Minnesota Timberwolves Player Review: Jimmy Butler

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 15: Jimmy Butler #23. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 15: Jimmy Butler #23. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Part seven in our multi-part series reviewing each Timberwolves player’s individual seasons takes a look at All-Star Jimmy Butler, who was awesome when he was on the court but missed a career-worst 23 games due to injury.

The Timberwolves paid dearly — and rightly so — to acquire Jimmy Butler on draft night last June.

They gave up the promising Zach LaVine (albeit coming off of an ACL tear), former fifth-overall draft pick Kris Dunn, and and seventh pick in the draft (Lauri Markannen) or Butler and the 16th selection, used to pick Justin Patton. It was a no-brainer from a current, on-court talent standpoint, but Dunn’s marked improvement and Lauri Markannen’s outstanding rookie year made this trade much more balanced than many thought it was after it was announced.

Butler was his typically awesome self in Minnesota, missing just a handful of games due to illness and nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting named to his fourth-consecutive All-Star team. He sat out the exhibition in order to rest, and was promptly injured in his first game back after the break.

Butler missed 17 games from late February into early April before returning to play in the Wolves final three regular season games, including a win-and-get-in Game 82 against Denver. After playing just 22 minutes in the two games prior, Butler logged 41 minutes in the overtime win over the Nuggets and injured his wrist, an injury that hampered him in the first-round playoff matchup against the top-seeded Houston Rockets.

In terms of Butler’s season as whole, he averaged 22.2 points per game, the second-highest total in his career. He shot a career-best 47.4 percent from the field and 35 percent from beyond the arc, which was second only to the 36.7 percent he converted in his last year in Chicago.

Most of Butler’s rate-based statistics were right in line with the past couple of seasons. The only notable drop was his assist rate, from 24.8 percent last year with the Bulls to just 20.6 percent in his first year in Minnesota.

This is a bit concerning, as Butler saw his usage rate fall as well. It indicates that the ball was too often in the hands of someone else — namely Jeff Teague or Andrew Wiggins — and that Butler wasn’t initiating the offense as much as he should have been. Too often, the ball would find Butler in late-shot-clock situations and/or isolation sets.

Back in early January, I wrote about Butler’s uptick in playmaking while Teague missed several games due to a knee injury. Here is an excerpt, including the video clips.

"Here, Butler ignores Gibson’s screen and takes both defenders with him towards the baseline. The Wizards defender at the free throw line stunts towards Taj but doesn’t follow him. Butler is patient enough to deliver the pass just when Gibson is in deep with single coverage from Marcin Gortat. (The fact that Butler was credited with an assist here is a bit generous, but it was an outstanding pass nonetheless.)"

"Next, Butler once again ignores Gibson’s screen. Instead he methodically probes into the paint, opening up a bevy of options. He could force a pass to the rolling Gibson, which may drawn a foul on Gortat. Or, he could stop on a dime and kick the ball back to Jones in the corner.In stead, Butler turns and finds a wide open Towns beyond the arc. KAT buries the triple, and it’s another successful Butler-led possession."

Once Teague returned, of course, the ball was in his hands more often as yours’ truly continued to clamor for more Butler-Towns pick-and-roll and Butler-initiated offensive sets in general. Teague is a good enough 3-point shooter and creator to play off the ball more often, and is more potent as a spot-up shooter than Wiggins and even Butler, in most cases.

Too often, the Wolves would run multiple dribble hand-offs and find themselves in a late-clock situation when they would throw the ball to Towns in a tough spot, Teague on the perimeter, or Butler in an isolation situation. This rarely led to a legitimately good look at the rim, and was harmful to what was otherwise one of the league’s best offenses — especially in the 59 games in which Butler played.

At any rate, this is more on coach Tom Thibodeau and the offensive scheme than on Butler himself. Butler is still a dynamic player and was awesome on defense throughout the 2017-18 campaign.

Assuming his knee and wrist are back to full strength by fall, Timberwolves fans can expect another All-Star season from the soon-to-be 29-year-old as he enters the latter years of his prime.

Next: Revisiting Dwane Casey's tenure with the Timberwolves

And with free agency looming in the summer of 2019, don’t be surprised if Thibodeau and the Wolves see what they can do to lock their superstar up beyond next season.