Jimmy Butler has made enough of an impact with the Timberwolves during his first season in Minnesota that it’s sometimes easy to forget that although he was the most important offseason acquisition made by the organization, he was hardly the only one.
So if your default expectation with Butler sidelined by a knee injury that figures to keep him out for at least most of the rest of the regular season is to assume the Wolves will regress to 2016-17 levels, when they went a disappointing 31-51, you might need to readjust your thinking.
Simply put, even with Butler out right now, the Wolves have an improved roster from a season ago. That’s particularly true if we isolate on the final 15 games of last season when Minnesota, already without the injured Zach LaVine, lost Nemanja Bjelica to a foot injury. Minnesota went 3-12 to close a frustrating year.
In the offseason, in addition to getting Butler in a trade for LaVine and point guard Kris Dunn (as well as draft pick Lauri Markkanen), the Wolves added Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson in free agency.
Teague was essentially a 1-for-1 swap for departed point guard Ricky Rubio. Even if you defend Rubio to your grave and don’t love Teague — who has been fantastic lately, by the way — the combination of Teague and Tyus Jones has been objectively better than the duo of Rubio and Dunn.
Gibson was a straight add-on, and he’s been steady as the starting power forward while displaced starter Gorgui Dieng has been valuable off the bench. Crawford’s shooting runs hot and cold — he was 2 for 11 last night in Sacramento — but his streakiness has helped win more games for the Wolves than it has contributed to losses.
How much cornerstone young players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have advanced since last season is another question for another day — though it is one that will have significant bearing on whether the Wolves, who have won a pair of games by 18 points against bad teams since Butler’s injury, can sustain a high level of play as the schedule stiffens.
One thing not up for debate: Their supporting cast, even without Butler, is much better than it was a year ago and at least gives Towns and Wiggins a chance to carry the load down the stretch and into the postseason.