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    Jimmy Butler was brought to Minnesota to provide veteran leadership to a young Timberwolves team. President and head coach Tom Thibodeau made a wager that acquiring Butler would help the team establish a defensive identity molded around Butler’s notorious toughness and grit. However, much like what happened with his previous team in Chicago, Butler’s abrasive and self-centered behavior fell out of fashion with many of his teammates. Instead of leading by example, Butler used his platform as a leader to alienate the teammates whose personalities did not fit into the uber-macho mindset he perceives as a prerequisite for winning. Needless to say, the situation did not work out quite as planned for Thibodeau. Butler was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers Nov. 12.
    After the trade, a funny thing happened. The Wolves started playing with camaraderie. Without a so-called leader calling them out publicly for their lack of effort, they quickly gelled as a team. Those same players Butler dismissed as liabilities started developing confidence and making plays.
    Robert Covington, the key returning player in the Butler deal, immediately filled Butler’s shoes as the team’s on-floor defensive leader and emotional catalyst. He routinely guards the opposing team’s best player, knocks down threes, and can consistently be seen encouraging his teammates and pumping up the crowd. From a morale standpoint, he is the anti-Butler. Based on the readily-apparent differences in verve and effort from guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins on a nightly basis since the trade, it is clear Covington is a much better fit as a veteran leader for this roster than Butler ever was.
    Since the trade, the Wolves have gone 8-3 and rank No. 1 in the NBA in defense, surrendering only 99 points per game. While no single player on this new Wolves roster can have the same type of two-way impact Jimmy Butler could have on the nights he deigned to grace the court with his presence, the Wolves are showing chemistry is a real thing in basketball that directly impacts communication, effort, ball movement and results. The changes are apparent to the eye test, and watching the new-look Wolves hustle back in transition defense, rotate out to open shooters and swing the ball around the perimeter on offense is a real treat. These changes are also manifesting themselves for the Wolves statistically, as there has been a clear uptick in blocks, steals, assists and 3-pointers made since Nov. 12.
    Sure, the ceiling on this Wolves team with a healthy Jimmy Butler may have been higher if the team had managed to somehow precariously coexist within the cloud of his toxic personality. The Wolves were the No. 3 seed in the western conference last season before Butler’s late-season knee injury and probably would have won a first-round playoff series if they had maintained that position. However, this new roster is infinitely more fun to watch on a night-to-night basis.
    Things are going to get tougher for the new-look Wolves. After their home game against Charlotte, they will have played 10 of their first 12 post-Butler games at Target Center. Starting Saturday, they will begin a brutal four-game west coast road trip that features tough matchups at Portland and Golden State. If I had to guess, the Wolves will likely finish with a record somewhere near .500 this year when everything is said and done. Honestly, considering how this season started, things could be far worse. I would much rather watch this Wolves team – a scrappy and competitive group that plays hard and has each other’s backs – than the disgruntled pre-trade version of the Wolves that catered to a temperamental and self-serving diva like Jimmy Butler any day. The Wolves now have an identity, particularly on the defensive end, and it took trading away a perennial all-star player to discover it.

Wolves discovering new defensive identity in post-Butler era

By Andy Thayer