The Timberwolves’ tentative explanation of Jimmy Butler’s knee injury arrived on a night of a dense snowfall and led, around the state, to the gnashing of chattering teeth.
When it comes to the Vikings, Wolves, Wild, Gophers and latter-day Twins, Minnesota annually experiences an identity crisis.
Our state motto is: “Coulda been worse.”
Our state’s sports motto, when it comes to the aforementioned teams, is “Why are we cursed?”
So which is it, Gopher-staters? Are we a collection of tough-minded, iced-nostril survivors? Or are we the nation’s whiniest sports fans?
The Butler news reflected both mottos. He did not tear his anterior cruciate ligament, which would have ended his season and damaged the next. He injured his meniscus and will miss a chunk of the stretch run.
“We’re hopeful it’s not too long,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Every injury is different.”
Butler’s absence is damaging, but, yes, it could have been much worse. And most NBA teams are forced to deal with important injuries. That’s the nature of an 82-game-plus-preseason-and-postseason league.
The Wolves will miss their best all-around player and leader. Their previous goal of attaining the third seed in the Western Conference now must be amended. Without Butler, remaining ahead of the pack of teams contending for the last four playoff spots in the West becomes imperative.
Instead of a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Wolves now must aspire merely to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Isn’t that a worthwhile goal for this franchise?
The Wolves and their fans have a choice. They can whine about misfortune, or challenge the players who should be willing to accept more responsibility in Butler’s stead.
Those players are Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Nemanja Bjelica.
And maybe Derrick Rose.
If Thibodeau hadn’t traded for Butler, the Wolves today would be relying on Karl-Anthony Towns (an example of blessed luck), Wiggins and Teague and welcoming back Zach LaVine from his knee injury.
Instead of a half-season without LaVine, they are facing a stretch of yet-to-be-determined length without Butler.
This doesn’t have to be tragic. This doesn’t have to be viewed as a curse.
“We’re not going to replace him with an individual,” Thibodeau said. “But as a team, we can.”
That’s the exact cliché everyone was expecting from Thibodeau. It also contains truth.
Towns is a spectacular player who now must offer more on the defensive end. Wiggins possesses All-Star talent. Teague will get to play a larger role in the offense, which a shooting point guard should welcome. Bjelica is capable of becoming a force, if he is mentally tough enough to accept that challenge.
The Wolves won’t be better without Butler. They are not likely to win at the same clip. But without him, the ball should move more crisply in late-game situations. The Wolves have enough talent to make the playoffs, and in Butler’s absence other players should grow.
Towns will touch the ball more in the fourth quarter, and Wiggins and Teague will get every opportunity to prove that their relative struggles this season were a function of deferral, not regression.
And if there was any hesitation from Thibodeau to sign Rose, Butler’s injury should remove it. There are now about 38 minutes a night of playing time available for a scorer. Rose can score.
This isn’t doomsday. One of the Wolves’ major roster problems this season has been the uninspired play and reduced scoring of Wiggins, which follows his signing of a maximum contract.
The Wolves have every reason now to feature Wiggins in their offense. That could lead to him re-establishing his value, which could either benefit the Wolves’ future or lead to them being able to trade him for value this summer.
Imagine this Wolves team with a three-point shooter instead of Wiggins hanging out on the wing.
Are the Wolves cursed? Is this market?
No. For many reasons, the Timberwolves’ news on Saturday could have been much, much worse.