RandBall: Michael Rand

Jimmy Butler has shown both in his play and in his absence from the Timberwolves this season just how valuable he is. But in terms of importance to the Timberwolves, teammate Andrew Wiggins tops the list.

There were admittedly high expectations for the former No. 1 overall pick dubbed the “Maple Jordan” for his Canadian heritage and athletic potential. He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2014-15 and increased his scoring along with his shot volume the next two seasons, averaging 23.6 points last season.

Butler’s arrival predictably cut into Wiggins’ scoring average (down to 18 ppg this season), but this much remains true: He has a deep reservoir of untapped potential, and how much of it gets drawn out will determine what the Timberwolves become.

We already know what a healthy Butler brings to the team. Karl-Anthony Towns might have another gear left as his career progresses, but he already has an identity and is plenty good enough to be part of a Big Three.

Wiggins is the big unknown — and the only one of those three signed to an expensive long-term extension.

If the Wolves can keep that core intact and Wiggins ascends into a star player, they could be a legitimate title contender in future years.

If Wiggins cannot make that leap and instead continues to flatline or even regress, the Wolves’ ceiling will look much like it does this season: aspiring to make the playoffs and maybe win a series.

For that reason, Wiggins is the Wolves’ most important player.

 

Michael Rand is the senior digital writer for Star Tribune sports and keeper of the RandBall blog at startribune.com/RandBall.

Timberwolves fans and even players themselves realized how hard it would be to win games without Jimmy Butler sidelined because of a knee injury.

This stretch of games only reinforced the idea that Butler is the Wolves’ most important player. Karl Anthony-Towns is a close second, but I hearken back to how the Wolves look defensively with and without Butler on the floor.

When Butler is on the floor, he is at least able to make the Wolves defense a respectable unit. Entering Friday, the Wolves’ defensive rating of 105.3 (meaning they allow 105.3 points per every 100 possessions) when Butler was on the floor gave them the 11th-best defense in the league. Not great, but not terrible.

When Butler wasn’t on the floor, that defensive rating was 112.9, good for worst in the league. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned that statistic, but I can’t get it out of my head.

Butler has a way of holding the defense together because he’s able to guard multiple positions and guard the opposing team’s best player. In his absence, Andrew Wiggins has had an opportunity to do that, but has shown he still needs to develop that part of his game. I imagine the Wolves would have struggled in a similar fashion if Towns was out instead of Butler — especially on offense. The Wolves boast an offensive rating of 110.6 overall, but it’s just 103.5 when Towns isn’t on the floor.

But Butler’s absence meant disaster for the defense, and it was the defense that has the Wolves on the brink of the lottery after it appeared they were a lock for the playoffs.

 

Chris Hine is the lead writer for North Score, the Star Tribune’s sports analytics beat. Find his stories at startribune.com/northscore.