It’s very rare that trading away a top-15 player in the league improves your team. But, when the Minnesota Timberwolves parted ways with Jimmy Butler in a trade that sent him to the Philadelphia 76ers in early November, they did just that. Butler’s presence in Minnesota was toxic. Dating back to when it became public of Butler’s adamant desire to get out of the city in September, a dark and awkward aroura clouded the Wolves until his eventual departure.
The initial decision to wait until November to deal Butler was a poor one, yet the return Minnesota netted for him was valuable. Robert Covington and Dario Saric were sent from Philadelphia to Minnesota, along with Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick.
Fast-forward to now, and the Wolves’ playoff hopes are dwindling. In a Western Conference that is loaded with talent from top to bottom, Minnesota has gone through too many issues this season. Outside of being forced to trade Butler, the team fired President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach of the team, Tom Thibodeau in the first week of January.
Just days before Thibodeau was let go, Covington, the most valuable piece of return in the Butler trade, suffered a knee injury and has been out since. Along with a mixture of other injuries, adjusting to a new coaching philosophy and system in Ryan Saunders, and the general growing pains of a young team, the Wolves just have not been good enough to claim a playoff spot.
At the time of this writing, the Wolves are four games out of the final two playoff spots in the west and sit at 11th place in the conference. They have dropped three straight: a competitive game to the Milwaukee Bucks, a pivotal game to the Sacramento Kings, who are currently ninth in the west, and an embarrassing overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
After making the postseason for the first time since 2004 last season, it is becoming more and more apparent that they will not return to the playoffs this season. But that is okay, for all the reasons that were mentioned above. They had too many factors working against them. Hope and promise remain for the franchise in the face of a disappointing and chaotic year.
The greatest reason for hope lies on the shoulders of a once in a generation level big man in Karl-Anthony Towns. At just 23 years old, Towns has averaged 23.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game. At his volume, Towns is one of the most efficient scorers for his position, shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from the 3-point line.
Earlier this season, he was the second player since 1973-1974 to post back-to-back games with a gaudy stat line of 25 or more points, 15 or more rebounds, five or more assists, and five or more blocks. The only other player to record such a stat line consecutively since Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
On top of historic performances, Towns has had a transcendent month of February, in which he has averaged 29.5 points, 13.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game. He’s shooting an outrageous 64.4 percent from the field and 54.3 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a plus-3.5 this month, his second-best net rating of a month this season. He continues to improve, and what he can do on the court as a center is pretty much unheard of.
The most outlandish aspect of Towns’ game is his ability to handle the basketball. In this play, Towns rebounds the ball, dribbles it up the court, and then drives into the lane for a contested finish over Alex Len.
But Towns isn’t just a stretch-five. Actually, he has one of, if not the best post games in the league. He can score in a multitude of ways inside. In this clip, he knocks down a fadeaway jump shot out of a post-up inside. Then, he backs his way down inside and hooks a shot over the lengthy Harry Giles for a smooth bucket.
His game is not fully developed, but his talent is immense, and that is why he has been an All-Star in two of his four years in the league. He still has a long ways to go defensively, but he has shown improvement on that end, and needs to be consistently locked in on that side of the floor to be as effective as he can be.
Reinforcements are coming for the Wolves, as Covington is set to return any day now. Prior to the injury, Covington was averaging a career-high 14.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game on 43/37/77 shooting splits with Minnesota. He is a special player, especially on the defensive end of the floor, and is a hand-in-glove fit with the Timberwolves. He and Towns have a plus-2.0 rating on the floor together, an indicator that those two can be the building blocks of the team together.
Covington’s defensive style of play is similar to Kawhi Leonard’s, as can be seen in this clip below. As Cedi Osman drives towards the basket, Covington literally rips the ball out of his hands, dribbles down to the other end, and sinks a transition 3-pointer.
He is extremely active with his hands and moves with purpose and speed on defense. Whether he is jumping the passing lane or hounding a ball-handler with his swiping hands, his defense is tantalizing, and he is in the upper echelon of defenders in the league.
The Wolves could have the best defensive pairing of wings in the league down the line. Their first round pick from the offseason, Josh Okogie has shined in a limited but increasing role, displaying elite defensive potential with a developable offensive aresnal.
Okogie is an assassin on defense. He has great hands, uses his length, and is a cannonball of energy.
As for his offensive game, Okogie can handle the basketball as an off-guard and does a decent job of getting downhill at the rim. He is shooting just 26.7 percent from the 3-point line so far, but in the month of February, he has made 34.4 percent of his triples on over three attempts per game. He is just 20 years old, and has risen to become an important piece to Minnesota’s future.
Yet the Wolves have heavy money doled out to Andrew Wiggins, who doesn’t seem too likely to put together a semplace of a career many had hoped the former No.1 pick would have. While he’s averaging nearly 18 points per game, he is doing so on under 40 percent shooting from the field and 33.6 percent shooting from distance. He is a horrifically inefficient high volume shooter.
He is in the middle of the first year of a contract extension with the Wolves that will pay him $147 million over the next four years. Minnesota would be much better without Wiggins on the roster, but for now, he and his bloated contract that will severely impact their cap situation over the next four seasons, remain a part of the franchise.
The Wiggins issue isn’t a huge problem, but it is a big one. Luckily, the Wolves have a lot trending in the right direction. They have one of the best bigs in the game on their roster, a pair of high potential wings, offensive ace Dario Saric, and the luxury of time. Towns just re-upped with the Wolves on a five-year extension. Covington is under contract until the end of the 2021-2022 season. Okogie is a rookie. This core will have time to develop and grow together.
All is not lost in Minnesota. They have a core in place, which is more than teams such as the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, or Memphis Grizzlies can say. The rest of the season should be interesting in Minny. Between Towns, Covington, Okogie, Dario Saric, Tyus Jones, the last games will be spent developing chemistry between this core, with eyes set on a future with a defensive built around pesky and aggressive wings and an offense pillared by a juggernaut center, who posts historic numbers on a nightly basis.