The Timberwolves are Jimmy Butler's Team

After a slow start, Jimmy Butler had an awesome month of December to take over the lead role in Minnesota.

After an offseason that resulted in a drastic change in roster construction, the question of who the leader of the Timberwolves was only natural to ask. Some believed that Andrew Wiggins would take that next step after signing the max extension while others thought that Karl-Anthony Towns would continue his development as one of the most talented young pieces in the league. The biggest question though was how the notorious vocal leadership of Jimmy Butler would mesh with these young centerpieces. It wasn’t the smoothest integration in the history of the game as there were some early season hesitations and miscues but now that we are nearing the All-Star break, the Timberwolves are becoming Jimmy Butler’s team.

Early Season Struggles

Like most newly assembled rosters, the Timberwolves were not running on all cylinders from the start. Through November it was clear that Butler was avoiding stepping on toes and was hesitant to fully take over the team that he just recently arrived to. This was clear as his numbers were down across the board. He was averaging just 17.5 points per game (third on the team), 2.9 three-point attempts (fifth on the team), and a usage rate of 22.1 (fourth on the team). It is encouraging that the team’s best player and biggest acquisition put the team first, but it was clear that this Timberwolves team needed his veteran leadership. During this time the team went 13-9 which isn’t bad but was below what this talent level should produce. There was a lack of continuity and many of their wins were due to stellar late-game individual performances.

During this early season period, it was pretty common for Butler to bail out of a scoring opportunity for himself so he could try and set up another teammate. While Butler is a pretty good passer, many of these decisions resulted in unnecessary turnovers. In the below clip we see Butler drive on Danny Green with limited help defense. Butler is able to get all the way to the right block before Kyle Anderson even starts to collapse on him. Once Anderson does Butler tries to throw a very difficult and essentially blind bounce pass to Wiggins in the corner resulting in a turnover.

A better decision here would have been for Butler to look to score himself as he averages 1.11 points per possession on drives which puts him in the 77th percentile of the league. Green has pretty good defensive positioning on Butler in this play but Butler still should be looking to get all the way to the rim and force Green to make a play on defense or foul him. The ideal move here would have been for Butler to pull up for a short jumper which he excels at averaging 1.048 points per possession on pull up jumpers when he drives to his right which puts him in the 82nd percentile of the league. Butler clearly wanted to ease his way into this team by getting everyone involved but that didn’t result in the team playing their best basketball.

Red Hot December

The Timberwolves had a very good month of December as they went 10-5 and a major part of that was Jimmy Butler taking over the team. In December Butler averaged 26.5 points (first on the team), 5.5 rebounds (third on the team), 5.3 assists (second on the team), and 1.9 steals (first on the team). On top of these averages, he also recorded an offensive rating of 115.2 and a defensive rating of 106.1. One main reason for Butler’s improved numbers was his increased aggressiveness. In December he scored 27% of his points from free throws, up from 22.3%, and 42.3% of his points in the paint, up from 40%. His aggressiveness improved the quality of his own scoring opportunities but also led to him making better decisions and getting the rest of the team involved as he increased his assists to 5.3 per game with only 1.5 turnovers. He clearly felt more comfortable within the team dynamic which led to less hesitation, better decision making, and a more effective offense.

The best example of this was the December 27th game against the Nuggets. The Timberwolves ended up winning 128-125 in overtime largely due to Butler’s late-game dominance. Butler completely took over in this game as he scored 12 of the team’s 14 overtime points shooting 2-3 from the field and making seven free throws.

This clip is a great example of how deadly Butler is off the drive. The design of the play is a high pick-and-roll with Dieng. Butler recognizes Murray immediately cheat towards the screen so he cuts back towards the middle for the drive away from the screen. After a well-timed hesitation that freezes Murray, Butler is able to pull up for an uncontested mid-range jumper. Butler making this shot shouldn’t be a huge surprise. In situations when he goes away from the pick and takes a jumper off the dribble he averages one point per possession which is in the 82nd percentile in the league. Once you combine the loose defense of Murray, the shot selection, and the hot hand of Butler in this game, it was almost a guarantee that he was going to make that shot. While this helped seal the win, it also produced this phenomenal GIF.


Going Forward

So what does this mean going forward? Will Butler continue to perform at an MVP level? I hope so. Will the Timberwolves continue to perform at a high level to contend for home court advantage? That would certainly be nice. Most importantly what needs to carry over to the rest of the season is the demeanor and flow that the team showed in December. Butler needs to continue to be the leader of this team and help bring along Wiggins and Towns (who also had a very nice month). He needs to be the leader on offense, defense, and in the locker room. This may seem like a lot to ask but it is not just something that Butler is capable of but also something he has desired. In December the Timberwolves became Jimmy Butler’s team.

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