Life without Butler: Bjelica, Crawford step up

Life without Jimmy Butler has been a bit rocky for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Minnesota lost its four-time All-Star to a knee injury Feb. 23. In the 16 games without Butler, the Timberwolves have posted an 8-8 record while trying to stay afloat in a congested Western Conference playoff chase.

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The good news is Butler told reporters on Tuesday that he’s “this close” to returning to the court, now a full participant in practice. Minnesota hasn’t announced an official timeline for his return, but a tuneup couple of games before the playoffs begin seems like a solid possibility.

Until then, the Timberwolves will have to manage without Butler, which has been difficult on defense. They have a 110.1 defensive rating in the 16 Butler-less games according to NBA.com, a few notches worse than the 108.9 rating in their previous 62 games.

Minnesota has tried to fill in his 22.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game in the box score each night, as well as his 37.1 minutes per contest, which is the second most in the NBA behind Cleveland’s LeBron James.

So who has stepped up?

The biggest rise in minutes isn’t a surprise. Nemanja Bjelica has started Minnesota’s last 16 games and has produced at a high level in 34.1 minutes per game, over 18 more minutes than he was playing earlier this season. As a natural replacement at the 3, Bjelica also started four games in January when Butler was out with knee soreness and averaged 33.4 minutes per contest.

Crawford has seen the second-largest uptick in minutes, from just 19.1 to over 26 minutes per game, which will make fellow Washington native and current Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas happy. It might seem like a drastic increase, but it’s the minutes Crawford is accustomed to, even at age 38. The 6-foot-5 guard has averaged 26+ minutes per game every year since 2002-03, his third season in the NBA.

Player MPG (before Feb. 23) MPG (after Feb. 23) DIFF
Jimmy Butler 37.1 N/A
Nemanja Bjelica 15.7 34.1 +18.4
Jamal Crawford 19.1 26.3 +7.2
Karl-Anthony Towns 35.1 37.2 +2.1
Andrew Wiggins 36.1 37.0 +0.9
Taj Gibson 33.5 33.6 +0.1
Tyus Jones 18.1 17.8 -0.3
Jeff Teague 33.2 31.7 -1.5
Gorgui Dieng 17.5 15.7 -1.8

Crawford has scored double-digit points in 12 of 16 games that Butler’s been out. He poured in a season-high 24 points while single-handedly willing the Timberwolves to a 93-92 win over the lowly Dallas Mavericks last week.

Bjelica is almost doubling his points per game and is grabbing seven rebounds per contest without Butler in the rotation. He’s shooting at a 41.5 percent clip from 3 in this 16-game stretch, second on the Wolves behind Karl-Anthony Towns (43.1 percent).

The five-man lineup of Bjelica, Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague ranks fifth in the NBA this season with 42.6 points per game in 19 contests together.

Player PPG (before Feb. 23) PPG (after Feb. 23) DIFF
Jimmy Butler 22.2 N/A
Karl-Anthony Towns 20.2 25.1 +4.9
Nemanja Bjelica 5.7 10.6 +4.9
Jeff Teague 13.2 16.1 +2.9
Jamal Crawford 10.1 12.3 +2.2
Andrew Wiggins 17.6 19.6 +2.0
Tyus Jones 4.9 5.8 +0.9
Taj Gibson 12.3 11.8 -0.5
Gorgui Dieng 6.3 4.4 -1.9

While we love seeing Butler shimmy on the bench after a big Timberwolves run or rock a vintage KG jersey underneath his sports coat, Minnesota needs Jimmy back in the rotation.

The Timberwolves’ playoff hopes might rely on it.