Welcome back to the Golden State Warriors challengers series. Over the last two weeks, I have been making the case for six teams that can prevent the Dubs from staking claim to a dynasty. In Part 6, we conclude with a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, and whether their roster is properly built to battle Golden State.
Trading for Jimmy Butler was a no-brainer for Tom Thibodeau, but not because of the move’s immediate on-court impact.
Will Butler make the Wolves better, particularly against the Golden State Warriors? Absolutely. However, his value as a free agent attractor, a trade chip in his own right and a mentor for Andrew Wiggins far outweighs what he’ll do for Minnesota in 2017-18.
In fact, for all of Butler’s exploits, he may not actually help the Wolves’ offense.
No team hit fewer threes than Minnesota last season (7.3 per game). Zach LaVine, the one established player going to Chicago in the Butler deal, was responsible for 2.6 of them. He led the team in made threes (120) in just 47 games before tearing his ACL, and also in three-point percentage (38.7).
Butler shot a respectable 36.7 percent from deep last year. But his career percentage is 33.7, and he’s never made more than 1.2 triple per game. Every other part of his offensive game dwarfs that of LaVine, but on a team so deprived of shooting, will he have room to operate?
His skills are also somewhat redundant. Butler can create his own shot (0.87 points per isolation possession), but barely more efficiently than Karl-Anthony Towns (0.86). He can attack the cup and get to the line, but the Wolves were already No. 6 in made free throws last season (19.3 per game), and No. 5 in free-throw percentage (79.9).
What may help Minnesota’s offense more than the addition of Butler alone is how he works in concert with new point guard Jeff Teague. Ricky Rubio may be the better player overall, but Teague’s three-point shooting advantage (35.5 percent career, compared to 31.5 percent for Rubio) will be crucial next the ball-dominant Butler and Andrew Wiggins.
Teague and Butler should amount to a slightly more spaced out, dynamic attack than Rubio and LaVine. An inverse relationship exists on defense. One of the newcomers is far better than his predecessor (Butler, LaVine), while the other is far worse (Teague, Rubio).
While the overall impact of these additions is being overstated, they should have a sizable influence against Golden State. Competing with the Warriors starts with simply having guys who can stay on the floor against them. For Minnesota, this number was previously zero. Now, it is at least one (Butler), with the potential to become three.
Offensively, Towns is already a problem for the Warriors. He bullied Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and even Draymond Green down low last season. On the other end, he was annihilated, and ended up a -15.5 in the matchup. Only LaVine (-22.2) and Cole Aldrich (-15.8) were worse, and both only appeared in two of the team’s four meetings.
Wiggins fared better, but his inability to make plays (0.47 assist-to-turnover ratio) or defend (119.9 defensive rating) still made him a significant negative (-9.3).
Butler can help. Wiggins has greater natural skill, athleticism, height and wingspan than Butler, but less length in the tooth. It will take want on Wiggins’ part, but the 22-year-old has a chance to become a star under Butler’s tutelage. Even if he doesn’t quite get there this year, having a teammate to both guard and be guarded by the other team’s best wing (say, Kevin Durant) will make a difference.
Towns will likely surpass Wiggins in terms of efficacy against the Warriors this season. Superstars in the making often break the positive-impact-on-winning threshold in Year 3, and Towns lacks nothing in terms of talent, physique or mentality. Butler’s wing defense will take pressure off Towns inside, and a leap from Wiggins will make his job even easier.
On offense, Towns may become a monster no matter who he plays with. His game in Year 2 was similar to that of DeMarcus Cousins in Year 7—a blend of post strength, ball skills and perimeter stroke. With a little more space, a few less late-clock touches and a few more good cuts around him, Towns has a chance to blossom into an MVP candidate this season.
This roster is still far from ideally constructed. Thibodeau committed resources to Taj Gibson (two years, $28 million) and Jamal Crawford (two years, $8.9 million), neither of whom help against Golden State (or 20 other teams for that matter). Crawford is a dreadful defender and another shot-clock killer on a team already featuring Wiggins and Butler.
Gibson is the more damning signing. His $14 million annual salary could have brought both Patrick Patterson (three years, $16 million with OKC) and P.J. Tucker (four years, $32 million with Houston) or C.J. Miles (three years, $25 million with Toronto) to Minnesota. It isn’t that simple, of course.
Those guys likely wanted to play elsewhere, and the Wolves didn’t want to give out more than two years. Still, a shorter-term balloon payment—like the one they gave Gibson—could have brought at least one of those guys in.
The Teague signing was fine. Three years and $57 million was a fair price, and he fits the post-Butler trade Wolves better than Rubio. George Hill and Patty Mills looked like similarly priced fits, but the former has durability issues and the latter a shaky track record against the Warriors. Given the roster’s abundance of ball handlers and scarcity of shooters or defenders, gambling on either one still seemed worth it.
Playing their core three next to two low-usage 3-and-D guys would give Minnesota an outside chance against Golden State. Butler is, Towns should be, and Wiggins might be that good.
As currently constructed, the Wolves will have to aim lower. A 50-win season is not out of the question, but upending the Warriors looks like a multi-year venture.