The Minnesota Timberwolves are a mess without Jimmy Butler, and the question isn’t whether Butler will be able to return for the playoffs, but if the Wolves can make the playoffs without him.

Karl-Anthony Towns did everything he could to carry his Wolves to a win in Portland to no avail on Thursday night. He scored 34 points on 11-of-19 shooting, went 11-for-12 from the free throw line and grabbed 17 rebounds, which was still only good enough for a -6 plus/minus. But a -6 plus/minus is better than not having Towns on the floor.

Towns followed Thursday’s performance with an ejection in the closing minutes of the first half the following night in Utah -- a game in which his plus/minus was +6 and replaced by the -2 of Gorgui Dieng, who scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes. Towns couldn’t have picked a worse time for the first ejection of his career.

Minnesota nearly pulled off a comeback without Towns, but things spiraled out of control in the fourth quarter -- as usual -- culminating in Jeff Teague lowering his shoulder into Marco Rubio, sending him into the seats with 5:20 to go and the Wolves down nine. It was the first time in franchise history the Timberwolves had two players ejected in the same game. Head coach Tom Thibodeau also earned two technical fouls. While the Wolves’ struggles on defense and scoring in the fourth quarter without Butler were evident on Thursday, their collective frustration and lack of leadership was ever present on Friday.

The Timberwolves might be leading the NBA’s Northwest Division despite the consecutive losses in consecutive nights, but they are not a lock to make the playoffs let alone win the division. The Denver Nuggets, the eighth seed in the Western Conference currently, are just two games behind the Wolves in the standings. Utah is just four games back after its win on Friday, and things only get tougher for Minnesota.

The Wolves play 10 of their remaining 16 games against teams with records above .500 and another against a young, running Laker squad that gave the Wolves trouble when Butler was on the floor. The Wolves probably don’t have to worry about the Los Angeles Clippers taking their spot in the playoffs. While the Clippers are just a game and a half behind Denver for the eighth seed in the West, they play 16 of their final 21 games against teams over .500.

The Jazz are most likely to replace the Wolves in the playoffs. They play nine of their 20 remaining games against teams above .500. So not only do the Jazz have four games in hand to gain ground on the Wolves, but they play an easier schedule, despite three back-to-backs to Minnesota’s two.

It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Minnesota lose its next six games, which would make for an eight-game losing streak. The Wolves’ current three-game losing streak is the longest of the season, but they host Boston and Golden State, visit the Wizards and Spurs, and then host the Rockets and Clippers -- all teams above .500. A single win during that stretch would be a huge lift for a young team struggling to manage its emotions in the face of adversity.

During the same stretch, Utah has already beaten Sacramento and get to face Orlando, Indiana, Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento again, and the hapless Hawks. If the Jazz can win just four of those eight remaining games, and Minnesota goes winless, Utah would be just half a game behind Minnesota in the West, and Butler would still be out at least another five days.

Butler had surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee on Sunday, Feb. 25. The expected recovery time is four to six weeks, which keeps him out until March 25 at the earliest. You can be sure the moment Butler is physically cleared to play, he will play. That’s just his nature, which is probably why he and Thibodeau are inseparable. They’re both old-school ballers.

Given the best case scenario, Butler could return in time to get his feet under him during the Wolves’ final eight regular season games. But the Wolves won’t likely be able to extend Butler the courtesy of easing back into the game. The Timberwolves need Jimmy Butler just to make the playoffs. By the earliest time Butler can play, Minnesota could be 39-35 and no longer in control of its postseason destiny. While Minnesota has the Knicks to recover from the grueling stretch of their schedule and end a potential eight-game losing streak, the Wolves play in Philadelphia the very next day.

Luckily, the Jazz enter the tough stretch of their remaining schedule during Butler’s potential return. After playing in San Antonio, the Jazz travel to Golden State and then play host to Boston and Memphis before an April 1 game in Minnesota that will be bigger than anyone could have imagined when the two teams met in Minnesota’s home opener of the renovated Target Center on Oct. 20. If the Jazz win the games they should and lose to Indiana, New Orleans, San Antonio, Golden State and Boston, they’ll enter that game in Minnesota 41-35.

