Jimmy Butler, fresh from contributing almost as much to the All-Star Game as Fergie, on Friday night begins one of the most important regular-season stretches in Timberwolves history as one of the most important players in recent Minnesota history.
There are few parallels locally for a star athlete immediately elevating a franchise upon arrival.
Kevin Garnett? He arrived as a draftee granted time to develop. Butler required a month or two to become, possibly, the second-best player ever to wear a Wolves uniform.
Torii Hunter? He required eight seasons of minor league seasoning before becoming an overnight success.
Kirby Puckett? Puck and Butler came to Minnesota from Chicago, displaying stevedore shoulders and the willingness to take on the responsibilities of a leader, but Puck took time to develop into a middle-of-the-order thumper.
Maya Moore or Lindsay Whalen? Yes, but they joined an established star in Seimone Augustus to form a virtual All-Star team.
Sam Cassell? In his first season with the Timberwolves, he took the big shots, but he came to Minnesota as a sidekick, not a leading man.
Shannon Stewart? The Twins traded for him in 2003 and he led, or coincided with, one of the more dramatic turnarounds in franchise history, but he wasn’t a star.
Devan Dubnyk? A trade-deadline acquisition who lifted the Wild into the playoffs and became a lead goalie, his accomplishments are impressive, but goalie is such a skill-specific position that it’s difficult to compare him with an NBA athlete.
Butler appears to be unique, and his work appears to be merely beginning.
He has played more minutes than anyone in the NBA. He enters the league’s stretch run with a bad thumb, legs tired enough to cause him to sit out the All-Star Game, and the burden of a star who acts as the franchise’s dominant personality and essential endgame option.
There is no rest for the weary-legged. The Timberwolves begin the post-All-Star portion of the schedule with a game Friday night at Houston. With San Antonio indicating that Kawhi Leonard’s season is over, the Wolves could target the third seed in the West. With a brutal 11-game stretch on tap, they will have to guard against the kind of losing streak that could drop them out of the playoffs.
The Wolves are tied with San Antonio for the third seed, yet are only 4½ games ahead of 10th-seeded Utah. They need Butler healthy and energetic to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since just after Facebook launched to keep everyone connected with people they didn’t want to talk to in person.
“I’ll be all right,” he said. “Tired here and there, but I love the game, so we’ll continue to push through some fatigue and help this team try to win.”
Butler might be the Wolves’ third-most talented player, behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Maybe even fourth, depending on how much you value Jamal Crawford’s stunning dribbling and shooting skills.
Butler’s career is built on work ethic, physical strength, savvy and guts. He wants to take big shots. I’d rather see the Wolves pass the ball in the fourth quarter, and take advantage of one of the NBA’s best offenses, but you have to admire Butler’s willingness to go 1-on-more-than-1 when asked.
“I think Jimmy is built for this,” Crawford said. “He’s done it before, he’s done it throughout his career, he knows how to ramp it up on the court. He always goes all out, but I mean as far as being aggressive, as a scorer or to set up his teammates. It could be a big block, like he had last game, before the break. Whatever it takes, he finds a way to get it done.”
Perhaps the proper Minnesota comparison to Butler is Zach Parise. When he first arrived, healthy and in his prime, Parise turned a previously meandering organization into a perennial playoff team.
Unlike Parise, Butler doesn’t leave the playing surface every minute or two. Basketball offers stars the opportunity to impact every critical possession, whether their legs are tired or not.