While the Timberwolves made big splashes this offseason, did those moves cost the franchise a better chance at a title down the line?
Every team in the NBA is always in a race against the clock, in one way or another. Some teams want to stretch their window, and others want to speed up their clock to contend sooner. Few teams feel comfortable with their relationship with time, and most feel pressured. Each team’s history, culture, and circumstance dictates its relationship with time.
So when a team trades for a player of Jimmy Butler’s caliber, it is as ostensibly a remark on its feelings about time as it is about the player or the team or its fans.
Every team in the NBA would love to have Butler, and why not? The 27-year-old was a top-10 player last season by almost every advanced metric. He’s one of the league’s top two or three two-way players — depending on your opinion of Paul George. Combine his on-court production with the two years (plus a player option) of his $18 million per year contract, and you’ve got yourself one attractive player.
However, adding a teammate of that caliber may not be in some franchises’ best interests. Think about the Philadelphia 76ers, the Phoenix Suns, or the Los Angeles Lakers. These teams are in the midst of rebuilds that take time and patience. Adding a star right now would adversely affect their draft positions by making them good enough to win too many games. Simultaneously, younger players at the same position as that star would have to take a backseat when they should be getting more reps instead.
This is the position in which the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves.
Via The Associated Press
Minnesota had one of the league’s most promising young cores heading into the 2017 draft. Former number-one overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns, 21, and Andrew Wiggins, 22, along with 21-year-old Zach LaVine, headlined what seemed to be a successful rebuild. Throw in the number-seven overall pick from this year’s loaded draft class and any sign of improvement from second-year point guard Kris Dunn, and this team would have had the mold to be fearsome in four or five years.
Waiting four or five years, though, is easier to swallow if you’re just starting a rebuild. The Sixers began their tank only four years ago, if you can believe it. They made the playoffs five seasons ago. There is clearly a light — and a bright one — at the end of their tunnel.
Minnesota hasn’t been to the playoffs in 15 years. The team and its fans are starving for postseason activity. They don’t want to remain in no man’s land, and don’t want to be in the cellar again. They felt pressured by a decade and a half of losing to seize an opportunity to win now, though it might have been more advisable to wait another few years to add more lottery talent and for players to develop.
This hunger for immediate success led the team, under Coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau, to trade LaVine, Dunn, and the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft to Thibodeau’s former team, the Chicago Bulls, for Butler and the 16th overall pick. The trade, by all standards, was an enormous success for the Wolves and a head-scratching blunder for the Bulls. It was a move that signaled an escape from one rebuild and the beginning of another.
Minnesota then traded fan-favorite point guard Ricky Rubio and replaced him by signing Jeff Teague, a move that improved shooting but relinquished a passing genius. It signed two bench guys in 37-year-old Jamal Crawford, a floor spacer who can create his own shot, and 32-year-old Taj Gibson, an aggressive, strong power forward. The team also renounced the rights to Shabazz Muhammad, waived Nikola Pekovic and Jordan Hill, let Omri Cassipi walk in free agency, and have not re-signed Brandon Rush.
For all this flurry of activity, the team still has three opening-day roster slots available, meaning its offseason is not yet finished.
Via The Minneapolis Star Tribune
National media outlets have branded this unfinished offseason as an overwhelming success for the Wolves. CBSsports gave the Wolves an “A” grade for their moves, one of eight teams to receive such a grade. Zach Lowe of ESPN characterized the Wolves as “rude, physical and unpleasant — a major playoff threat” while James Herbert of CBSsports (in a different article) suggested Butler and Towns would make All-NBA teams en route to the playoffs next season.
Yet, there are so many questions that need to be answered about this team, that it seems reckless to anoint Minnesota as a playoff team just now.
The first and foremost question that needs addressing is: Why would you hit fast-forward on a rebuild amidst the Warriors’ dynasty?
Minnesota and Philadelphia (and maybe Boston) were the teams best set up for a post-Warriors/post-LeBron league. With young, prodigious talent and more lottery picks to come, these teams would be too bad to worry about how to beat the Warriors until the Warriors were no more.
Additionally, the Wolves would have also outlasted the final stragglers in the Western Conference arms race that they themselves ignited this offseason. Not only did Minnesota attempt to fast-forward during the reign of the Warriors, but they also did so amidst the most competitive, deep, and dangerous conference in the history of professional basketball.
The Wolves also had draft incentive not to fast-forward their rebuild. The Atlanta Hawks own Minnesota’s 2018 first-round pick, which is 1-through-14 protected, meaning that if the Wolves go to the lottery next year, they get to keep their pick. The same is true for 2019 and 2020, at which point the Hawks would receive two second rounders instead of that first.
If the experts are correct and Minnesota ends up in the playoffs next year, they lose that pick. That would be a necessary cost for ending a torturous playoff drought or, spun a different way, a wasted opportunity to build an even brighter future.
Via Craig Lassig/MinnPost
The Wolves, as currently constructed, aren’t exactly a championship contender anyway. Though the team can sign three more players this offseason, its bench is atrocious and old. Crawford certainly headlines the second unit but, at age 37, it’s hard to judge how effective he’ll be.
Last season was one of Crawford’s worst. He scored 12.3 points per game, a mark he hasn’t sunk to since his fledgling years in the association, and his offensive rating hadn’t been lower since 2003-04 — when Minnesota last made the playoffs. His advanced stats also tell a darkening tale.
However, take a look at Vince Carter, who had a resurgent age 40 (!) season with the Memphis Grizzlies last year. It’s not at all out of the realm of possibilities to think that Crawford could bounce back. It is also more likely, though, that his production continues to drop.
