There’s just too many question marks to definitively say Minnesota’s back.
About a year ago, frenzy for the Minnesota Timberwolves had reached a peak. No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns was coming off a stupendous Rookie of the Year season, and it was believed that other No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins would make a mini leap into stardom. The team had just scooped Kris Dunn up with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft and was also returning solid young players like Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine.
Many outlets predicted that the Wolves would make the playoffs. Vegas set their win total at 41.5, and I myself, though hesitantly, predicted they’d win 45 games and be the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Somewhat surprisingly, the team won 10 less games than predicted, coming in at 31-51 and third-worst in the conference. The team’s offense was top ten in offensive rating, but its defense, under the supervision of touted defensive specialist and head coach Tom Thibodeau, was bottom five in the league. The youngsters couldn’t get it on the defensive end, especially Wiggins, whose length and springiness project him to be stellar on that side of the ball.
Jump to now and Wolves hysteria is again at an all time high. The team, for better or worse, pushed fast forward on its rebuild this summer by trading for Jimmy Butler and signing a few notable names in an effort to break its 14 year playoff drought. Vegas has pegged them to win 48.5 games, and many are even more adamant than ever that Minnesota will make the playoffs.
But with last season’s too-soon anointing in mind, let’s break down the Timberwolves and see if this will finally be their breakthrough season.
Minnesota made two major trades this offseason. First was the aforementioned Jimmy Butler trade in which Minnesota sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh pick (which became Lauri Markkanen) to Chicago in return for Jimmy GB and the 16th pick (which became Justin Patton).
Credit: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune
Factoring in that Dunn was atrocious last year and that LaVine is coming off an ACL injury, it’s pretty difficult to say that this trade was anything but a resounding win for Minnesota. It got rid of two lurking question marks and in return received one of, if not the league’s premiere two way players AND a first round pick.
LaVine was having a quietly good season before tearing his ACL midway through the campaign. He was shooting the ball well, leading the team in three-point percentage and coming in second in true shooting percentage. His athleticism made him tough to stop at the rim where he shot 63.7 percent, and his previous experience as the team’s experimental point guard made him an effective secondary or tertiary ball handler.
On the flip side, Dunn was particularly bad last year, posting some of the worst advanced statistics on the team while shooting less than 30 percent from downtown. He was a rookie though, so there’s certainly tons of room for growth. But Tom Thibodeau may not be the coach that a young, struggling player needs in order to get the necessary reps. Probably best that Dunn got traded.
The Wolves’ other major trade involved long-time point guard Ricky Rubio, whom the team shipped to the Utah Jazz in order to make room for Butler and his $19.86 million dollar per year contract. Utah sent back a top 14 protected pick that will likely convey in 2018.
Via SLC Dunk/SB Nation
Rubio is one of the league’s most savvy and flashy passers as well as an underrated defender; he was easily the team’s second best player based on Basketball Reference’s advanced numbers. His inability to shoot from deep coupled with the organization’s desire to expunge him ever since Thibodeau’s arrival, however, constantly kept him in trade talks, finally ending with the trade to Utah.
Minnesota lost a number of other players, though of lesser import.
The team did not re-up power forward Jordan Hill, who is still unsigned. It also let Omri Casspi and Brandon Rush walk in free agency. Casspi signed with the Golden State Warriors for $2 million and one year while Rush signed a similar deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. Orlando signed Adrian Payne to a two-way contract, while Lance Stephenson went back to the Indiana Pacers after only a six game stretch in Minneapolis.
Minnesota re-signed Shabazz Muhammad for two years and $3.3 million.
I have two words for you.
Credit: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Butler had a career year in Chicago last season putting up almost 24 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per contest on 45.5 percent from the field and a not-too-shabby 36.7 percent from deep. He was an All Star for the third straight season and made third team All-NBA. He is also an outstanding wing defender, having been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team three times.
He has the potential to lift this team into the playoffs, but he will need help from Wiggins and Towns, specifically on the defensive end in order to do so.
Minnesota also signed point guard Jeff Teague to a three-year, $57 million dollar contract to replace Rubio. Matt Moore of CBS Sports summed up the switch-a-roo pretty well.
“Is Teague an outright drop in value for Rubio? Yes. Teague’s defense has slipped to a high degree in the past two seasons. Maybe Thibodeau can get the most out of him, but basically you’re swapping a great defender and passer for a bad defender and good passer who’s a bit more of a shooter.” — Matt Moore, CBS Sports
In addition to Teague, the team signed 37-year-old Jamal Crawford to a two-year, $8.8 million deal. Minnesota desperately needs shooting as well as any semblance of bench depth, and Crawford helps in both of those departments. Though, at his age, he may be due for a downturn in production (which may actually have begun last season, one of the worst of his career).
Taj Gibson may additionally help bolster that bench as Minnesota signed him to a two-year, $28 million deal. Gibson is strong, allowing him to be a good rebounder and slightly above average defender. He would pair well with Towns as a substitute for Dieng and could potentially be the lone big man in any small-ball bench lineups Thibodeau might try.
Credit: Jace Frederick/Pioneer Press
Outside of Gibson and Crawford, though, the bench is, frankly, extremely poor.
Big expectations rest on the shoulders of Nemanja Bjelica, who will need to be consistent on both ends if Minnesota wants to survive in the loaded West. The team also has Aaron Brooks and Melo Trimble, both of whom it acquired in the offseason, as potential backup point guards to compete with the returning Tyus Jones. Duke’s Amile Jefferson may get some time at power forward along with third-year wing Anthony Brown. But knowing Thibodeau’s tendency to overplay his stars, I wouldn’t count on any of these players — outside of Bjelica and Brooks — to get significant playing time.
The Wolves’ ceiling, as Zach Lowe of ESPN wrote this week, is a top four spot in the west. A starting lineup of Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Towns, and Dieng should be formidable with just about every other team in the league, assuming Wiggins and/or Towns steps it up defensively.
The floor, also explained by Lowe, is well below the projected 48.5 wins by Westgate.
“Bet the under. The paper-thin Wolves start two traditional bigs and three so-so 3-point shooters who dominate the ball in Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague. Those three will diminish each other — at least over the first stretch of the season. The Wolves will have to bash through walls of defenders in the paint.” — Zach Lowe, ESPN
I agree with Lowe’s latter assessment. There are just WAY too many question marks surrounding this team. The defense is, at best, unproven, there’s a severe lack of shooting outside of Towns (who, if he’s your best three-point shooter, you’re in trouble anyway since he’s one of your big men), and there is no bench presence to speak of. Wiggins and Butler are essentially the same player offensively, and I think this will result in an unwanted plateauing for the youngster.
I detailed these problems and more in an article from earlier this summer (shameless plug) if you’d like to read more about why Minnesota will underachieve. Making the playoffs SHOULD NOT be a foregone conclusion for this team. I would not even be surprised if they failed to make the postseason, but they probably will nab one of the final three spots in the West.
(Their new uniforms are also uninspiring [not that their old ones were much better]. This will not affect their season though.)
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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