After a postseason appearance in 2017-18, the Minnesota Timberwolves look to return to the postseason…if they can keep their core together
The Minnesota Timberwolves begin the 2018-19 season with a feeling they haven’t encountered in quite a while: optimism.
In Tom Thibodeau’s second campaign at the helm, the T-Wolves finished 47-35—their first finish over .500 since 2004-05—en route to a playoff appearance. Although the Houston Rockets bounced Minnesota from the Western Conference Semis in five games, the Wolves again have their eyes set on the postseason. However, an improved Western field and chemistry issues threaten the team’s ability to secure a playoff berth this coming season. Minnesota fans are optimistic now, however cautiously.
Jimmy Butler’s meeting w/ Minnesota management early next week as @JonKrawczynski reports. Butler, Tom Thibodeau have had a strong relationship for years, but there are organizational issues that need to be sorted. Source on meeting: “Whatever needs to be communicated…will be.”— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) September 15, 2018
Unlike several other teams this offseason, the major pieces of the Minnesota roster remain the same for the 2018-19 season. Notable changes involve Thibodeau’s desire (obsession?) to acquire players from his Chicago heyday, a phenomenon that has led to fans derisively dubbing the squad the Minnesota TimberBulls. For the Chicago reunion, Thibodeau signed Luol Deng following an unsuccessful exile at the end of the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench, and former MVP Derrick Rose stays in Minnesota after nine games with the club last season. Both are likely to play off the bench, but their veteran presence should prove valuable. While coach Thibodeau has hopes of rekindling his success with the Bulls, a familiar face will also be a cause for concern this year.
Jimmy Butler, one of the most consistent two-way players in the league (ranked fourth in real plus/minus last season at 6.39), has publicly aired displeasure with the current situation in Minnesota. While stats and Xs and Os can determine quite a bit about how a team should perform, chemistry and off-court issues can undermine the best of teams. Butler has criticized the Wolves’ young talent—namely Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—specifically, the young stars’ work ethic. While Towns is one of the brightest young stars in the league, many are concerned about Wiggins’ regression in 2017-18.
To Wiggins’ credit, he started all 82 games for Minnesota last season, and has started all but one of his team’s games for the last four years. Durability like this is noteworthy in today’s NBA, especially under a notoriously stamina-draining coach like Tom Thibodeau. While those stats are laudable, the forward did suffer a noticeable decline last season, which is especially troubling considering he signed a five-year max extension last October (while Towns and Butler have both currently declined to sign extensions). Wiggins’ PPG and assist numbers went down following career highs in 2016-17, though those dips can be attributed to sacrifices made to accommodate Jimmy Butler. More concerning are the career lows in field goal percentage (43.8%), free throw attempts (3.8) and free throw percentage (64.3%). Coupled with consistently subpar defense, Wiggins will need to step up this season to justify his huge contract, especially if Butler forces his way out of Minnesota.
Perhaps the biggest surprise and the biggest ongoing question regarding the Timberwolves is the disparity between their juggernaut offense and their defensive malaise. Minnesota finished as an elite offensive team (fourth in offensive rating behind GSW, HOU and TOR), but placed an abysmal 22nd in defensive rating. These numbers are quite unheard of, given Thibodeau’s reputation as a defensive-minded coach, and it appears unlikely that much will change this upcoming season. If Minnesota is forced to part ways with Butler, they would lose their most effective defensive player, while not adding any significant defensive pieces in the offseason to fill the void (although first-round pick Josh Okogie has the makings of a good defender). Barring any unexpected strides from Wiggins or Towns on the defensive end, Minnesota projects to lean heavily on their offense again in 2018-19.
NBA TV (@NBATV) April 22, 2018Speaking of the Minnesota offense, the T-Wolves finished dead last in the league last season in 3-point attempts, while finishing tied for 16th in percentage at 36%. These statistics are out of place in the modern NBA, in which sharpshooting offenses like Golden State’s and Houston’s act as templates for every other playoff hopeful. However, the Wolves are unlikely to deviate from their 2-point-heavy offensive attack, given that none of their offseason additions light it up from behind the arc. Surprisingly, Karl-Anthony Towns was the team’s best shooter from deep at 42.1%, which leads centers with a minimum of 30 attempts. With few changes, it’s very likely that Towns could again lead the team in 3-point percentage.
Just before the beginning of training camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves appeared to be one of the most perplexing and enigmatic teams in the league this year. If their off-court problems resolve successfully and they catch a few breaks, the T-Wolves could very well finish within the top five in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. If Jimmy Butler wants out and the wheels fall off, it’s possible that Minnesota could finish out of playoff contention. Their team is surrounded by question marks, and a fairly quiet offseason did little to assure fans of a bright future. While several teams in the West have improved, like the Lakers and Utah Jazz, the Timberwolves face the real possibility of a regression this upcoming season.
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