* * *
Can the Minnesota Timberwolves hang on to a top-four seed in the Western Conference without Jimmy Butler?
* * *
David Aldridge: It's going to be tough, especially if Kawhi Leonard is really coming back soon. The San Antonio Spurs are getting healthy at the right time of year. The Portland Trail Blazeds are coming on like a freight train, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have another big run left in them, I reckon. Minnesota's defense has just been so bad for so much of the season (24th in Defensive Rating), and Butler was their best and most consistent defender by far. It will take a huge uptick at both ends of the floor from Andrew Wiggins -- who is posting a career high in Defensive Win Shares at present, but will need to pick things up even more as the Wolves' top wing defender going forward. And the upcoming schedule is just brutal: at Portland (which has won 11 of 12 at home) on Thursday, followed by a roadie at Utah, then home for Boston and Golden State, then at red-hot Washington, at San Antonio, back home for Houston and the rugged Clippers.
Steve Aschburner: Can they? Soitenly. Will they? Probably not. The race in the West is too close, with only 3 1/2 games separating third place from lotteryland. Now, I’ve seen Tom Thibodeau-coached teams do some impressive things with their best player sidelined (think Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose and all those regular-season victories from 2012-15). But all it would take for the Wolves to slip into the bottom four of the West playoff seeds would be one, maybe two additional defeats due to Jimmy Butler’s absence. Are you telling me Butler, at this rubber-legged point in the schedule, isn’t worth one or two games over the final 18? The key for Minnesota is to slide no further than sixth. Starting a first-round series on the road is one thing, starting it on the road in Houston or Oakland is an entirely different beast. After their 14-year postseason drought, the Wolves need at least a legit gulp of the playoffs, not merely a sip.
Tas Melas: That’s a lot to ask in the loaded West, but luckily for them, they’re tied for the most games played in the NBA. As my man John Schuhmann points out, the other four starters struggle defensively without Jimmy Butler. On the other hand, they only have four more games against top-10 offenses. 18 games remain -- the front nine is harder than the back nine -- maybe Jimmy can come back and save the round.
Shaun Powell: I wasn't sure the Wolves' hold on the third seed was all that secure with Jimmy Butler. Now that he's on the shelf for roughly a month, this is a prime opportunity for Oklahoma City to finally right the ship, or the Spurs to regroup with Kawhi Leonard possibly returning. Who knows how the seeds from No. 3-8 will fall prior to the playoffs? Let's face it, every team staring up at Houston and Golden State brings imperfections. The Wolves just added another ... at the absolute wrong time.
John Schuhmann: The Wolves have been fortunate to play their first two games since Butler's injury against the Bulls and Kings, but they now have eight straight against teams over .500. Their offense can hold up without Butler, but their defense has been awful (more than 114 points allowed per 100 possessions) with him off the floor. The good news is that they have two more wins than any West team outside of Houston and Oakland. Also, every team in the mix for a top four seed, including the Wolves, has a tough schedule going forward, with at least twice as many games remaining against teams with winning records than against teams with losing records. The only team with much momentum -- New Orleans -- has four fewer wins in the bank than the Wolves do, so Minnesota has a good chance to hold on, but we'll know a lot more after seeing how they get through these next eight games.
Sekou Smith: The Timberwolves are going to find it extremely difficult to remain in that top four without Jimmy Butler leading the way. With no cushion to speak of in that logjam behind the Rockets and Warriors in the Western Conference playoff chase, I don’t feel comfortable assuming anything about the final playoff positioning of the eight teams vying for those six spots. That said, this is a prime-time opportunity for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to assert themselves as leaders. I’m looking forward to seeing how these young stars handle themselves. We are about to find out if they are ready and are built for this moment.
* * *