NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Coach: Tom Thibodeau (second year)
Last Season: 31-51 (13th in Western Conference)
Notable Additions: Jimmy Butler (trade), Jeff Teague (free agency), Jamal Crawford (free agency), Taj Gibson (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Ricky Rubio (trade), Zach LaVine (trade), Kris Dunn (trade)
Vegas Over/Under: 48.5
Best-Case Scenario: The Wolves make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The team exceeds even its loftiest expectations, leaving Tom Thibodeau speechless, which is good, because he’ll need all of his vocal chords for the postseason.
At the start of last season (Thibs’s first), the hot-button question was whether Minnesota could pull off 50 wins. The answer—an emphatic, 31-win fuck no—served as a reminder that even for a team with two Rookie of the Year winners, young mistakes can and do carry over into next season when players don’t have veteran presences to learn from. Enter: Jimmy Butler. And Jeff Teague. And Taj Gibson. And Jamal Crawford.
Thibs went to work this offseason to remedy that veteran gap (and reestablish the coach/executive hybrid, currently back on the endangered list). Vegas is optimistic—tell the contestants what they could win this season, Vanna!—again opening the Wolves at around 50 wins, with a 48.5 over/under line.
Minnesota pulling off almost 18 additional wins this season compared with last assumes a few things: (1) this gutted and restocked roster will mesh right away; (2) an injection of (mostly former Bulls) veterans will make Minnesota, one of the worst fourth-quarter teams in the league last year, a squad that can close out games; and (3) the defense will dramatically improve.
Butler will help on D, being both one of the most talented stoppers at his position and someone who wants “everybody to work the way that I work.” That’s a message that will likely be cosigned by Thibodeau, who needs Butler to mentor the “effort issues” out of the young Timberpups (looking at you, Andrew Wiggins).
But it’s the product on the other end of the court that might be the most exciting part of the team’s revamp. Combining Wiggins (who has improved each year on offense), Karl-Anthony Towns (arguably the best young big in the league), Teague (whose scoring is an upgrade over Rubio’s ability to get to the basket), and Butler makes the Wolves a preseason favorite for Offense Most Likely to Ruin Your Bet on the Under.
Worst-Case Scenario: Minnesota fails to make the playoffs for the 14th straight year, one season short of tying the NBA’s longest drought of all time.
An even tougher Western Conference than last season’s could force the Wolves to repeat history. Though Minnesota has more firepower on offense, there are no guarantees that all the parts fit together. Spacing issues from last year could easily carry over: At 36.7 percent last season, Towns and Butler had the highest 3-point percentage of this year’s projected Wolves starters (which also include Teague, Wiggins, and Gibson). Scorers, yes. Shooters, eh.
Minnesota dealt away its scariest outside threat, Zach LaVine, in the Butler acquisition—and even he shot below 39 percent. Here’s a sobering fact: Of players who played more than 50 games for the team last season, Gorgui Dieng (37.2 percent) is the most accurate 3-point shooter on the current Wolves roster—but he had the fewest number of attempts of anyone in the rotation. Plus with longtime Thibs favorite Taj Gibson on the team, Dieng will likely see his minutes cut into even further. The Wolves signed Jamal Crawford for his shooting ability, but he hasn’t shot better than 36 percent from 3 in four years.
Ball sharing is another preseason trepidation. Keeping KAT and Wiggins well fed was hardly a concern when the pass-happy Rubio ran point last season; the majority of his assists went to either Towns or Wiggins. But Teague doesn’t have the same kind of vision as Rubio—a guy who created more shot attempts for Wiggins than he had field goal attempts of his own—and with all the mouths to feed, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to accommodate everyone.
Minnesota needs to keep Towns a happy man to secure its future. The franchise is clearly committed to its young duo, soon to sign Wiggins to a five-year, $148 million maximum extension despite his stagnation last season. Owner Glen Taylor extended the offer with the caveat that the 22-year-old understands “he’s got to be better.”
Defense is a major part of that improvement, for both Wiggins and Towns. Among players in the Wolves’ immediate rotation, the team’s worst defensive rating was with the latter on the floor last season, and their second-worst was with the former. During Wolves media day, Wiggins was optimistic about turning that around. “Me and and Jimmy Butler are going to be a problem,” he said, “on both ends of the floor.” Much is riding on that being true: in-game stops, Thibs’s blood pressure, and avoiding the same type of rifts Butler was involved in last year on the Bulls.
But even that Chicago team made the playoffs (albeit in the Eastern Conference). The Wolves still need to prove they can.
TL;DR: Come for Thibs-Butler Round II; stay for the first watchable Wolves games in years (you’ll love this Towns guy).