On the Timberwolves’ balanced offense without Jimmy Butler

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Andrew Wiggins #22, Jeff Teague #0, and Karl-Anthony Towns #32. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 24: Andrew Wiggins #22, Jeff Teague #0, and Karl-Anthony Towns #32. Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Timberwolves have managed to post a 4-3 record since Jimmy Butler‘s injury, and they’ve found success largely through a balanced offensive attack.

Since Jimmy Butler tore his meniscus just over three weeks ago in Houston, the Timberwolves have relied heavily on fellow All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns — and rightly so.

But when the Wolves have been successful over the past seven games, they’ve done so by rolling out a relatively balanced offensive attack.

For all of the gnashing of teeth regarding Andrew Wiggins (to be clear: he does deserve criticism for his lack of non-scoring contributions in the box score and spotty defensive effort), he’s been a vital contributor with Butler on the sideline.

In the seven games since Butler’s knee injury, Wiggins has averaged 20.7 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, including 37.5 percent from beyond the arc while attempting 4.3 3-pointers per game. The other numbers are pedestrian: he’s still only attempting 3.9 free throws per game during the stretch and shooting 70.4 percent from the line, and he’s only putting up 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest.

But Wiggins’ offensive contributions have been important as the clear No. 2 option in the offense in the absence of Butler. Plus, his defensive efforts have stepped up dramatically; our own Pietro Caddeo took a look at the Wolves’ overall fourth-quarter improvements of late and had a focus on Wiggins’ defense against the Wizards on Tuesday night.

The Wolves have been better with Wiggins on the court over the span, logging a plus-minus of 6.1 over the past seven contests.

Jeff Teague has perhaps been less involved than one might have expected, especially after scoring 45 total points in the two wins immediately following Butler’s injury. In the five games since, however, he’s only cracked the 20-point mark once — in the loss to Utah in which Teague also found himself ejected.

Overall in Butler’s absence, Teague has posted averages of 17 points, 6.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and two steals per game while shooting just 44 percent from the floor and 34.5 percent on 3-point tries. He’s been more aggressive attempting to get into the paint and has actually seen his free throw rate increase significantly.

For the season, Teague has largely been content to float on the perimeter, posting his lowest free throw rate and least free throw attempts per game since the 2012-13 season. He’s only attempted 3.1 free throws per game on the year, but has shot five per game over the last three weeks, converting on 82.9 percent from the charity stripe.

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Teague has taken it upon himself to be more aggressive of late, and is picking his spots better within the offense. He still hesitates a bit too much when left wide-open on the perimeter and could stand to be more assertive overall, but functioning as a third option in a Butler-less option is much more in line with what Teague has been used to throughout his career prior to coming to Minnesota.

Nemanja Bjelica has been the player that has seen the biggest change in fortunes since Butler’s injury, going from playing 15.3 minutes per game in the 10 contests prior to the loss in Houston on Feb. 23 to now averaging 37.9 per outing in the seven games since.

Ken Bradley gave a solid rundown of Bjelica’s stats since joining the starting lineup, but the most impactful number has been his 44.1 percent shooting clip from beyond the arc. Additionally, he has contributed on the glass (8.3 rebounds per game) and has functioned as a point forward of sorts at times, too.

A (perhaps unintended) benefit of playing in close-and-late situations is being forced to not only rely on Jimmy Butler’s brand of isolation basketball. Butler’s effective, of course, but when the iso game doesn’t work, as is bound to happen from time to time, the rest of the team isn’t prepared to function effectively themselves.

Without Butler on the court, the rest of the team has been forced to operate in the flow of the offense for 48 minutes, and not just up until crunch time.

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If the Timberwolves are going to navigate this next three-game stretch against Western Conference contenders (at San Antonio, vs. Houston, vs. Clippers) with at least a couple of wins — that second night of a back-to-back against the Rockets looks nearly impossible — then they’ll need a balanced attack that centers on Towns and includes just enough Teague and Bjelica to keep their opponents honest.