For the first time since you-know-who won the award in 2004, Target Center crowds are chanting “MVP” for their star player.

Jimmy Butler’s successes through 47 games as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves have been well-documented. He’s led them to 99.9 percent odds of making the playoffs – for the first time since Kevin Garnett led them there in 2004 – by ESPN’s playoff probability index.

With 27 wins on the season, it is plausible that Butler could lead his new squad past last season’s 31-win total before the end of January.

Of course, he hasn’t done it all alone.

He’s gotten help from Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, of course, but this is unquestionably Butler’s team. The youngsters – most notably Towns and Wiggins – have improved immensely defensively, and have helped catapult the team to an even higher level of success than Butler could do on his own.

The success is a team-wide happening, but Butler is at the forefront of it all.

With the kind of turnaround the Timberwolves are having, it should come as no surprise that fans are starting to fight for their new favorite player to garner some consideration for the league’s top individual prize.

But how realistic are Butler’s MVP odds?

This is a complicated question, as the criteria for this award alters based on the happenings of each season.

For example, Russell Westbrook won it last season – despite his team being just a six-seed playoffs – mainly because he put up one of the gaudiest season-long statistical performances in NBA history. But if you go back just one year prior, the winner was Stephen Curry, who won on a more classic “best player on the best team in the NBA” basis – though, to be clear, he had an extraordinary season in his own right.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what the criteria will be for this year, but ultimately, the NBA usually gets the winner right, because they stick to a few key points to consider every year:

  • Team success (and the player’s direct influence on it)
  • Statistical efficiency and uniqueness
  • Health
  • Establishing a culture

With that in mind, how does Butler stack up with these four criteria, especially when compared to other MVP candidates around the league?

Team Success (and the player’s direct influence on it)

If the Timberwolves were still scraping out ugly wins like they were in November and December, it would be harder for Butler to garner consideration in this regard. But ever since the Wolves turned it on in mid-December, the work (and words) Butler put into him and his teammates seem to be paying off.

The Wolves are competing hard for the third slot in the Western Conference, top the league in net rating over the last 16 games and look to have settled – record-wise, at least – in the top tier of the Western Conference with Golden State, Houston and San Antonio.

In general, you count reasonably Golden State as its own tier. And after Thursday’s convincing loss to Houston, it might be fair to put them in their own class as well – albeit probably still a rung below the Warriors.

While it’s possible that the Wolves might not have gotten to where there are without the sudden jump in production from Towns, Butler remains the team’s clear go-to guy in clutch situations, is their best defensive player, and is the vocal leader on the floor and in the locker room.

Barring a catastrophe, the Timberwolves will make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, and an overwhelming majority of the credit goes to Butler’s on-court impact.

The advanced statistics – some more reliable than others – back that up. According to ESPN.com, he’s first in the entire NBA in win shares, third in real plus/minus and according to NBA.com is fourth in net rating among those playing at least 33 minutes per game.

The guy has made an impact both statistically and via the eye test.

Other MVP candidates who fall under this category: Kevin Durant (Golden State), LeBron James (Cleveland), James Harden (Houston), Kyrie Irving (Boston), Stephen Curry (Golden State)

Statistical Efficiency and Uniqueness

Butler won’t have a shot at the NBA in the same way Westbrook did a season ago.

He’s putting up solid splits – 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists per game on .475/.356/.875 shooting – but those aren’t numbers that are going to start a conversation by themselves.

His season-high in points is 39, and he’s only gone over the 30-point mark six times all season. He only has two 10-assist games and only one 10-rebound game, and has yet to do anything mind-blowing in terms of steals or blocks on any individual night.

The key for him has been his consistency since noticeably taking the reins on Nov. 17 against the Dallas Mavericks. He rarely dips below the 20-point mark, and on the nights he has – especially lately – Towns has taken the reigns.

The good news is, that occurrence has been rare. Meanwhile, the winning has not.

Other MVP candidates who fall under this category: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), DeMar DeRozan (Toronto), LeBron James (Cleveland), Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City)

Health

The one period of the season Butler has missed any time was not due to injury, but rather a bad case of the flu. Towards the end of October, Butler missed a pair of games to the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons.

Those games did not go well for the Butler-less Wolves.

Other players that have been MVP candidates in the past have struggled with injuries this year.

The Spurs are playing well, but Kawhi Leonard has been in and out of the lineup all year with a quad injury. James Harden has missed time, and the Rockets have struggled in his absence – but also still managed to stay ahead of Minnesota. Stephen Curry has missed some time as well, giving teammate Kevin Durant an extra chance to shine and compete for his second MVP trophy.

Butler has been plenty healthy this year, and his brief absence in October should show just how valuable he is.

Other MVP candidates who fall under this category: Kevin Durant (Golden State), LeBron James (Cleveland), Kyrie Irving (Boston)

Establishing a Culture

This might be where Butler displays his MVP credentials the most.

At the beginning of the season, he played the way he wanted his team to play; hard-working on defense, relentlessly looking for a good shot on offense, and never taking a play off.

Originally, only Gibson and Thibodeau seemed to be on pace with what their star was doing. But when it all clicked, it looked like what Butler had been preaching all season.

“Like I’ve said time and time again, we’ve got to start guarding somebody,” Butler said after a Dec. 3 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. “It’s really bad, really noticeable and everybody capitalizes on it.”

Butler had voiced his frustration all year long, but eventually, his teammates did something about it. A couple weeks after that game against the Clippers, the defense Butler wanted showed up, and they’ve been in the top five in defensive rating ever since.

Even his attitude in the locker room – a fun, engaging on that his teammates seem to enjoy – has to help build camaraderie and carry over into the locker room.

Remember when Towns gave Butler grief for Alabama scoring a touchdown in the NCAA Football national title game?

Considering how critical Butler was of his teammates just a month before, seeing an interaction like this from a talent like Towns shows how close this team is willing to appear in front of the media.

And considering how good they’ve been on the court, it’s safe to say it’s carried over.

Since I began covering the team in 2013, the Timberwolves locker room has never been this vibrant and upbeat. The chatter, bumping music and basic goofing off is happening frequently, and Butler is almost always at the center of it.

It’s how you build a culture.

Other MVP candidates who fall under this category: LeBron James (Cleveland), James Harden (Houston), Stephen Curry (Golden State)

With all that in mind, how serious are his chances of actually winning MVP?

As great as Butler has been, and as valuable as he is to the sudden success of a previously perpetually-bad franchise, his road to actually winning the award isn’t great.

He’ll almost certainly get votes, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll get many – if any – first or second-place votes.

In fact, when looking at different lists of MVP rankings from across the league – specifically at ones from NBA.com, USA Today and Sports Illustrated – you won’t find Butler in the top five in any of those lists.

The players you find in front of him on all three of those lists:

  • LeBron James
  • James Harden
  • Kevin Durant
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry

And, when you put them up to the same test we just put Butler through, their credentials come out similar – or better, in some cases – to the Wolves’ star.

The outlets above aren’t the three ultimate deciders of who wins, but all three have writers that are part of the voting process. It’s not a perfect science, and the argument can be made for Butler to be above virtually every player on the list above.

But the argument can be made just as easily the other way around.

There’s nothing wrong with awarding one of the players above with the MVP trophy. There are annual disagreements on who truly deserves the award, and someone is always left hanging.

Even if Butler doesn’t finish with the award – or even in the top three, or top five – Timberwolves fans know what they have in their new star.

The NBA’s MVP is a tough award to grab, but he’s this team’s MVP in every way.

Timberwolves fans should keep chanting.


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