If Butler can’t return in four weeks, the Wolves can take some comfort in their schedule while they wait. Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas fill the schedule prior to the April 1 meeting with the Jazz, giving Minnesota a chance to gain some ground on Utah. Wins in all three of those games would put Minnesota at 42-35 -- a half game up on Utah.

Regardless of where the Wolves sit in the standings come April 1, winning that game would give them the tiebreaker over the Jazz. A loss wouldn’t eliminate Minnesota, though. Utah has to deal with the running Lakers twice, the Clippers, the Warriors and the Trail Blazers to finish the regular season. The Wolves also visit the Lakers, but get Memphis at home and Denver twice to close the regular season.

If it takes Butler the six weeks to be physically cleared to play, the Wolves will have him for two games at home against Memphis and Denver. Whether he returns at all will depend on where the Wolves are in the standings at the time, but odds are they’ll be fighting for their playoff lives rather than resting their legs for the playoffs. Without Butler, the Wolves are the worst defensive team in the NBA, according to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune. With him, they have the 11th best defensive rating in the league. They have five days off to prepare for the visiting Celtics on Thursday in a nationally televised game.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves were fourth in the NBA’s Western Conference after a comeback win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Minneapolis on Monday, but there are glaring problems with the wolfpack that could derail its playoff hopes.

The Minutes

Tom Thibodeau, unsurprisingly, is overworking his starters. All five of his starters are averaging more than 33 minutes played per game. That’s right, Taj Gibson is averaging 33 minutes a night because he has the highest on-the-floor/off-the-floor plus/minus of anyone on the team (+23).

In Thursday’s 23-point win over Sacramento, which was a 24-point Timberwolves lead entering the fourth quarter, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins played 36, 35 and 34 minutes, respectively. That’s just one minute less than their average for the season. With two minutes left and a 20-point lead, Wiggins and Towns were still on the floor. That’s just creating risk where there is none.

It’s not as if Butler, Towns and Wiggins are playing more minutes than anyone ever has. But all three are in the top 15 in minutes played per game this season. No other team has three players in the top 15 in average minutes played.

The result has been multiple collapses late in games. The Timberwolves were torched by Ben Simmons back-cuts over and over again in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia on Tuesday at Target Center. A nine-point lead with 6:06 left evaporated in less than four minutes.

The Timberwolves led by 13 over the the Wizards at home with 9:51 to go in the third quarter. By the end of the third quarter it was a one-possession game. They lost. They led by six with 9:04 to go at Phoenix and lost by eight. And they led by 11 with 9:57 to go against Detroit at home and lost by three.

All told the Wolves have lost three games by one possession, one in overtime, and one more by four points. This was a big problem for Minnesota last season. The Wolves logged a .391 winning percentage in close games in 2016-17, fifth-worst in the league. They’re 14th with a .545 winning percentage in close games this year, so things are looking up. But as the minutes add up, the fourth quarters get tougher and tougher.

How to fix it: Give Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng more minutes. Thibodeau finally played Crawford in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game against Portland, resulting in 23 minutes played. Crawford played all 82 games for the Clippers last year, averaging 26.3 minutes per game. He’s averaging 17.7 minutes per game this season, and his numbers don’t indicate a falling off. Both his offensive and defensive ratings are actually better than they were last year. The legs of Minnesota’s best defender, Butler, would be grateful for Crawford’s minutes in the fourth quarter. Butler also benefited directly from Crawford’s presence on the floor in the fourth.

Dieng has seen his minutes nearly cut in half from last season, from 32.4 to 17.7 per game. He hasn’t been quite as effective, but he was playing power forward last season. He’s still capable of more than 17.7 minutes per game at center, which would keep Towns fresh for the fourth quarters.

The Threes (or lack thereof)

The Timberwolves finished five of 29 from beyond the arc against the 76ers last Tuesday, and had made five percent of their shots from beyond the arc until Jimmy Butler hit consecutive threes late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Wolves to force overtime. They were missing their best perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica, though.

Even with Bjelica, the Wolves are 20th in three-point percentage and third to last in three-pointers attempted. They lack shooters, and given their defensive struggles, keeping up with the Rockets and Warriors will be a challenge. Scoring 107.7 points per game just won’t cut it against the West’s best.

