Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said one of his main objectives in the offseason was identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. Of course, at that time Jimmy Butler was still a part of Thibodeau’s equation. Since making the trade that sent Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric, Thibodeau’s math has changed.
“I think it shifted what our strengths are a little bit,” Thibodeau said.
The Wolves are almost a completely different team since the trade — the differences in various statistical categories are striking, with perhaps the most glaring coming on the defensive side of the ball.
Over their past seven games, or since Covington and Saric made their debuts, the Wolves are second in defensive rating. Not in the Northwest Division. Not in the Western Conference, but the entire NBA. They are allowing 99.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Contrast that with where they were when Butler was here — 28th with a rating of 114.3. The Wolves haven’t allowed more than 103 points in any game since Covington and Saric joined the team.
Covington quickly has endeared himself to fans with his performance on the defensive end of the floor. He leads the NBA in steals with three per game since the trade and his effort has had an impact on the rest of the Wolves.
“He’s one of the best defenders in the world for a reason,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “There’s a reason why he’s [NBA] first-team all-defense. He comes in and he brings that energy. With him doing that, it makes all of us raise our standards on defense to try and match him.”
Teams were shooting 47.4 percent against the Wolves when Butler was here. In the past seven games, opponents are shooting 42.7 percent. The Wolves talked ad nauseam when Butler was still here about how they needed to fix their ailing defense. That talk has subsided in recent weeks.
Things are a little more mixed when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. The Wolves were fourth in offensive efficiency a season ago, but have struggled to regain that form on that end of the floor. Their offensive rating over the past seven games is 26th at 105.3, but for those scoring at home, that’s a net rating of 5.5 when you subtract the defensive rating from the offensive rating, good enough for sixth in the league. With Butler this season the offensive rating was better — 17th at 107.2.
The Wolves are playing slower than they were before Butler’s departure — 103 possessions per game compared to 99 over the past seven games. Another thing that’s different about the offense is they’re passing more. With Butler, the Wolves averaged 272 passes per game and were 26th in the league while that number has increased to 294.1 — ninth in the past seven games.
It’s also interesting to note who is consuming the Wolves’ possessions, reflected in usage rate. Butler had a high number of 22.3 percent when he was here. That means that percentage of Wolves possessions ended in a Butler shot attempt, trip to the free-throw line or turnover when he was on the floor. Covington, however, is not a high-usage player at 14.7 percent. Both Towns and Andrew Wiggins have had an uptick in their usage rates since Butler’s departure.
“Jimmy was our biggest part of the offense,” Towns said. “He was our biggest focal point, so obviously with him not here, we all have to find a way to pick up the pieces and we’re just doing little things like that, trusting each other.”
The 6-2 record the Wolves have since the trade makes it appear that trust is well-placed.
Chris Hine covers the Wolves and the NBA for the Star Tribune.