The Timberwolves felt, albeit briefly, the impact of being without one of their best players earlier this year when Jimmy Butler missed back-to-back games due to illness. The Wolves lost both of those games, leaving them 0-2 this season when Butler doesn’t play, 9-3 when he does play and 9-5 overall.
More consistently this season, though, the Wolves have felt the benefit of having a squad that is at full strength or close to it as compared to their opponents. Butler’s two games are the only ones missed by a starter so far this year, while reserve big man Gorgui Dieng’s three missed games (and counting) are the only reserve minutes they’ve been without.
By contrast, they’ve already defeated a Heat squad missing Hassan Whiteside, a Charlotte team without Nicolas Batum and, in their last two games, knocked off a Jazz team without Rudy Gobert and a Spurs team missing both Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. They missed out on chances to defeat the similarly depleted Spurs earlier in the year and a Warriors team missing Kevin Durant, but those absences at least gave them a better chance to win in theory.
Some of this is the luck of the draw when it comes to facing teams missing players. But some of it is also a benefit of the Wolves’ roster construction. In the battle of attrition that is the NBA, the Wolves have a real strength in numbers.
Consider: There were just 17 players in the NBA last season who played all 82 games. Three of them played for the Wolves: Dieng, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Two more of them — Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague — joined the Wolves in the offseason. So five of the 17 players who didn’t miss any games last season are now on the Timberwolves, and all five have a history of being at least relatively durable (Dieng’s finger injury this season snapped a streak, as he had played all 82 games each of the last two seasons).
Beyond those iron five, Butler appeared in 76 games last season and has played in at least 65 games each of the past five seasons — including all 82 games once. Taj Gibson, who also joined the Wolves in the offseason, played in 78 games last year and has twice played in all 82 games. Shabazz Muhammad, who returned as a free agent, appeared in 78 games last season and all 82 the year before.
Wiggins, Towns, Butler, Teague and Dieng were also in the top 20 in minutes played in the NBA last season — with Wiggins and Towns ranked 1-2.
As Patrick Reusse noted recently, former Vikings coach Bud Grant was famous for his notion that durability is as important as ability when it comes to athletes.
The track records of these Wolves players doesn’t guarantee anything about the future, but it does suggest Tom Thibodeau has inherited a durable group and built around them with other durable players.
These Wolves clearly have plenty of ability as well. That’s a pretty good combination when it comes to trying to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2004.