BROOKLYN — The second longest playoff drought in NBA history may be coming to an end.
With their trade for Jimmy Butler on Thursday, the Minnesota Timberwolves have accelerated the development of their young core and almost guaranteed that they will reach the postseason for the first time since 2004. Butler is an All-Star and an impact player on both ends of the floor.
With the Wolves & Kings officially being eliminated this week, here are the longest playoff droughts in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/5Wu6QAm1op
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) April 2, 2017
Ultimately though, it will be up to the two No. 1 picks on the Wolves’ roster to make the trade worthwhile and take the Wolves to the next level.
It is fair to label the 2016-17 Timberwolves a disappointment. After hiring Tom Thibodeau as team president and head coach and with the development of two of the last three No. 1 picks, they took only a small step forward (two games) in the standings, finishing 10 games out of a playoff spot.
The biggest disappointment was their lack of progress on defense, where Thibodeau was supposed to make a big impact after coaching four top-five defenses in his five seasons in Chicago. The Wolves ranked 26th on that end of the floor last season, doing a particularly poor job of protecting the basket.
Butler will help the defense. He was a big part of two of those top-five defenses Thibodeau had in Chicago and a key to the Bulls’ sixth-ranked defense last season. He gives Minnesota more athleticism and versatility on the perimeter.
Timberwolves Acquire Three-Time NBA All-Star and 2016-17 All-NBA Third Team Selection Jimmy Butler » https://t.co/EzD0baxDb4 pic.twitter.com/FnaQmQ7Uto
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) June 23, 2017
But for the Wolves to be a good defensive team, they will need more commitment from Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Their defensive issues were often effort-related, and the two former No. 1 picks were two of the biggest culprits on the roster when it came to focus and energy on that end of the floor. Minnesota allowed 110.7 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would have ranked last in the league) with Wiggins and Towns on the floor together.
Kevin Garnett wasn’t necessarily missed on the floor, but his voice was missed in Towns’ ear. The Wolves needed that leadership that Garnett provided in the previous season and maybe the 27-year-old Butler can be the adult the young Wolves need in their locker room, the guy who can get Towns and Wiggins that they have to be better defensively to get where they want to go in this league.
With Butler in Minnesota, the Wolves now have to decide if Ricky Rubio is the right point guard for the rest of the group. Rubio is a terrific distributor and one of the best defenders at the point guard position. But six years into his career, he remains a poor shooter from distance. He shot 44.0 percent from mid-range, the 25th best mark among 70 players who attempted at least 200 mid-range shots last season.
Being a good mid-range shooter isn’t as good as being an average 3-point shooter, though. Shooting 44.0 percent from mid-range gets you 0.88 points per shot, well below the league average (for all shots) of 1.03. The average 3-point shooter (at 35.8 percent) earns 1.07 points per shot, but Rubio has shot just 31.5 percent from beyond the arc in his career, just 30.6 percent last season.
Last season, Thibodeau put the ball in the hands of Wiggins and Towns more often than they had it in the past. Now, Minnesota has added third non-point guard to make plays, making Rubio’s own playmaking less off an asset and his shooting more of a liability. If you’re going to run the offense through your wings and one of your bigs, it becomes more important to have a point guard who can shoot.
The Wolves don’t have much flexibility under the salary cap to add other pieces. There are other teams that can use a player like Rubio, but he’d still have value in Minnesota, especially if he can add range to his improving jumper.
With the Golden State Warriors looking like the clear favorites to win the next two or three championships, it’s understandable why teams are looking long-term for their window of contention. But the Wolves need to go from bad to good before they can even think about becoming great. They need to end that playoff drought.
The trade for Butler was a no-brainer for Minnesota, especially when you consider that he’s under contract for two more seasons at less than $20 million per year and that Zach LaVine probably won’t be fully recovered from his knee injury until his rookie contract has expired. Butler is a huge upgrade from LaVine and immediately makes the Wolves a better team on both ends of the floor.
But for the trade to really pay off, Towns and Wiggins need to take the next step in their personal development. That begins with better effort on defense.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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