SLAM Top 50: Jimmy Butler, No. 16

The other night we were having dinner at this newish Tex-Mex spot called Superica. The waiter asked what I wanted to drink and I told him I’d try the Slushie Del Dia. He replied, “Good choice. It’s refreshing. But be careful—it’ll sneak up on you.”

And wouldn’t you know it, about halfway through my fajitas, the alcohol started elbowing its way around the harmless fruit and ice. All the waiter could say between a devilish grin when he breezed by our table to check on us was, “Told ya.”

Got a feeling Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves will be the strawberry schnapps in the NBA’s drink this year. While you and your Twitter buddies are understandably obsessing over the repeat-minded Golden State Warriors, recharged Houston Rockets and rebuilt OKC Thunder, the T-Wolves are readying to come in the back door as a 5th or 6th seed in the playoffs and raise all kinds of hell once they get there.

You’d have to be drunk to think this new situation isn’t a great one for Butler. For starters, he’s back with former Chicago Bulls head coach, Tom Thibodeau, the man who helped mold Jimmy into the three-time All-Star he is today. The two were together from 2011 to 2015, Butler’s first seasons in the league. Naturally, over time, JB got more comfortable with Thibs, and you could see the positive changes in his demeanor, defense and daily stat line.

“They’ve come by their relationship honestly,” Butler’s agent, Bernie Lee, told the Associated Press about Tom and Jimmy. “They worked through a period to where they really came to learn what the other is about. They have a basis to work from, but things have changed, and they’ve changed and adapted. They will take the starting point that they have, but they have to build on it.”

But coaching isn’t the only thing that has changed in Butler’s favor. Unlike a year ago, the 28-year-old shooting guard will have consistent offensive help in budding stars Andrew Wiggins (No. 36 on this very SLAM list) and Karl-Anthony Towns (so good you haven’t even seen him on this list yet). Last year, defenses could smoother Butler out of disrespect for Rajon Rondo, Robin Lopez and the other Bulls. Try that mess again this year and they’ll regret it.

Another reason why Butler is setting himself up for another monster year is Minnesota’s new point guard situation. Lost in the flurry of offseason transactions is the Timberwolves’ smart acquisition of Jeff Teague, a reliable backcourt presence who, last year with Indiana, averaged a career-high 7.8 dimes and his fewest turnovers since 2013.

Butler probably toasted the loudest to the Teague signing. Jimmy loves moving around screens, racing down the court in transition and creating space any way he can. Teague likes rewarding his playmakers with the ball once they’ve freed themselves. He’ll know where Butler is on the floor at all times, ensuring he gets a steady flow of chest passes near the three-point line. Butler averaged nearly 24 points a night last year. That number will only drop a pinch but the young man’s stress level should plummet.

“I’m just here to teach them what I know,” the three-time All-Defensive Second Teamer recently told NBA TV about his new teammates. “I think they’re going to be just fine. They love to work. They love being in the gym. That’s where it all starts. If you have that, then who knows how great you can be?”

I can’t say for certain if it’s the residual alcohol talking or what, but if Butler has the well-rounded year he’s capable of having in ’17-18, he may sneak into the top 10 conversation next season.

Previous Rankings:
2016: No. 19
2015: No. 18
2014: Not Ranked
2013: Not Ranked

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

No. 50 – Dion Waiters
No. 49 – Ben Simmons 
No. 48 – Brook Lopez
No. 47 — Harrison Barnes
No. 46 — Jrue Holiday
No. 45 — Lonzo Ball
No. 44 — Myles Turner
No. 43 — Goran Dragic
No. 42 — Andre Drummond
No. 41 — Al Horford
No. 40 — LaMarcus Aldridge
No. 39 — Kevin Love
No. 38 — Paul Millsap
No. 37 — Hassan Whiteside
No. 36 — Andrew Wiggins
No. 35 — Marc Gasol
No. 34 – DeAndre Jordan
No. 33 — Bradley Beal
No. 32 — Kemba Walker
No. 31 — CJ McCollum
No. 30 — Devin Booker
No. 29 — Nikola Jokic
No. 28 — Joel Embiid
No. 27 — Mike Conley 
No. 26 — Kyle Lowry
No. 25 — Rudy Gobert

No. 24 — Gordon Hayward
No. 23 — Kristaps Porzingis
No. 22 — Carmelo Anthony
No. 21 — DeMar DeRozan
No. 20 — Blake Griffin
No. 19 — Draymond Green
No. 18 — Chris Paul
No. 17 — Klay Thompson