout the season.
Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica has stepped into the starting line-up alongside Towns, Gibson, Wiggins and Teague. Having scored an efficient 12 points on 5-10 shooting (2-3 from three-point range) against the Kings, the 29-year-old again showed his contribution on the offensive end.
The 208 cm tall player from Belgrade is a good shooter for his size, hence why he is knocking down 43% from three-point range. Shooting from deep, however, is an area that the Wolves struggle in, seeing that they are 22nd in the league for three-point field goal percentage at 35.6%.
Ultimately, the rest of the roster will see their minutes increased, which gives more of the fringe players a chance to impress coach Thibodeau and more importantly contribute to the team’s performance on the court.
Thibodeau has worked with both Gibson and the injured Butler during his spell with the Bulls and the pair know all about what their coach wants on the defensive end.
However, In the league, the Timberwolves are 18th in the NBA concerning points allowed, which stands at 106.9 PPG.
It is an aspect of the game other members of the team are not quite familiar with yet given the fact Thibodeau is currently only in his second season at the Wolves.
Given the talent and personnel in the locker room, Thibodeau will be disappointed to be ranked near the bottom ten worst defensive teams in the competition, especially given his reputation as a coach who likes to sustain a good defence.
Through Butler’s time in the league, he has developed and established himself as one of the best two-way guards in the NBA, so with his tenacity and effort on the defensive end gone for the time being, the team as a whole needs to step it up when locking in on defence.
While their offence seems more than capable of continuing to score points without their leading scorer given on average they are fifth in the league in points per game with 109.9, it is the defence where the Wolves are still a work in progress.
The next couple of months are going to speak volumes about where Thibodeau’s side lie in among the best in the West.
With Houston and the Golden State Warriors looking ever so likely to finish as the top two, the Wolves look set to battle it out with the San Antonio Spurs to secure the third seed.
On Friday (A.E.D.T), the Timberwolves start an eight-game run against teams that are all above .500 (50% win ratio) when they travel to Portland to take on the Trail Blazers.
With Butler away for that stretch, these games will prove pivotal for the Wolves, but it’s a test they need to pass with flying colours if they consider themselves genuine playoff contenders.