How to fix it: Trade for Tony Snell. This should thrill Thibodeau, who has been trying to get the Bulls band back together. Snell is fourth in the league in three-point percentage, ahead of Klay Thompson, but he’s missed time with left patellar tendinitis. Assuming he’s healthy and his 70-point increase in his three-point percentage from last year is no fluke, he’s exactly what Thibodeau and the Wolves need, but the Bucks will want a lot in return. Snell would likely require a player and a draft pick.

The Bucks need a center and the Wolves have four on the roster. Dieng could end up being one piece they seek, which would clear some money for the Wolves, but leave them with 17 minutes going to Cole Aldrich, unless Justin Patton is ever able to play. A backup center can be had for less than $14 million, though. Kyle O’Quinn and his $4 million salary could be brought in from New York for a second-round draft pick, or Dewayne Dedmon of the Hawks could be a short-term solution at $6 million.

The Bench

The Wolves’ bench has been atrocious. Only the Pelicans have been worse, so it’s not as though Thibodeau needs to make up a reason for giving his starters minutes. Luckily, adding depth prior to the trade deadline is always a possibility. Besides Crawford, the Wolves don’t have bench players who can create their own open shots. Tyus Jones is barely a facilitator, and Bjelica is a spot-up shooter.

How to fix it: Adding a guy like O’Quinn would be a boost given his box plus/minus of five points above average per 100 possessions, and that’s mostly due to his defense. Dieng’s is .8.

Acquiring Ersan Ilyasova from Atlanta would improve Minnesota’s bench, too. His offensive and defensive ratings per 100 possessions this season are the best in his career and would be even better if he was playing fewer than the 23.5 minutes per game he’s currently averaging.

So while there are many problems with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they can be fixed through trades. Acquiring bench players at the deadline will at least give Thibodeau options that will save his starters’ legs, but Thibodeau still has to be convinced the team would benefit from his starters playing fewer minutes.


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If you’ve driven near downtown Minneapolis lately, you’ve surely noticed how different (and better) Target Center looks on the outside. Target’s mascot Bullseye looks much more at home shaking his tail on the north side of Target Center overlooking Target Field. But it’s what’s inside Target Center that makes the new Minnesota Timberwolves experience worth every penny.

The Product

There has never been a Timberwolves team with so much potential. What head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau has done with the roster over the last few years is extraordinary. Everything the team lacked last season has been addressed. The Timberwolves now have the lockdown defender who can guard anyone on the floor in Jimmy Butler.

Thibedeau has vastly improved the bench, which has already paid dividends, with Jamal Crawford taking over the fourth quarter in the home opener against Ricky Rubio and the Utah Jazz. And the potential of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns is getting closer and closer to being realized with every game. The two have already won a huge conference, road game at Oklahoma City in the closing seconds, with Towns providing the hard pick that freed Wiggins to bank in a buzzer beater on Sunday night. Beating Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George on their own court is no small feat, regardless of how early it is in the season.

While many of these Timberwolves are still pups (Towns is 21 and Wiggins is 22) and will continue to experience growing pains closing out games, they are already 2-0 in close games this season. They were 26th in the league with a .391 winning percentage in close games last season. The product is definitely worth watching.

The Package

The Timberwolves are wrapped in a newly beautified building, but the amenities inside the building are what make a visit to Target Center worth every penny. The new Daktronics LED video display features 4,300 square feet of display space, making for a better view of replays than you’d have from the comfort of your own home. Each of the four main displays are approximately 18 feet high by 33 feet wide.

Following the example set by the Minnesota Twins, the troughs in the men’s bathrooms are now gone. And while concession prices might be a little higher than in the past (a Coca-Cola will cost you $6 and a water $5), the accessibility to food and refreshments regardless of your location has improved considerably. There are more local and healthy options available, including a Walleye Sandwich at Lord Fletcher’s in Section 136 and Tuna Togarashi at the Life Cafe in Section 106. (Hint: the lines at the concession stands offering healthier options are always shorter than those offering burgers and hot dogs. I didn’t spend any time in line at the Life Cafe during the home opener.)

The Presentation

Jimmy Butler taking the microphone prior to the home opener and welcoming everyone in attendance to the new Target Center was a fabulous way to present the new product to the people. Better yet were the pregame introductions.

