The best thing by far Tom Thibodeau has done in nearly two full seasons as both head coach and basketball operations president of the Timberwolves is trade for Jimmy Butler.
Minnesota is 35-57 without Butler over the last two seasons — all of last year when they went 31-51 and 10 games this season when they are 4-6 (and counting). They are 34-22 with him in that time.
Karl-Anthony Towns has made some progress this year as a two-way player, but Andrew Wiggins — to whom Thibodeau gave a five-year max extension this past offseason — has stalled or even regressed to the point that he barely made a recent ESPN list of the top 25 players under the age of 25 (he was No. 11 last year, and he’s tied for No. 23 this year).
Other offseason acquisitions — Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford — have certainly helped to varying degrees, but more than anything Butler has been the difference-maker for the fortunes of the Wolves and the man in charge.
Butler, of course, hurt his knee a couple weeks back. The Wolves won their first two games without him — blowouts over bad teams — and then lost back-to-back road games against Portland and Utah.
They are now going to embark on a six-game stretch that could very well define their season: Boston tonight, followed by Golden State, Washington, San Antonio, Houston and the L.A. Clippers. The first two and last two of those are at home.
Even without Butler, the Wolves ought to be able to go at least 3-3 in that stretch. A look at the Western Conference standings suggests .500 during that stretch might be necessary to maintain any type of comfortable cushion heading into a closing stretch of games that’s at least a little more forgiving.
But here’s the thing: Now is the time that Thibodeau the coach must deliver. Not all his roster moves have been home runs, but my sense is he’s done a better job so far building a roster than coaching those players.
There was healthy skepticism of the Wiggins extension, and there is more healthy skepticism arriving Thursday with the news that Derrick Rose is joining Butler and Gibson as prominent ex-Bulls rejoining Thibodeau in Minnesota.
250 players have 5,000+ minutes over the last five seasons. Here are Derrick Rose’s ranks among those 250…
True Shooting Percentage: 236th
Wins Over Replacement Player: 238th
Box Plus-Minus: 241st
Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 245th
Win Shares: 247th https://t.co/0KjQGCb3o2
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) March 8, 2018
Rose is not close to the player he was before knee injuries robbed him of MVP-level talent, and even when he was fully healthy Rose could never do the thing the Wolves really need: shoot three-pointers.
But he’s Thibodeau’s guy, and this is Thibodeau’s roster. He has given himself enough quality players to reach the postseason, even with Butler out during this crucial stretch. Now he must guide this hand-picked crew through to the finish line.