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Exit Interview: Minnesota Timberwolves

Coach Tom Thibodeau gave the Twin Cities their first run at the NBA playoffs in 14 years, but it sure didn’t last long. The team enters the offseason looking to secure its (expensive) long-term future. Will it be enough to reach a higher level?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nothing strips the gratification of a playoff berth—even one 14 years in the making—quite like getting 50 points dropped on you in a quarter. It was a deflating effort from the Timberwolves, and made the 122-104 Game 5 loss on Wednesday all but a formality. Minnesota narrowly escaped a sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets in its first postseason since 2004, thanks to a Derrick Rose resurrection and an uncommon flurry of 3-pointers in Game 3. Still, the five-game out cheapened what glory there should’ve been for Minnesota’s postseason return. The Wolves made it there, but didn’t perform like they deserved to be.

Hiring Tom Thibodeau two seasons ago rather than taking on 2015-16 interim head coach Sam Mitchell full time sent the message that Minnesota was serious now. Owner Glen Taylor isn’t known for savvy hires or aggressive moves. (You can’t say the name Kevin McHale in the Twin Cities without an “OH HECK!” hurled your way.) But it felt like a page had turned, and just in time to develop Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Bringing in 28-year-old Jimmy Butler sped up the Wolves’ timeline, perhaps quicker than their two younger stars were prepared for. But at least Towns and Wiggins now know what the postseason is like, and have suffered through embarrassment. It’s time to move forward. The question now is which pieces fit, and whether the franchise will do anything about those who don’t before the window passes. Both have to be answered by Thibs, who has two jobs that more often than not run against each other. Here are three matters that Minnesota is left to deal with after the 2017-18 season:

Is Thibodeau’s Seat Warming Up?

This petition to fire Thibodeau got 12 new signatures in the time it took me to write this sentence. The top comment reads: “Please demote yourself to associate head coach. … You seem to be as emotionally draining as you are physically draining.” That was posted one week ago. The petition was created 11 months ago. Thibodeau’s approval rating was never higher than when he was introduced in Minneapolis almost exactly two years ago. It’s been a steady fall ever since. It might be at its lowest now.

Here’s a mounting list of things Wolves fans tried to overlook:

1. Thibodeau getting the ol’ Bulls band back together rather than signing any shooters, which kind of seems like something one of the worst 3-point-shooting teams in the league should do. Taj Gibson turned out to be a necessity, but even still, the man has no range. Rose has never come remotely close to even league-average percentages, and Jamal Crawford’s shooting numbers haven’t matched his reputation in more than five years— though that doesn’t stop them from taking the shots that they do.

2. Doubling down on his reputation of playing guys into the ground. Three of this season’s starters (Wiggins, Towns, and Gibson) finished in the top 15 of total minutes played; if Butler hadn’t been sidelined for a 17-game stretch, he’d be right there with them.

3. Forty-eight minutes of hellishly hoarse yelling.

4. Coaching one of the worst defenses in the NBA despite the hype of defensive genius stemming from his time with the Celtics and Bulls.

5. Pairing that defense with an offense that featured a lot of isolation and post-ups, without the floor spacing that makes it work.

Taylor doesn’t seem content with his big investment, either, and might be more inclined to take action than he has in the past. His words last week: “We should probably wait until the playoffs are done [to evaluate Thibodeau’s performance]. Bringing him in was for the playoffs. You get a seasoned coach to get into the playoffs. That’s when you have to show that your coaching abilities are near the top. We’ll wait and see.”

Andrew Wiggins’s 146 Million Problems

Wiggins’s presence on the court feels like getting to the bottom of a page in a book and realizing that you’ve glazed over it all. The 23-year-old had 87 games to show he’d keep his preseason promise to Taylor that he was committed to improving. Even after a couple of solid playoff performances, Wiggins fell short overall.

The hope entering the season was that Butler’s on-court warmongering and locker-room intensity would rub off on Wiggins. But that mentorship didn’t catch on, and Wiggins regressed, just in time for his five-year, $146.5 million max contract extension to kick in next season. I’m not convinced that the organization will consider a trade, but even if it were to, Wiggins’s suddenly exorbitant contract would force the Wolves into a lopsided deal that almost certainly wouldn’t benefit them in the long term. It’s intriguing to think of Wiggins on a system team like the Spurs or Celtics. But for now, he’s Thibodeau’s to inspire.

OK, So They Finally Made a Postseason—How Do They Get Better?

Minnesota really has only one option: Trust in the development of its two Timberpups. Despite the disappointing end to the season, the Wolves still have something many teams would sell their souls to have: three star-caliber players. That will have to do for now, because the franchise might not even have the payroll flexibility to dramatically change the roster any further—Minnesota already has $117 million in guaranteed contracts next season, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, leaving just $6 million under the luxury tax line to fill four roster spots.

Butler is eligible for a maximum contract extension this summer. Assuming KAT signs one as well off of his rookie contract, Minnesota would be over the tax at $132 million in 2019-20. There’s no Gibson, whose contract expires in 2019, in that scenario.

As of now, a big three of Butler, Towns, and Wiggins isn’t enough to be considered a legitimate contender, but who knows what that core will look like in a year or two? Towns is not without his defensive flaws, but is just 22 years old, and is already elite on one end of the floor, with all the tools to be a defensive star, too. Butler, on the other hand, has dealt with his fair share of injuries, and will be on the wrong side of 30 for a significant share of his hypothetical max contract. Wiggins seems the least likely to materialize into a superstar, yet he’s the only one of the three with a guaranteed bag. Minnesota broke its 14-year drought this season, but will have to navigate carefully to avoid being stuck in a permanent state of just good enough.