Let’s not beat around the bush, last season was in many respects a disaster for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their 36-46 campaign saw them miss out on the playoffs once again, as the foundation of the team that had ended one of the longest postseason droughts in US sports the previous season fell apart before our eyes.
Now Tom Thibodeau is gone, replaced by a combination of the experienced Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders – son of the most successful coach in franchise history, the late Flip Saunders. Gone too are Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, pinning the hopes of the team on the broad and extremely capable shoulders of Karl-Anthony Towns and the far less capable, yet no less costly, shoulders of one Andrew Wiggins.
Although he departed just 10 games into the season, last year was all about Jimmy Butler. Coming off a hugely successful campaign in which he’d helped get the Wolves back to the playoffs, the four-time All-Star decided that the market was too small, the weather was too severe, and the culture was too volatile for his liking and submitted a trade request. Reluctant to grant it, the Wolves front office allowed the crisis to develop into a saga – one that overshadowed their entire training camp and preseason, and produced a PR nightmare for the club when Butler used one particular training session to bawl out teammates and coaches alike.
When the franchise eventually relented and sent him to Philadelphia, it was clear that the Wolves were hampered by the Butler-shaped hole in their roster. A quick look at their per-game stats from last season reveals that he was the team’s second-highest scorer, despite playing just 10 of the 82 games in a Timberwolves jersey. In his absence, Towns and Wiggins did most of the heavy lifting, averaging just over 40 points per game between them, while Derrick Rose had something of a renaissance, averaging 18 points and 4.3 assists per game while also turning back the clock to produce a memorable 50-point outing against the Utah Jazz.
But it wasn’t enough and the disjointed Timberwolves lacked the depth, quality and experience to compete for a playoff spot. Which, let’s not forget, is the default in Minnesota, even if Butler’s presence on the team had gone a long way rewriting that narrative.
It may not be all bad: Many fans felt Tom Thibodeau’s limited approach to recruitment (which at times revolved around acquiring ageing players from his Chicago Bulls heyday) and tactical approach (defense, defense, defense) had achieved just about all they could in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and perhaps the NBA more broadly. Furthermore, Butler clearly wanted to be the alpha dog on a team that had one considerably younger and whose ceiling may be considerably higher in Towns. Moving him last summer ushered in yet another new era in Minnesota, but if the Wolves have learned from their mistakes, this one could be even better than the last.
The moves the Timberwolves made last season put them back in rebuilding mode. As a result, this season will see them emphasis player development, most probably at the expense of winning. Unfortunately for them, though, they’re stuck with a handful of veteran pieces that, barring some major trade activity or merciful injuries, may mean they’re too good to tank.
That said, the Timberwolves actually had a pretty decent summer. The highpoint saw them send versatile forward Dario Sarić, who was acquired as part of the Butler deal, to the Phoenix Suns in order to move up five spots in the draft. They then used the sixth overall pick to nab athletic two-way guard Jarrett Culver to great acclaim. The rookie out of Texas Tech looks NBA-ready and will be looking to push sophomore Josh Okogie, who averaged just 7.7 points per game last season, for the starting shooting guard spot right from the off. There’s no guarantee that he’ll get it, but many draft experts are excited about Culver, who could in time go on to become the Timberwolves second option behind Towns.
With him in the bag, the Wolves made a series of smart, low-key moves that bolstered their existing roster while maintaining future flexibility. For instance, they added athletic swingman Jake Layman in a sign-and-trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, signed big men Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell, and they also claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers. Instead of bringing back Rose (who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Detroit Pistons) or matching Tyus Jones’ offer sheet (three years, $26 million) from the Memphis Grizzlies, they actually got paid to take the considerably more affordable Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Golden State Warriors, adding some much needed depth at the point.
While none of these acquisitions carry the wow factor Timberwolves fans would have been hoping for, they should pay dividends when Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng’s grossly inflated contracts come off the books next summer and the following one respectively. Between now and then, the club should focus on getting even more out of Towns, assessing the long-term viability of Wiggins and looking for more young talent to add to their core. They may be able to use a piece like Robert Covington to acquire some, as the 28-year-old forward is on an affordable deal that teams looking to take the next step may begin eyeing up as the trade deadline draws near.