While the new uniforms are a little blah, at least the advertisement for Fitbit isn’t overdone, and at least the Timberwolves are advertising a health product. Once the neon green, alternative jerseys debut, though, they’re going to catch on like football did in Seattle when they went to a similar color scheme.

The new Timberwolves logo is a vast improvement, though. The old logo didn’t convey much through imagery. Sure, the Timberwolf was menacing, but the only way you knew the team was from Minnesota was due to the word “Minnesota” in the logo. The new logo can stand alone without words and conveys not only where the team resides, thanks to the use of the North Star, but it also conveys what sport the team plays, with a basketball included in the background. It’s also an homage to the original Timberwolves logo, which was much better than the last attempt and utilized a similar shade of green used now.

The Timberwolves organization mostly aced their rebranding. The only thing that could have been done better are the jerseys, and those change pretty regularly. If you haven’t seen a Timberwolves game yet, now’s the time to get down to Target Center.


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Last week I tweeted that I thought the Minnesota Timberwolves had the best shot of dethroning the Golden State Warriors the soonest, and the Wolves seem to be thinking the same thing with their pursuit of Jimmy Butler. The Wolves’ core of young talent is undeniable, and the veteran presence of Ricky Rubio at point guard has been working wonders (ninth amongst PG in real +/-). Offensively, the Wolves are dangerous. On defense, they’re disastrous.

The Wolves have a big problem allowing open shots. Only the Los Angeles Lakers allowed a higher adjusted field-goal percentage than Minnesota’s 53.5 percent. They were tied with Sacremento at third to last in points per shot allowed. So a defender is what Minnesota needs, and Butler can defend every position on the court.

Butler was worth 3.8 defensive win-shares last year. That’s second-best to only his 2013-14 campaign. His value added over a replacement player (VORP) was a career-high 6.3. Best yet for Minnesota is that Butler was at odds with Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg all season and never seemed to complain while working under Tom Thibodeau.

Also, the Bulls were high on Kris Dunn last year, and the Wolves really have no place for him if Butler is added to the mix, moving Andrew Wiggins to the two. It would take more than Dunn to get Butler, so the Wolves could be floating Zach LaVine, who’s recovering from knee surgery, and Gorgui Dieng, who will make over $14 million next year. He made just $2.35 million this season.

“But what about the center position?” you might ask. True, the Wolves are lacking center depth after waiving the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic. Well, there are a trio of college centers right around the area where Chicago picks at 16. My favorite post player down there is probably power forward John Collins of Wake Forest, though. He nearly averaged a double-double last season playing against the powerhouse that is the ACC.

Kentucky power forward Adrice Adebayo is also enticing given his age (19) and size (six-foot-ten, 242 pounds). He averaged 13 points and eight boards playing 30 minutes per game in the SEC. Jarrett Allen was no slouch at Texas, either, going for 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He’s also six-foot-ten and weighs in at 233 pounds.

Then there’s seven-foot-two Anzejs Pasecniks of Latvia, about whom I know very little. He hit six of 13 threes in international play this year and averaged five blocks per game in very limited minutes. Size plays, though, and Pasecniks has it in spades. He’s not going to be the ideal guy to start at center on day one in the NBA, though. He’s going to take time and has taken time to develop and earn minutes in international play.

I doubt Adebayo, Allen or Pasecniks are NBA-ready, starting centers when the 2017-18 season begins, which means the Timberwolves likely lose Dieng as a trade chip. They’ll need someone to hold down the block while the rookie develops, and Cole Aldrich is not that someone. My cousin thinks Nemanja Bjelica could play the four, with Towns moving to the post if the Wolves trade Dieng and have no one else but a rookie and Aldrich as bigs. He predicted all this would happen yesterday and is a trade whiz on NBA 2K, so I generally trust his basketball logic. I doubt that’s the situation the Wolves desire, though. They’re looking to compete in the playoffs and put a halt to the Warriors’ dynasty.

The Wolves might not even be looking to pick in the first round at all, which would be very valuable to the Bulls, since trading Butler is officially announcing a rebuilding effort. I expect Butler to be a member of the Timberwolves before they use the seventh pick in the NBA Draft. It starts at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN and online using WatchESPN.


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