The Minnesota Timberwolves finally cut ties with Jimmy Butler on Nov. 10, after a months-long battle between the star, the coach, and the owners over what to do with his trade request. Butler created a scene to get himself out of town, including a memorable scrimmage, which, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, saw him yell out loud “You bleeping need me. You can’t win without me.”
Yet in nine games since his departure, the Wolves are 7-2. In the blink of an eye, the Timberwolves are back in they playoff picture, sitting 11-11 as we pass the quarter of the season mark. No longer is the attention on a circus-like drama; it’s on the functionality of a fresh group. They’ve rebranded from chaotic mess to defensive stalwarts.
These Wolves can make a run in the West.
Here’s why it’s time to take this team seriously.
The Timberwolves are playing better on both sides of the ball
Over the first 13 games of the season — with Butler in and out of the lineup to “soreness” — the Wolves registered a minus-7.1 net rating, per StatMuse. That included a 109.4 offensive rating and a 116.5 defensive rating, meaning they were outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions because of a so-so offense and a really bad defense. Over the course of the season that offense would’ve ranked No. 17, and the defense, last in the league with ease.
There was dysfunction on both ends as the team’s stars internally feuded and uncertainty over who was staying and who was going grew.
But since Butler’s trade for an even better defender in Robert Covington, and another role piece, Dario Saric, the season has turned around. Suddenly the Wolves starters are in sync.
The team’s net rating has improved by 17.1 points in its most recent nine games compared to the first 13. Their offensive rating has improved to 111.4, and their defensive rating has improved to 101.4, per StatMuse. Opposing teams are scoring 15.1 points per 100 possessions fewer than they used to, and these games include contests against the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Spurs.
That’s how the Wolves absolutely destroyed San Antonio by 39 points, and Portland by 16.
There’s something to be said about Covington’s brilliance, but maybe even more in rolling out a unit that, uh, actually likes each other.
Robert Covington has been excellent
Covington was a defensive anchor for the Sixers who could reliably knock down threes, but he was always the No. 3 or 4 offensive option. In Minnesota, save for one truly awful 1-of-18 shooting night, he’s been a staple in the team’s efforts scoring the ball.
He’s led the team in scoring in back-to-back nights, tallying 21 and 24 points. Since landing in Minny, he’s averaging 11.3 shots per game, two more than he was in Philly, and his scoring has jumped from 11.3 to 13.3 points per night. His two-point shooting is down a bit, but he’s shooting 39 percent from distance, and grabbing five boards.
On the defensive side he’s snatching three steals per game, and stopping the ball like no Wolves player had before he arrived.
Karl-Anthony Towns is reborn, too
Towns is looking more like the version of himself we thought he’d be. In the games since Butler’s departure, he’s upped his per game numbers to 21.6 points (+1.7), 14 rebounds (+3.2), and 2.7 assists (+0.6). He’s increased his scoring by nearly two points on just 0.4 shot attempts and 0.4 minutes per game, per StatMuse.
Towns looks freed in his new space, where, without Butler, he can return as the focal point of the offense. He’s no longer competing — or maybe more accurately, failing to compete — for spotlight. The keys are his, and he’s steering the team in the right direction.