Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan have both played like MVPs this season.
To start the year, guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James were considered by some as the leaders of that particular chase. As the season has pressed on, the race’s leaders have re-populated with more of the usual suspects – see: James, James Harden, Kevin Durant – but also started to include Butler, especially during the mid-December stretch when the Wolves were statistically the best team in the NBA.
But all the while, the Raptors were playing themselves into position as a potential Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals.
DeRozan has been, and continues to be, the center of that success.
Despite being at different points of similar routes, the Raptors and Timberwolves are on a similar level of team success.
The team’s star wings aren’t all that different.
While Butler may have a slight edge in most cases, he and DeRozan are nearly the same in some scoring and usage-related statistical categories.
When looking at their on/off numbers, the similarities – albeit with Butler at the advantage – continue. Butler’s in-game net rating at 8.3 is slightly superior DeRozan’s 6.4.
But the similarities between the two of them are less statistical and more in terms of what they bring on the court.
They’re both score-first wings that have made names for themselves scoring in the paint and from mid-range. DeRozan’s improvement this year has put him in Butler’s camp as a solid-but-not-great 3-point shooter.
But DeRozan’s improvement from deep goes past any potential individual accolades. His improvement has made the Raptors a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
When the Raptors put DeRozan together with Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors have been a playoff-quality team almost immediately.
But, similar to the Hawks in the mid-to-late 2000s, the Raptors have struggled to make their way out of the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
Yes, they’ve gotten as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, but they never truly appeared to be a team that could compete with the best of the best in the East. Lowry and DeRozan became famous for struggling in the playoffs, and their reputation started to revolve around being a “regular season team”.
While it’s possible that this could still be a thing come playoff time, the play of DeRozan has Raptors fans feeling hopeful that this year is different.
While the backstory is completely different for the Wolves, the way Butler has influenced his team is virtually the same.
No, the Wolves weren’t a playoff team the last five years; in fact, the last time they were in the postseason, neither Butler nor DeRozan were in the playoffs.
It was the rookie year of LeBron James, one of the stronger – and older – MVP favorites so far this season.
That narrative might give Butler more votes when the actual award is decided, but both of them are filling out the same role for their respective team.
Both are leading their team to a place they’ve tried to get to for years. Both are the team’s vocal leaders, and very often take the big shots at the end of close games. Both have stars they trust – Karl-Anthony Towns and Kyle Lowry, respectively – that are plenty capable to handle the load on a given night. Both are having career years.
The list goes on.
Ultimately, neither have a great shot at winning the award, as great as the pair has been all year. But they’ve both played MVP-caliber basketball.
The last time these two teams played, Butler was hurt. The Timberwolves still won, mostly off some heroics by Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Georges-Hunt.
It’s hard to envision DeRozan and the Raptors playing down to their competition — sound familiar? — the way they did at the Target Center that night, but Tuesday’s game will be different for a few reasons.
The obvious: Butler will be back. But looking back to that game, DeRozan only had 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting, as the team was mostly carried by Lowry.
DeRozan hasn’t been the same since that game. In fact, he hasn’t even hit the 20-point mark since that Jan. 20 loss at the Target Center.
But if DeRozan’s big-picture season has taught us anything, it’s to expect big things against a big-time opponent like Butler. Both are on their way to leading their team to heights not reached with their current regimes. That alone gives them legitimate MVP consideration.
When they match up with each other on Tuesday, though, none of that will matter.
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