The Timberwolves’ utilization of Jimmy Butler this season has run beyond an unhealthy reliance, falling closer to an addiction. And now, the withdrawal symptoms—fear, confusion, loss of identity, and despair—will inevitably hit hard.
Butler, a four-time All-Star, was diagnosed with a meniscus injury in his right knee on Saturday, with Yahoo Sports reporting that he will undergo surgery and miss four-to-six weeks. Minnesota’s prized off-season acquisition sustained the injury on a non-contact play during a road loss to the Rockets on Friday. The 28-year-old wing had to be helped off the court by his teammates, who will now plunge towards the franchise’s goal of snapping a 13-year postseason drought without their best all-around player for at least a month.
The facts of Butler’s role and importance in Minnesota are remarkable, even by a superstar’s standards. He led the NBA with 37.3 MPG. He was the linchpin of the NBA’s most-used five-man lineup, a starting group that logged 1,086 minutes so far this season, 331 minutes more than any other lineup in the league. He led the Timberwolves in scoring and usage. Minnesota only has three lineup combinations log at least 100 minutes together; Butler, unsurprisingly, was a member of all three.
Tom Thibodeau traded for Butler last summer with the goal of making the 2018 playoffs. His plan was as simple as it gets: ride the hard-charging Butler as hard as possible, and hope that his key youngsters, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, could keep up. On the most basic level, Thibodeau’s plan was working, even as critics rightfully raised questions about the heavy minutes his stars played and his short rotations. Minnesota (36–26) had already exceeded last year’s win total of 31, dueling in the standings with heavyweights like the Spurs and Thunder rather than push-overs like the Suns and Lakers.
Butler doesn’t deserve all the credit for the year-over-year turnaround—just most of it. He ranked third-league wide in Real Plus-Minus, ahead of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of other A-listers. With Butler on the court, the Timberwolves’ net rating was +7.8, roughly equivalent to the No. 3 ranked Raptors. Without him, the Timberwolves’ net rating plunged to -8.7, roughly equivalent to the No. 29 ranked Kings. With Butler, Minnesota managed to boast the No. 3 overall offense despite ranking 27th in bench scoring. With Butler, Minnesota enjoyed the West’s No. 4 seed despite possessing the league’s worst bench.
Although the Timberwolves aren’t the first team in the West to lose a star player this season, they are uniquely ill-equipped to replace him. The Grizzlies lost Mike Conley, but they did so early enough in the season that expectations were recalibrated before Christmas. The Jazz and Nuggets lost Rudy Gobert and Paul Millsap, respectively, but both will be back for the stretch run. The Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins, but they had the trade deadline to add Nikola Mirotic to their frontcourt. The Rockets were without Chris Paul early, but they had MVP favorite James Harden to pull them through the tough patch. The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard—a player superior to Butler—but they have leaned on structures forged over multiple decades to withstand the loss.
Minnesota has none of those benefits. The playoff mandate and expectations still exist. There’s no help to be found via trade and the free-agent pickings are slim. And the Timberwolves can’t turn to depth, another star creator, or years of institutional knowledge for help in Butler’s absence.
The best-case scenario— assuming Butler is out for a matter of weeks, rather than months—looks something like this. Towns channels his inner Anthony Davis, piling up 40/20 nights with an expanded offensive opportunity. Wiggins rises to the occasion, enjoying a hot shooting stretch and taking on greater defensive responsibilities. Everyone else performs marginally better than they have collectively this season. Something along those lines would allow Minnesota to float around in the West’s crowded No. 5 to No. 8 seed range and keep hope alive for Butler's possible return for the playoffs.
But further slippage—perhaps catastrophic slippage—is entirely possible. Even with Butler, Minnesota had the worst defense of any West playoff team. Without him on the court, though, the Timberwolves’ defensive rating slides to 115.7, five points worse than the dead-last Suns. That level of sustained defensive ineptitude is a strong recipe for squandering whatever heroics Towns can muster in a new leading role. Frustration and finger-pointing could mount quickly.
It’s worth pointing out that the Timberwolves’ worst-case scenario—falling from the No. 4 seed down to No. 9 and out of the playoffs—doesn’t even require a complete collapse. Minnesota has played a league-high 62 games to date but sits on even footing in the loss column with the four teams directly behind it in the standings. What’s more, the No. 9 Clippers (30-27) trail the Timberwolves by just one game in the loss column.
Minnesota’s schedule in the first three weeks of March is treacherous, too. There are road games against West playoff contenders (Portland, Utah, San Antonio), two home games against the West’s elite (Golden State and Houston), and lose-able games against the Celtics, Wizards and Clippers. Going 4-6 in its next 10 games would qualify as a win given those scheduling circumstances, yet that would likely be enough to wipe out the Timberwolves’ standing gains and bump them back onto the playoff bubble.
The silver lining here is that, unlike with Cousins, this injury doesn’t generate long-term financial questions for team and player. Butler is under contract through 2018-19 and has a player option for 2019-20, meaning that he need not rush back to the court nor worry about the potential for lost wages in free agency this summer. When Butler returns to the court, he will retake his alpha mantle, and Towns and Wiggins will reassume their supporting roles.
While Butler dodged a bullet by avoiding an ACL tear, this diagnosis still represents a big blow, as the required recovery time could cost him a spot on one of the All-NBA teams and puts his postseason ability and effectiveness into question. Before the injury, Butler had a decent shot to return to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and for the first time in his career as his team’s undisputed leader.
Instead, for the time being, Butler will be stuck, powerless, in the last place he wants to be, the last place Thibodeau has wanted him for years: on the sidelines.