This year's MVP race has unfolded with the usual suspects out front. James Harden has been doing outrageous things with the Rockets as he takes them to the top of the league, while LeBron James is having another one of those seasons that makes it clear we're all going to look back at his career numbers and wonder whether he was ever human. Over the past few weeks Kevin Durant has emerged as a third contender, and players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving will probably lurk on the fringes of this conversation because of incredible numbers, surprising team success, or maybe both. But there is one player who deserves more MVP love after the first three months of the season.
Jimmy Butler has been an absolute monster. He's not as efficient as LeBron and his numbers will never be as incredible as Harden, so I'm not here to tell you he's going to actually win the MVP award this season. But the MVP conversation is a helpful way to think about just how good he's been in Minnesota. If the question is strictly about superstars who've had the most value to a good team, Butler belongs in anyone's top five.
He started slow this season. He was averaging 16 points per game on just 13 shots in October, and he spent many of those early Wolves trying to play distributor as he adjusted to life with KAT and Wiggins. His shooting was uneven as he was trying to pick his spots. Some nights this approach worked (21 points, 10 assists, 6-of-12 against Utah), and others it was downright alarming (6 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2-of-13 later that week against San Antonio). But somewhere around Thanksgiving a switch was flipped, and since then Butler has been losing his mind.
The best way to appreciate what makes Butler's season special is to remember all the ways the Wolves are relatively ordinary. Karl Towns hasn't gotten any better on defense and it's still unclear whether the Wolves know how to use him on offense. Andrew Wiggins is as effective as his jumpshot, which is to say his impact varies from week to week as he learns how to help in other ways. The bench isn't any better than it's been in past years, and it might be worse. Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson have been decent and they've definitely helped stabilize the lineups that Tom Thibodeau is putting out there, but like everything else in Minnesota, a team that relies heavily on Teague and Gibson doesn't exactly scream "elite in the West." The Wolves should be good, but given the slower progression from their young stars, they have no business being the fourth-best team in the West. But that's where Jimmy Butler changes the equation.
Last week in Denver was just one of several examples from the past month. The Wolves were clinging to a one-point lead with just under five minutes left. Butler nailed a three to put them up four. A few minutes later it was a two-point game after consecutive buckets from Will Barton and Wilson Chandler, and that's when Butler went for the kill. He scored eight straight points down the stretch—layups, getting to the line, and one particularly cruel jumper—and the Nuggets had no answers.
That fourth quarter was clinical. It also came just 48 hours after he had dropped 37 points on the Blazers and carried the Minnesota offense all night.
For the past month, Butler's been throwing his body all over the floor for 39 minutes per game. He's averaging 26 points per game, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists on 50% shooting in the month of December. When he's not playing basketball like it's football, he's pulling up for jumpers that can demoralize defenses or methodically working his way into midrange floaters off the glass.
Minnesota has a +6.1 net rating with Butler on the floor, per Basketball-Reference.com, which is equivalent to fourth-best in the league. With Butler off the floor, the Wolves are –10.2, which would put them dead last in the NBA. Those numbers are just one way to quantify what's been obvious to anyone who's watched this team play for the past six weeks: for a Wolves team that lacked a killer instinct for most of last season, Butler is solving that problem almost by himself.
The Wolves still have other questions, most of which require their own discussion. Everyone should be mildly concerned by the lack of defensive progress from Towns—he's still 21, but there have been some particularly brutal moments—while Wiggins's offense has been its own conundrum. There are reasonable questions about the way Thibs manages his rotations, the burden he's placing on his starters, and how that story ends. Likewise, if Towns and Wiggins aren't developing, that's on Thibs, too. And the most cynical way to respond to this Wolves season would be to say that Butler has emerged as the unquestioned alpha, and while that helps in the short term, it means less opportunities for Wiggins and Towns to assert themselves and learn how to dominate in the NBA. I don't know if I buy that, though.
It's easy to wring your hands about Butler's impact on the younger Wolves stars, but the more accurate version of the story could be that Wiggins and Towns were always going to take more time than most everyone expected. Likewise, Thibs is an imperfect but mostly good coach who still has a chance to adapt, and there's still a ton of talent to work with in Minnesota. As the other pieces evolve the Wolves could get even scarier by the end of the year.
In the meantime, there is a superstar mauling people every other night. Bigger questions can wait. It's the end of the December, Minnesota is in fourth place in the West, and as the New Year approaches I have one very simple suggestion for basketball fans everywhere: watch more Jimmy Butler in 2018.