It seems unlikely that the Minnesota Timberwolves will be better next season if and when they trade away a key player in Jimmy Butler.
Minnesota outscored opponents by 10.0 points per 100 possessions when Karl-Anthony Towns was on the court with Butler during the regular season. It will be a big hit to the franchise, who just last year traded away young assets for the one-year gamble on the four-time All-Star.
So what does that mean for Towns, who recently signed a massive contract extension to remain with the Wolves? The 22-year-old superstar will assuredly get better with age and experience, as he recently explained. But he can also improve with a new role once Butler is no longer with the organization.
Last season, Towns averaged 19.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per 36 minutes when he shared the floor with Butler, connecting on 39.3 percent of his attempts from long distance. During the time that Butler was not playing alongside the big man, Towns averaged 24.2 points and 12.5 rebounds per 36 while shooting 46.0 percent from three-point range.
His usage rate spike from 23.0 percent next to Butler to 26.3 percent when the wing was injured or resting. The former No. 1 pick even scored a career-high 56 points during a game when, no coincidence, Butler did not play.
Jonathan Tjarks wrote about why the 22-year-old was able to shine in that performance (via The Ringer):
“Towns was more comfortable on offense because he knew the ball would come back to him. He could pass the ball out of the post and re-establish deeper position inside, or move the ball around the perimeter, force the defense to rotate, and get a better driving lane for himself. His ratio of assists to turnovers in the game (2-to-1) was almost twice as high as his ratio (1.26) over the course of the season.”
Tjarks argues that Towns should be paired with teammates who can truly complement his skill set by spacing the floor and allowing him to shoot far more three-pointers rather than live in the post.
When he is on the court, his offense should create more opportunities for him to spot up. He was 104-for-215 (48.4 percent) on this play type, which would put him in the Top 10 among those with at least 100 attempts.
And few players were better than him when matched up one-on-one against opponents, scoring 1.03 points per possession. This ranked Top 15 among players with as many opportunities. Tjarks also imagined how well Towns could do in unexplored areas.
“He should be running around screens off the ball, knocking down threes in pick-and-pops, and getting open threes in transition. Minnesota played at the one of the slowest paces in the NBA last season. Towns is too athletic and too skilled to walk up the floor. He should have the ultimate green light to shoot and the freedom to push the pace himself.”
Towns, to no surprise, was utterly fantastic when playing in transition last season. He finished just 6.5 percent of his offensive possessions on this play type but scored with a 59.2 percent frequency. This, too, ranked Top 10 when looking at those with as many opportunities.
The best lineup for Towns would be one that allows him to play more on the perimeter, which is where Butler lived during his one year in Minnesota. If his past success is any indication, Towns can live up to expectations as the primary option for the Timberwolves.
Even though the front office might not get an impressive return for Butler and could potentially end up missing the postseason, it will be helpful for Towns to continue his development without the distraction of a disgruntled star.
There is plenty of reason to believe in Towns, who is a dynamic player with nothing but upside moving forward.