The rest of the Wolves’ bench at this moment consists of Gibson, Nemanja Bjelica (29), Cole Aldrich (28), Tyus Jones (21), Justin Patton (20), and Adreian Payne (26). These are guys who are either too young to supplant those ahead of them on the depth chart (more on this in a bit), not talented enough to comprise a successful second unit, or too bad to play at all. Plainly put, Minnesota’s eight-man rotation is not good enough to compete with most teams in the West, and its bench as a whole is not deep enough, period. This will be something the organization should address in the coming weeks.
In addition to a weak bench, the fit of the current group of players isn’t ideal, which is something the media has noticed.
In the very same piece in which he praised the Wolves, Lowe also worried about the team’s makeup, saying, “The fit will be awkward at first. Minnesota doesn’t have enough three-point shooting, and the backup wing situation is a disaster zone.”
Herbert voiced similar misgivings.
Simply having more offensive firepower does not mean that this is going to be an improved offensive group. In fact, there might need to be more tinkering in order to maximize the stars’ abilities. Butler’s play-making from the perimeter and Towns’ low-post game are borderline unstoppable if the floor is spread, but there aren’t many reliable 3-point shooters. Since Teague isn’t prolific from deep and Gibson has never been comfortable shooting 3s, there will be pressure on Wiggins and reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica to keep opposing defenses honest.
Bench unreliability, covered above, and a lack of three-point shooting give both of these writers misgivings. While the signings of Teague and Crawford should somewhat help with the shooting problem, neither shot better than Butler — a career 33% shooter from distance — did last season.
Spacing issues are real for Minnesota. There are free agents — Arron Afflalo, Ian Clark, Randy Foye to name a few — who could stop some of those gaps. But the Wolves already had a guy who effectively spaced the floor for cheap and who was part of their core before they traded him.
Via James Foster/The Chicago Sun-Times
LaVine was the Wolves’ best catch-and-shoot option last year, scoring 5.2 points per game off catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to NBA.com’s player tracking data. He shot almost 43% from three, the best on the team, on those types of shots and was an overall 38.7% shooter from deep, making him the team’s best and most frequent threat from distance.
The team decided to move him for an unquestionably better player, and it’s probable that Minnesota had concerns about LaVine’s abundant athleticism waning in the wake of a torn ACL. But it’s worth noting that the team traded a player who complemented Wiggins and Towns’ abilities and brought in a player who seems to do the opposite, especially regarding Wiggins.
Butler and Wiggins have very similar games. Both tend to drive into the paint to get their buckets. Their drives most frequently are the result of pick and rolls in which they are the ball handlers, as can be seen in the graphic below. According to Scott Rafferty of The Step Back/Fansided, not only ”do [Butler and Wiggins] score the bulk of their points in the pick-and-roll — 36.7 percent for Butler and 32.1 percent for Wiggins — they’re almost identical in how often they score in transition, isolation, and off of cuts.”
Neither one is an above-average three-point shooter, which contributes to their tendency to score at the hoop.
The two also exhibited high usage percentages, meaning that both like to have the ball in their hands for a decent amount of time. They encounter almost the same amount of touches on many areas of the floor:
The one area in which Wiggins and Butler differ dramatically is defense. Butler is a three-time second team All-Defensive selection; Wiggins has struggled defensively despite a body type that would suggest he should do better. Under Thibodeau, a defensive guru, Wiggins should have grown on the defensive end. However, he posted his worst defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus of his career last year, per Basketball Reference.
The hope is that Wiggins will grow and that Butler will help tutor him on that end. Yet the converse might be that Butler’s presence may stunt Wiggins’ growth not just defensively, but also all around. The same could be said for Jones and Patton in their respective positions, though Wiggins’ case presents the most concerning example. With Butler, a guy who possesses the ball a lot, and Thibodeau, a coach who tends to play his best players way too much, it’s possible Wiggins sees a decline in his production next season.
Via Nam Y. Huh/The Associated Press
Of course, all these worries are only possibilities. Maybe Minnesota makes some savvy moves to wrap up its offseason and create a deeper, more well-rounded team. Maybe Thibodeau finds a perfect harmony not only between Butler and Wiggins, but also between those two, Towns, Teague, and Crawford.
Maybe Wiggins makes the leap underneath the tutelage of an All-Star caliber player. Maybe Bjelica does too, becoming an integral bench cog for a team that desperately needs one. Maybe Crawford forestalls Father Time’s encroach and has a successful comeback season. Maybe the Wolves make the back end of the playoffs anyway in the loaded Western Conference. Maybe the Warriors succumb to injury, giving Minnesota a chance.
Or maybe the team could have ridden it out with Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine. Maybe they could have kept the seventh overall pick and taken someone like Dennis Smith Jr., or Malik Monk, or Donovan Mitchell or even the guy who got picked seventh, Lauri Markkanen. Maybe the young team gets another year to develop and be bad, keeping their lottery pick out of Atlanta’s hands in a season that everyone knows the Warriors will dominate anyway. Maybe the Wolves continue this strategy until its young core isn’t so young, until Towns and Wiggins are bona fide superstars. Maybe the Wolves finally make the playoffs in a depleted Western Conference. Maybe they’re one of the best teams in the league and don’t need to rely on luck to make deep playoff runs.
Neither path results in surefire success nor total failure. One represents the insatiable hunger for immediate gratification while the other shows a tenuously patient and grueling approach for greater long-term gains. The Sixers went for the latter in slow-mo. The Wolves chose the former in an attempt to fast-forward. Both highlight opposing mindsets — shaped by, amongst other things, time — to rebuilding in the modern NBA. And only time will tell whose strategy, if either, wins out.
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