It’s hard not to notice the difference in the way the Minnesota Timberwolves are playing since Jimmy Butler was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re sharing the ball, they’re playing defense and, most importantly, they won the first three games since his departure.
“Those guys came over with a sense of urgency, and they’re real cool guys on and off the court,” said guard Jeff Teague after practice on Saturday. “We’re gelling right now. We just gotta continue to keep playing hard and together.”
Andrew Wiggins suddenly looks like a deep threat who can also score by exploding towards the basket and make defensive plays, and Karl-Anthony Towns is back to his regular double-double production and is blocking shots. Robert Covington and Dario Saric have made an immediate impact, and fans are chanting: “Who Needs Butler?”
“When you make a play for somebody else and get them involved in the game, everyone’s feeling good, everyone’s getting good rhythm, everyone’s feeling good because everyone’s touching the ball,” said Andrew Wiggins, who is making over 40 percent of his 3s this season and appears to be relishing with better floor spacing.
Even with a more modern, egalitarian offense and three straight wins that have brought the Wolves back into the pack in the West, there are still gripes to be had with the team — depending on who you ask.
After Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Thibodeau said there were 11 players worthy of being in the rotation. Rookie Josh Okogie, who has already made an impression with his energy, played less than a minute. And veteran Anthony Tolliver, a 3-point shooter and stalwart defender, did not play for the second game in a row.
Thibodeau said he’s going to stick with a nine-man rotation, however.
“Right now everyone’s healthy, [but] usually you have somebody who’s nicked up,” he said. “The good thing is having that depth, and then the unfortunate thing is tough decisions have to be made. Everyone has to stay ready.”
He emphasized that he likes what Tolliver and Okogie have brought to the table, however, and they could see more minutes as the season goes along. Derrick Rose appears to be undergoing a career renaissance after scoring 50 points against the Utah Jazz, but has battled injury since then and could be replaced by Okogie. And Gorgui Dieng may be in the middle of a $64 million contract, but he could be swapped out of the rotation for Tolliver in order to add more shooting and perimeter defense.
“With Anthony, he’s been around, and he’s been such a great pro his whole career,” said Thibodeau. “He’s a great worker, a great teammate. And Josh is still young and learning.”
The biggest revelation has been Wiggins’ 3-point shooting. It not only allows him to play within a modern NBA offense, but also opens up space for him on the floor because defenders cannot lag off him and hope he shoots a contested 2. And now that he’s hitting his free throws at a more regular clip, he can attack the basket without reservation.
“Two years ago he started really fast, and then last year he got off to a slower start,” said Thibodeau. “I like the way he’s not hesitating now, and he’s looking for it. And I think he’s reading the defense well.”
Wiggins said that he worked with trainer Vlad Matevski on his shot in the offseason.
“It’s never good when you miss shots. It’s all about confidence, repetition, preparation — preparing yourself for the moment,” said Wiggins. “I felt like last year I was not in the place where I wanted to be, I felt like I was stuck in one place, stuck in the corner a lot.
“But this year stuff has opened up, I feel like I’m moving better without the ball and getting easy baskets around the rim that puts me in a good feel, good rhythm to knock down shots.”
The new-look Wolves present both positives and negatives. Wiggins and Towns are starting to look more like max players, and Covington and Saric are allowing for better floor spacing and more ball movement reminiscent of a modern NBA offense. On the other hand, many fans want to see Saric start over Taj Gibson, Tolliver to replace Dieng in the rotation and more of Okogie — an electric rookie who has had his fair share of success in the league so far.
For right now, everyone needs to take the good with the bad. Saric may eventually be named the starter as he develops chemistry with his new teammates, and Gibson says he’s willing to come off the bench. Tolliver will likely get playing time because of the attributes — shooting and defense — that he brings to the team, or he’ll be traded to one of 20-plus teams who would gladly take him right now. And Okogie provides great insurance for Rose, who has an extensive injury history.
Above all else, this team is winning, and doing it in a way that’s fun again. That’s not something anyone saw coming in the darkest days of the Jimmy Butler Saga — at least not this soon.