In Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets, Jimmy Butler suffered what the Timberwolves are calling a “meniscal injury” to his right knee.
With just over three minutes to go in the third quarter against the team with the league’s best record, Butler was fighting for a rebound in the post. Directly before he fired a pass to forward Taj Gibson, Butler took an awkward step and fell to the ground in pain, clutching his right knee.
While team doctors rushed onto the court, Butler was clearly in pain, judging by his contorted facial expression. He could not leave the floor under his own power, and it seemed as if one of Minnesota Timberwolves fans’ biggest nightmares had become a reality.
Due to the clutching of the knee, and the fact that he needed help off of the court, many thought the injury was surely an ACL tear. That would have been sure-fire season-ender for one of the best guards in the NBA.
Instead, the Timberwolves PR account released a statement Saturday at 3:45 ET that the injury was to his meniscus. They gave no timetable for his return.
Being that the injury isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Butler’s season, how effective can Minnesota be without him?
Most meniscus injuries take four to six weeks to rehab, if it is not serious. That would put his return date somewhere between March 24 and April 7. If the injury is not severe, then Butler would be ready to play at least one week before the playoffs are slated to begin.
Let’s assume the worst for a moment, saying Butler cannot return until April 7. The Timberwolves will have two games before the playoffs’ start date on April 14. That gives him two “rehab” games to get reacclimated to the team before the important games start. Two games is far from ideal, but it is much better than simply tossing him into NBA playoff basketball without time to get a handle on the pace.
In the best-case scenario, Butler could return to the court during the March 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies. That would be doubly useful. His first game could come against a subpar team, meaning the Wolves could win easily despite restricted minutes. Plus, he would have eight games to get into playoff shape.
We will know more about his return date soon, but for now all we know is that the Timberwolves certainly plan on having him return for their playoff run.
Expectations without Butler
Minnesota is currently the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Their surprisingly efficient offensive game plan has propelled them forward in a way that wasn’t supposed to come to fruition until next season. The problem is, however, much of that success was thanks to Jimmy Butler.
Before his injury, he was putting up 22.2 points per game, along with 5.0 assists and 5.4 rebounds. The biggest loss to the team, though, will be his minutes. Jimmy “Buckets” was averaging 37.1 minutes per game, which led all NBA players. Replacing someone who is on the court more than any other individual in the entire league will not be easy, regardless of their offensive output.
Tom Thibodeau likes to ride his starters hard. That has been his identity since he started coaching. But Minnesota’s relatively weak bench made it less of a strategy and more of a necessity. Considering Butler’s consistent offense and his admirable defense, he is a natural choice to eat up minutes for any coach.
But without him, it is likely that Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Shabazz Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will all have no choice but to help pick up the slack. Thibodeau is capable of creating lineups that will somewhat mask Butler’s absence, but players will have to shift positions often.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still having a terrific season, and the offense can shift its focus to him. Teague can play shooting guard, and Crawford can help stop the bleeding in the backcourt. With the talent on the team, it is probably unwise to bet the Timberwolves fall out of the playoffs completely.
That being said, Minnesota has a rough stretch of games during the period they can count on Butler being out of the lineup.
If he returns on March 26, then nine of their 11 games without him will be against teams above .500. This includes a five game stretch in which they play the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets. These are not only playoff teams, but both favorite and dark horse contenders to reach the NBA Finals.
There is a very real chance that Minnesota could drop all five of those games. Depending on what the rest of the teams below them in the standings do, that could just be enough to put them on the bubble. Being that the Timberwolves have less games to play than any other team in the league, this could dig them a hole that might be hard to get out of.
The good news is that after that stretch is done, the Wolves will play the Grizzlies twice, along with the Hawks, Mavericks and Lakers. These are all teams well below the .500 mark. Throw in a game with the Jazz and two games agains the Nuggets (which they will more than likely split) and that could give them life.
It’s not out of line to say their seed will go as Butler’s injury goes. If his knee is worse than the Wolves feared, they might be fighting for a spot. If it is routine, then Minnesota will probably end what is currently the longest playoff draught in basketball.
Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
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