The success of the forthcoming campaign will likely be a reflection of the roster though: consistently mediocre, while perfectly capable of being extremely good or extremely bad on any given night.
With their playoff aspirations all but down the toilet, this coming season will be all about helping the likes of Towns and Wiggins to improve, while getting a sense of who else from the current crop may fit alongside them. Coach Saunders should have free rein to experiment with different starting fives galore and will likely want to give the youngsters acquired over the summer plenty of reps in the hope that one or two of them may turn out to be keepers.
The Jimmy Butler saga didn’t exactly do a lot for the Timberwolves fragile reputation. Trading him for two decent players, before using one of them to draft Culver, went some way towards repairing the damage. But, in most people’s eyes, the Wolves are still the Wolves, regardless of what they achieved with Butler on the books. This season they’ll be looking to Rosas and Saunders, along with GM Scott Layden, to convince their fanbase that they’re in good hands, but with a roster that’s largely unproven, that won’t be easy. Implementing the makings of a discernible identity, while continuing to lay the foundations for future success are a must regardless though.
3.Where’s the scoring?
Beyond Towns, Wiggins and potentially Covington, it’s not overly apparent where the Wolves points are going to come from. Of the newcomers, Layman, Graham, Vonleh, Bell and Wallace all averaged fewer than 10 points per game last season, although all are likely benefit from increased playing time, assuming they get it. Napier may be the man, as he averaged 9.6 points off 38 percent shooting as a backup in Brooklyn, although it seems far more likely that the Wolves will be looking to Culver to adapt to life at the next level quickly. After all, he averaged 18.5 points per game in Texas, shooting an impressive 46 percent from the field. Unfortunately, both his long ball and free throw shooting are going to need some work, meaning he’s by no means a sure thing when it comes to getting NBA points.
Andrew Wiggins | 18.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.5 apg
I’ve put Wiggins at the top of the list because it’s clear that his time in Minnesota is running short. This shouldn’t be the case for a guy who not long ago signed a five-year, approximately $150 million contract but it is. Not least because his game seems to decline by the year, which simply shouldn’t be the case for a player with his (theoretical) potential. The front office will be hoping that with Butler gone and the team crying out for quality, Wiggins will step up. If he fails to answer the call, he may well find himself out the door, assuming anyone’s brave or foolish enough to trade for him that is.
Karl-Anthony Towns | 24.4 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 3.4 apg
Towns’ upward trajectory continues year by year, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t again this season. Sure, the team’s taken a step back, but in getting rid of Butler they’ve given Towns the keys to the car and he’ll be looking to prove himself worthy once again. No doubt he’ll succeed, meaning it’s up to the Wolves to use the next three to four years to convince Towns that he’s in the right place. If they do so, beginning this season, who knows how far he could take them? If they fail, they’ll likely be facing an Anthony Davis situation before too much longer.
Thanks to that draft-night trade, Culver finds himself in a good spot. He’s going to be playing for a team that’s ready and waiting to accommodate him and, with a little application, he could realistically become a key component of it pretty quickly. Assuming he can continue to score at a similar clip as college (18 points per game) and that he improves his long-range shooting, he could even become the sidekick to KAT that Wiggins was meant to be. For now, though he’ll probably settle for starters’ minutes.
Robert Covington | 13.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
Assuming the Wolves don’t want to be awful next year, they’ll be looking to Convington for veteran leadership. He proved during his time in Philadelphia that he’s a great locker room guy who can also make substantial contributions on both ends of the floor. He also presents the Wolves with plenty of flexibility, thanks to a contract that they can hold on to at no great expense to their cap, or that they could shift for young talent or draft picks should they wish to.
Jeff Teague | 12.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 8.2 apg
Let’s face it, Teague is at best an average point guard, one that’s set to earn $19 million this season. His deal made perfect sense when the Wolves were on the rise, but mediocre teams can’t afford players like him and no doubt the fanbase will breathe a collective sigh of relief when he comes off the books next summer. In the meantime, expect him to do a solid job as the team’s primary ball-handler. No less, no more.