Losing Jimmy Butler is terrible. We’ve seen how the Timberwolves regress with him out of the lineup. Now, the team will have to pull together in the thick of a playoff race without their best player as he recovers from meniscus surgery.
The blame game immediately began as soon as Butler hit the floor in Houston. Many pointed to Tom Thibodeau, who carries a reputation for playing his starters heavy minutes. His teams have a track record of losing players to significant injuries as well.
Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah missed extended time with injuries. However, it’s also fair to note that the Bulls’ training staff received heavy criticism for the way they handled ailing players. Zach LaVine went down with a torn ACL after colliding with Detroit’s Andre Drummond and then landed funny.
Butler’s minutes have been blamed. Yet, Butler has played 37.1 minutes per game this season which is up from 37.0 minutes per game last season under Fred Hoiberg. The last time Thibodeau coached Butler, he played 36.9 minutes per game. Butler currently ranks behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo and just ahead of LeBron James in minutes.
Yes, Butler plays a lot of minutes but teams tend to play their best player a lot. If you’re on the court more, you also have a greater risk of injury. If one person has a two-hour roundtrip commute, they’re going to have a higher risk of accident and breakdown than someone who drives just 20 minutes round trip.
Considering Butler had a week off of basketball due to the all-star break makes it feel unlikely that is this due to excessive minutes. Butler’s average over the last five seasons is 38.1 minutes per game. At age 29, these things can happen. Sometimes no one is to blame.
Losing DeMarcus Cousins should have sunk the Pelicans’ season. That would be the case if it weren’t for Anthony Davis. New Orleans has won six-straight games thanks to Davis and hanging around the playoff picture. That’s bad news for a Wolves team that is trying to keep their heads above water until Butler returns.
What Davis is doing is seldom seen in the NBA for this length of time. He’s averaging 41.5 points, 15 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks and assists per game. Davis has gone into the same takeover mode Russell Westbrook did after Kevin Durant left, only more efficiently. He’s hitting 54.2 percent on all shots but is drilling 39.1 percent on 3-pointers.
The Pelicans could still backslide but Davis’ Herculean play should make Wolves fans nervous. With just two games separating the two teams in the standings, anything is possible.
We all know about the difficult schedule ahead for the Wolves. Saturday and Monday’s contests were the team’s last two chances for easy wins. They answered the call beating Chicago at home and Sacramento on the road. Not only that, the Timberwolves drubbed them both by 18 points and had five or more players in double figures.
What will remain to be seen is whether or not they can do that against Boston, Houston, and Golden State. Tom Thibodeau managed to keep his Bulls teams in playoff chases without some of his best players and will need to do that again.
It’ll take good efforts from Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, Jamal Crawford and the rest of the bench. Butler’s injury thins the bench, too, with Nemanja Bjelica in the starting lineup. That makes this unit more important than ever.
Two starters that could determine the team’s success are Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins. In two games without Butler, both have thrived. Teague has had at least 20 points in seven assists and Wiggins has reprised his role as scorer adding 20 each night.
If they can have most of these trends continue, there are winnable games. Sure, Washington, Utah, and Portland aren’t pushovers but they are beatable. If the Wolves can close out some of these teams on the road, they can hold their ground. Granted, the Kings and Bulls aren’t exactly focused on winning but it’s good practice for what’s ahead.
Otherwise, the playoff drought goes on another year.
By the time March rolls around, there is typically one team that has bottomed out entirely. That has not been the case this season.
Five teams have 18 wins. Dallas has 19. While the Nets and the Bulls each have 20. It seems that there are teams that are rebuilding but no one who is shamelessly trying their best to lose. That’s not to say that any team is actively trying to lose games. Not putting their best foot forward every night might be a better way to put it.
Take this for example.
The Bulls and Nets played on Monday night. Chicago led 51-49 at the half and seemingly decided that was enough of that. Over the next two quarters, the Bulls scored just 36 points and lost 104-87. The Nets entered the game on an eight-game losing streak. Kenny Atkinson’s Nets play hard every night so it’s possible the Nets adjust at halftime and held the Bulls to 32.4 percent shooting in the second half after they shot 40 percent in the first.
A team like the Nets without their own first-round pick has no reason to try not to win. However, a team like the Bulls, whose first-round pick is top-five protected, would like to put themselves in position to keep theirs. At 20 wins, they’re in danger of losing it to the Pelicans.
This does go to show that the tanking “problem” isn’t as much of an epidemic as believed. Many of these teams already have one future cornerstone and are looking to add another. The best way to do this is through the draft.
If you like Nemanja Bjelica, you should thank Lazar Hayward. Hayward and Bjelica were acquired from the Wizards on draft night in 2010 in exchange for Trevor Booker and another player.
After an underwhelming rookie season, Hayward was dealt to the Thunder for Robert Vaden and a draft pick that would become Robbie Hummel. Hayward would play just 26 games in Oklahoma City before being sent to Houston in the James Harden trade. However, the Rockets immediately waived him and the Wolves signed him on New Year’s Eve 2012.
Hayward’s return was short lived. He lasted just four games, presumably on a 10-day contract, and was waived on January 6, 2013. For the next three years, he would bounce around the G-League between the Nets and Pelicans. After nearly four years without an NBA job, Hayward signed a contract to play professional basketball in Venezuala.