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Best Case, Worst Case: Minnesota Timberwolves

No matter what the Wolves, the no. 15 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings, get in return for Jimmy Butler, their season will be all about how Karl-Anthony Towns responds

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 15

Last Season: 47-35

Notable Additions: Anthony Tolliver (free agency), Luol Deng (free agency), and eventually the return for Jimmy Butler

Notable Subtractions: Nemanja Bjelica (free agency) and eventually Jimmy Butler

Vegas Over/Under: 44.5

Team MVP: Karl-Anthony Towns

Best-Case Scenario: Let’s put aside the Jimmy Butler saga for now. The who, what, where, and when of a potential trade remain unclear. The Wolves aren’t presently a contender anyway, so their best-case scenario involves the development of the players who can someday get them to that level.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—their two young former no. 1 overall picks signed into the 2020s—are severely flawed, but still have high upside. With Butler gone, Towns should slide into the go-to scorer role and be given the opportunity to elevate his game to new heights.

Towns is statistically one of the NBA’s most lethal big-man scorers; he scored 1.2 points per possession last season, which ranked behind only Steph Curry (of players with more than 1,000 possessions, per Synergy). But the Wolves used him like a third wheel, and he logged only 14.3 shots per game. That can’t stand sans Butler. Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau should feed Towns more opportunities, much like he did at the end of the 2016-17 season; Towns averaged 28.4 points with bonkers efficiency over his final 41 games, and appeared to be making a leap. But It’s a two-way street; Towns also needs to take a more aggressive approach. Towns is too passive when sealing defenders on the post, and he passes up shots he should take; on defense, he loses focus. Without Butler, the Wolves must hope Towns develops a chip on his shoulder to become a leader.

Wiggins is the highest-paid zero-trick pony in sports. He doesn’t do anything consistently well, even though he has immense talent. Wiggins has a lot of work to do in every category on the court, but any progress in scoring efficiency, playmaking, and showing any interest in rebounding is a win for the Wolves. I would be satisfied if he answers Stephen Jackson’s accurate criticism by showing heart in the form of defensive intensity. There is no reason for a player as athletic as Wiggins to not be a valuable defender.

Ultimately, all the Wolves need this season is for someone to show they can carry the franchise, with or without Butler. It would help matters if the surrounding pieces stepped up, too. Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson will likely fill the same roles they did last season. Hopefully, Derrick Rose doesn’t get in the way. Luol Deng will have a chance for a bounce-back season, and newly signed forward Anthony Tolliver will bolster their bench with his shooting.

In the grand scheme, the Wolves’ older support cast are really placeholders for the future. Josh Okogie, a 3-and-D prospect who flashes shot-creation skill, should get reps after being selected 20th overall in this year’s draft. Keita Bates-Diop, a forward with some versatility, slipped to the middle of the second round but could earn minutes depending on how the rotation shakes out after the Butler trade.

Hope is not all lost for the Wolves, even without Butler. Towns is a supreme scorer. Now he needs to show he can become the face of the franchise.

Worst-Case Scenario: Jimmy Butler wants out of Minnesota, which means ...

Achievement unlocked: Minnesota’s worst-case scenario

Or is it? Things could always get worse. Again, forget about the trade return for Butler and focus only on what we do know. Wiggins, in his first preseason game, still hadn’t broken his habit of chucking midrange jumpers early in the shot clock. Until he learns how to do something besides score inefficiently, he will remain one of the worst contracts (five years and $147.7 million remaining on his deal!) in the NBA.

Then there’s Towns, who still fades in and out of games, especially on defense, and plays with the type of toughness on the low post you’d expect from a newborn kitten. Towns is still only 22 years old, so he doesn’t need to figure out all of his weaknesses this season. But for now, Towns as an elite two-way player is more of an idea than a reality.

The Butler trade has also presented the possibility that Thibs could be coaching for his job this season. If that happens, he could plaster young players like Okogie and Bates-Diop to the bench in favor of his crew of veterans. (Keeping an eye on the future could be the secret to his growth as a coach, and thus seeing through what he signed up for.) My fear is Rose and Teague will dominate the ball, taking experience away from Towns and Wiggins—and even Tyus Jones, an underrated point guard with a savvy offensive game. If that happens, then the player-development conditions will be as habitable as Pluto.

The Wolves could go from holding the 3-seed in the West for a good portion of last season until Butler got hurt to missing out of the playoffs entirely this season. If that happens, expect major changes at all levels. Maybe that’s exactly what this franchise needs.

TL;DR: No matter what the Wolves get for Butler, Towns needs to show he can be more than a scorer.