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Jimmy Butler's absence creates opportunity for young Wolves to step up

In his first season with the team, Jimmy Butler has changed the DNA of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Since being acquired from the Chicago Bulls last summer, the All-Star swingman has given Tom Thibodeau's team a hardworking swagger that has brought it to the precipice of the organization's first playoff berth in 13 seasons. However, as the Timberwolves continue their most daunting stretch of the season -- tonight will be the second of eight consecutive games against teams above .500 -- they're being forced to readjust to life without Butler, who went down with a meniscus injury in the first game after the All-Star break and is expected to miss four to six weeks following surgery.

Butler's impact on the Timberwolves has been undeniable. When Butler shares the court with young cornerstone stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves post a defensive efficiency rating of 103.7, a number that would put Minnesota among the best defenses in the NBA.

Take Butler out of that equation -- leaving Towns and Wiggins intact -- and that number jumps to 119.4, which is worse than the overall defensive rating of the league-worst Phoenix Suns. When Butler isn't on the floor, the Timberwolves have been outscored by an average of four points per 100 possessions, eighth worst in the league.

Before getting hurt, Butler was averaging 37.1 minutes per game, tied for most in the league with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It's one of the main reasons he decided to rest his body, and the same right knee that had been problematic throughout the season, during the All-Star Game in Los Angeles last month. Before he suffered the meniscus injury, Butler told ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth that he would rather sit out the NBA showcase than miss time with Minnesota.

"I'm not going to say that I want to cut back my minutes, but when I have an opportunity [to rest], I will," Butler said.

To understand just how big a difference the 28-year-old has made with his new team, it's important to look deeper.

"Everybody, when they talk about Jimmy, they see the numbers and everything he does on the court, but he does so much off the court," Timberwolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford said. "And I think that's even more difficult, to be honest with you, because you have to be a leader of not just a team but a franchise, a city, and get everybody on the same page and everybody pulling in 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."

Without Butler, the Timberwolves don't have that dominant leader, the one who made plays down the stretch in games and delivered the kind of victories fans in the Twin Cities haven't seen in years.

"He brings a different toughness to the team," Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard told ESPN after a win over the Timberwolves last month that Butler missed because of soreness in his right knee. "A different attitude, level of focus, kind of I guess like an a--h--- [attitude] like, 'We're a good team' type of thing, and that's what leaders need to bring to their team. I feel like he gives their team the attitude like they're somebody. And they're going to get things done. He's demanding."

Butler recently acknowledged in an interview with ESPN's Ryan Ruocco, Hubie Brown and Hubbarth that when Thibodeau gets angry in huddles, Butler tells younger players to just look at him; he can deliver the message differently than the barking coach. Both Butler and veteran stalwart and longtime teammate Taj Gibson have taken it upon themselves to serve as translators for Thibodeau to a younger group that isn't used to the gruffness.

In order to keep pace in the rugged Western Conference, Thibodeau knows he will have to lean on Gibson.

"His veteran leadership is huge just because of the toughness factor," Thibodeau said. "Even with Jimmy, he added a lot from that standpoint. But Taj gives you everything."

The Timberwolves will also have to lean on their young stars more than ever. The stark reality of the Western Conference playoff race is that though Minnesota is in third place entering Friday's action, the Wolves are just 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers, which means that any skid could jeopardize not just their seeding but also their chances of making the postseason.

To avoid that, the Wolves will need Towns and Wiggins -- neither of whom have been in a playoff chase -- to set the tone. The two former No. 1 overall picks have been touted as players who have the skills and athleticism to make an impact on both ends of the floor, but neither has produced on defense the way Butler has, which is something Towns says must change.

"When you have, in my opinion, the best two-way player in the league on our team, it makes a difference because you have a guy who can do everything," Towns said. "Obviously it's going to be different when you have Jimmy out. We got to pick up the pieces everywhere. He's a very talented player, a very complete player, so we got to be the best we need to be if we want to fill in his gaps."

Both players have deferred to Butler through most of the season, but now it's time for them to take the next step in their development.

"I think they've grown having veterans around them, and they're really all ears," Crawford said. "I think for us and for the organization, because these guys are going to be here five, 10 years from now, and they're learning how to lead, they learned that from Jimmy. They learn just watching, learn from Thibs obviously, so for us it's about helping them, and then obviously we'll be helping each other."

Wiggins signed a five-year extension before the season worth close to $150 million, but he has not taken the kind of developmental step this season many expected. Without Butler on the floor, Wiggins is averaging almost five more points (22 per game) than when Butler is with him (17.1). But Wiggins' defensive RPM of minus-1.39 still ranks 429th out of 493 NBA players. Butler, on the other hand, ranked as one of the top five players in his position in that category.

Towns, too, is being counted on for defensive improvement. The first-time All-Star has shown franchise-changing offensive ability and is on track to receive a Wiggins-like extension of his own, but his lack of intensity at times on defense has frustrated many within the Timberwolves organization. Butler has repeatedly exchanged words with the 22-year-old on the floor, trying to motivate him to become better defensively. If ever there were a time for the lessons to take hold, it would be now. Towns remains confident he can help carry his team without its All-Star swingman.

"Of course, why would we not be confident?" Towns said. "With Jimmy out, it doesn't matter, he's definitely already talked to us, and I know him well enough, he wants us to do even better without him because he wants the best for us. So there's not like second-guessing if Jimmy comes back or not. We got to go out there and compete at a high level every night."

Offensively, point guard Jeff Teague, who thrived at times both with the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers, will go back to having the ball in his hands a lot more. It's a role he's comfortable in and should have no problem adjusting to. Still, the former All-Star is realistic about the hole in the Timberwolves' lineup.

"You can't replace Jimmy," Teague said. "So, as a group, you just got to come together and play as well as you can, but missing Jimmy, yeah, it's going to be huge."

After falling to the Rockets the night Butler went down, the Wolves rebounded with consecutive wins against the Bulls and Kings, two teams that are aiming more for lottery balls than wins, then dropped a close game in Portland. In those three games, they posted a defensive rating of 100.7, good for sixth-best in the NBA in that span, and a significant improvement over their 108.6 defensive rating in the first 62 games of the season. However, the quality of upcoming opponents will put that improvement to the test.

That said, Gibson hopes his close friend doesn't try to force his way back onto the floor. Gibson knows how much his team needs the All-Star to succeed in the long term, but he doesn't want the pressure to return to jeopardize the future for either Butler or the Timberwolves.

"Jimmy's like my brother now," Gibson said. "I've been with Jimmy my whole career. Just as much as I've been with Thibs and Derrick [Rose], so first things first, I want him to make the right decision, because I understand how serious an injury that is. But right now, my main frame is thinking: What if he doesn't come back? I had my hopes up over the years [with other teammates], just got to stay focused and work with the people that's in here right now and try to get everybody better, because you never know, anything can happen. The positive is Jimmy's the type of guy that he'll go out there and lay it on the line even if he's still hurt. But we've still got to get everybody else ready just in case he doesn't."