On Friday, Minnesota Timberwolves fans watched in horror as Jimmy Butler twisted awkwardly and fell, clutching his right knee. Butler, the player who brought hustle plays and toughness back to Minnesota, didn’t even attempt to get to his feet.
It was eerily similar to the moment last year when Zach LaVine tore his ACL. Fans and players alike waited with bated breath for the results of Butler’s MRI to come back. If he had torn his ACL, his season would be over. Most likely, he would miss the first half of next season as well.
Finally, the Timberwolves announced in a press release that Butler had avoided the dreaded ACL injury. Instead, he had suffered a torn meniscus. On Sunday, he underwent successful surgery and was officially listed as out indefinitely.
NEWS: Jimmy Butler underwent successful meniscus surgery this morning on his right knee. The operation was performed by Team Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Diane Dahm at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Butler will be sidelined indefinitely. #Twolves pic.twitter.com/J7ZhxHhXvF— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) February 25, 2018
Even though Butler’s injury wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, it was still a tough blow for the Timberwolves. He has been an instrumental part of the Wolves’ best season in recent memory. Without him, their future is filled with questions.
Will He Return to His Pre-Injury Level of Play?
The nagging worry with injuries, especially non-contact injuries, is that a player may never be the same again. It’s familiar territory for head coach Tom Thibodeau. During his time coaching the Chicago Bulls, he watched firsthand as Derrick Rose tried and fail to recover from knee injuries. The 2011 MVP was waived by the Utah Jazz in early February, and no NBA team has seriously tried to sign him since.
Luckily for Jimmy Butler, menisci tears have a relatively good prognosis. In 2011, several researchers studied 129 incidences of isolated menisci tears in NBA players. Isolated means that the players didn’t suffer another injury, like an ACL tear, in conjunction with the torn meniscus.
80 percent of the players in the study returned to the NBA. Of these players, there was no significant change in PER, on average, from their pre-injury careers. This is highly encouraging for Butler going forward. Statistically, it is likely that he will return to play at the same level as before.
When Will He Return?
The Timberwolves’ official statement is that Butler will be out indefinitely. However, Jimmy Butler has apparently been telling people that he will return for the playoffs.
Tom Thibodeau will address reporters here in Minnesota shortly. But Butler is telling people he plans to be back for playoffs.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 25, 2018
This isn’t totally unexpected. According to the same 2011 study, players with menisci tears return in about six weeks, on average. The NBA Playoffs will begin in about seven weeks, so there’s a good chance Butler will be ready to return to the court by then.
According to Taj Gibson, Jimmy is the kind of player who will handle this injury well.
“He thrives in adversity,” said Gibson, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “If he has a chance to come back and play, he’ll play. As a friend first, I want him to be 110 percent ready. He was talking so much trash on the plane, you didn’t even really think he was hurt. He came in today making jokes, being his normal self. He’s fine mentally. It could’ve been worse. Most people thought it was a lot worse. I think he’s already in the right state of mind.”
Can the Wolves Still Make the Playoffs?
The Wolves are currently the fourth seed in the packed Western Conference. On one hand, this means they are less than half a game back from the third seed San Antonio Spurs. However, it also means that they are just 2.5 games ahead of the eighth seed Denver Nuggets. Worse still, the tenth seed Jazz are only 4.5 games behind. If the Wolves lose their momentum, they could fall back into their familiar lottery position.
While the Wolves first Jimmy-less game on Saturday was a blowout win, it doesn’t really mean much. It was against the Bulls, who are tanking for a draft pick. The Wolves absolutely should beat them, with or without Butler.
So far this season, Jimmy Butler has missed seven games. The Wolves have won just three of these games. This means they have a win percentage of .429, which is just barely better than the eleventh seed Los Angeles Lakers. On average, the Wolves lose by five points without Butler.
In essence, the Wolves really aren’t that different than they were last year when they don’t have Butler to depend on. He is key to every facet of the Wolves new, successful style of play. When he is on the floor, the Wolves’ offensive rating is 116.3, while their opponents’ is 107.8. When he is off the court, the Wolves’ offensive rating is 109.8 and their opponents’ is 118.4.
Jimmy Butler brings a grit to the team that Wolves’ basketball hasn’t seen for years. He single-handedly beat the Oklahoma City Thunder while battling not only defenders but also the flu:
Jimmy Butler won't quit pic.twitter.com/2hkxljLZrX— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) October 28, 2017
He took over countless fourth quarters to ensure victory for the Timberwolves:
Jimmy Butler took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 20 points in the last 7 minutes to win the Wolves the game pic.twitter.com/FehALvXXmn— Key Sang (@Phantele_) December 4, 2017
It’s not just in his time on the court that Butler has a massive impact on the team.
“That’s the thing, everybody when they talk about Jimmy, they see the numbers and everything he does on the court,” Timberwolves’ guard Jamal Crawford said, per Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press. “But he does so much off the court, and I think that’s even more difficult, to be honest with you. Because you have to be a leader, not just of a team, but of a franchise, a city, and get everybody on the same page and pulling everybody the same direction. He does so many little things behind the scenes that people don’t talk about, and we’ll miss that. We’ll miss that tremendously.”
The Timberwolves have a tough schedule coming up. Eight out of their next nine opponents are teams above .500. Most likely, they will need to win at least 45 games to make the playoffs. That means they need to win eight out of their last 19 games. This will undoubtedly be a challenge without Jimmy Butler, but it is by no means impossible.
What are the Wolves’ Keys to Success Without Jimmy?
According to both Karl-Anthony Towns and Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves need to replace Butler by committee. “We’re going to need a team effort,” Towns said, per Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune. “At the end of the day, we have to do it collectively as a group. Everyone needs to pick up their game, including myself.”
Their win over the Bulls on Saturday was a prime example of what the Jimmy-less Timberwolves should strive to be. The whole team stepped up, and there were five players in double figures. Crawford, who had 19 points, and Jeff Teague, who had 25 points, were particularly aggressive. Perhaps most importantly, they finished the fourth quarter strong, outscoring Chicago 36-22.
If the Wolves can continue to have multiple players step up, they have a decent chance of still making the postseason. “We talk every day about the possibilities,” Tom Thibodeau said, per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. “We’re 60 games into it. I like the team that we have.”
While the Butler injury is quite a blow to this team, it does show how far they’ve come. Most years, this is the point of the season when Timberwolves fans would begin saying, “Well, we’re not mathematically out of it.” It’s unfortunate that losing Butler means that the playoffs are not a sure thing for the Wolves. But the fact that they have a real shot at making the playoffs for the first time in years is a victory in itself.