June 2, 2018, 2:24 pm
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens
The 2016-17 season brought a lot of changes to the Minnesota Timberwolves with Tom Thibodeau bringing a new culture and a new mentality to the team. 2017-18 saw the Wolves double down on those beliefs by bringing in a few hardened disciples of Thibs in Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose while also adding Jeff Teague. Now it seems like this may have been a detriment to the future of the franchise.
It was the best of times. The Wolves had a successful 2017-18 season by many standards. They opened the season in a newly renovated Target Center. For the first time since the days of Kevin Garnett, they had two All-Stars representing them at the All-Star Game in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. They won five straight games for the first time since 2009, they won 13 straight home games and their young budding star Big KAT set a franchise-record with 56 points in a game. Before it was all said and done the Timberwolves even snapped the league’s longest playoff drought of 13 seasons by beating the Denver Nuggets in the final game of the season to clinch a playoff birth from their foes that evening. It was a bit of a roller coaster as the Jimmy Butler injury took them from home-court contention to the very edge of the brink, but they made it. The Timberwolves finished with a 47-35 record, a 16-win improvement from the previous season and things were looking up for the franchise.
It was the worst of times. Since the season wrapped up there have been various rumors of unhappiness in the organization. Initially, the fanbase seemed to be proponents of finding a trade for talented scoring wing Andrew Wiggins, who was rumored to be unhappy with his standing in the pecking order with the organization. Wiggins, an elite scorer but a poor defender, didn’t feel that the organization valued him and that’s understandable as Coach Thibs prefers players who give it their all on defense. It seems similar to fellow former scorer Zach LaVine departed, though he was part of the Butler package. While his contract makes it unlikely that the return would be anything impactful, Wiggins could be on his way out of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Wiggins just signed a $148 Million, five-year extension at the start of the season which could see his next destination be one that struggles to sign free agents. Detroit anyone?
As teams began to inquire regarding Wiggins and his availability it started to leak that there was another young star that was unhappy with the organization. It’s being reported that Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves are ‘not in a good place internally.’ Some of this may have to do with the firing of three assistant coaches shortly after the Wolves’ playoff exit in a move that was rumored to help Thibs “have the strongest relationship with Towns.”
That said Towns is a generational talent, so don’t be surprised if Thibs is out on the street looking for a new role if he’s unable to work it out with Towns who is still under contract for two more seasons. We’ve seen a few examples of the dangers of having a coach also manage front office decisions with Doc Rivers recently giving up the General Manager duties while Stan Van Gundy was fired from both positions at the end of this season. Hopefully Timberwolves management gets ahead of any concerns that Towns expresses while making sure that Thibs doesn’t mortgage the future in an attempt to save his job. Keep an eye out for any executive hires or consultants the Wolves may bring in this offseason to help them prepare for the draft, free agency and the opening of trading.
Coach Tom Thibodeau is a throwback coach in many ways. He’s never been known for babying or trusting young players and rarely rests his starters. While coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich constantly work to develop their bench, often times experimenting with various lineups if injury strikes or based on matchups, Thibs likes to double down on his big guns. There are 30 teams in the Association and the Wolves had all five starters rank in the top-41 for minutes played per game, with Butler (8th), Wiggins (12th) and KAT(14th) all landing in the top-15. In the history of the NBA, only three teams placed all five starters among the top 40 in minutes per game. Taj Gibson ranked 41st this season, keeping the streak unbroken since the 1986-87 Boston Celtics did it on their way to their fifth Finals in seven seasons.
For a casual fan this may seem like a great opportunity for his players, yet the reality is the high number of minutes played could directly relate to the longevity of players’ careers. Jeff Teague said repeatedly down the stretch that guys were tired and suggested that the team allow the reserves to play more, but to no avail. One example being Luol Deng, who found himself unable to meaningfully contribute to the tanking Los Angeles Lakers at age 31 after leading the league in minutes per game twice while averaging close to 39 minutes a game for four straight seasons. With this being Thibs’ second full offseason it will be interesting if he can bring in some help off the bench that he trusts to get his guys extra rest.
Thibs has long been regarded as a top-tier defensive coach thanks to his creation of the concept of loading up the ball side of the floor with four defenders a little more than 10 years ago. Yet the 2017-28 Timberwolves were a much better offensive team (fourth overall Offensive Rating) than defensive (23rd overall Defensive Rating), a sign that personnel influences performance just as much as coaching. One issue that plagued the Wolves’ defense all season was that they gave up a league-high 66.8% shooting percentage in the restricted area while being the fourth-worst team at defending the mid-range while struggling (eighth-worst) to close out on 3-point shots above the break. That said the Wolves brought in a new point guard in Jeff Teague and struggled to integrate Jimmy Butler early in the season. These growing pains were expected early on.
As a top rebounding team and the fourth-best team in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio, there’s a lot of upside on the vine for the Wolves. With another season of the team aligning their roster with Thib’s defensive schemes the Wolves could easily make a push to challenge for a top-four spot out West if they’re able to work out how to keep Big KAT involved and happy. Despite a few issues highlighted none of Thibs’ players have ever doubted his intensity and love for the game, with Taj Gibson highlighting that he even “fears for Thibs’ health because he’s so into the game.”
The Timberwolves have all five starters under contract for next season and have the option of returning nine players from their current roster unless they make a trade. Jamal Crawford, Derrick Rose, and Nemanja Bjelica are the primary rotational players who are free agents this offseason. It will be interesting to see how the Wolves approach this offseason which has started off as the most tumultuous in recent history with both Wiggins and Towns expressing varying levels of discontent.
ADP: 8/6 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 4/2 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 8/5 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 35.6 MPG 21.3 PTS 1.5 3PM 12.4 REB 2.4 AST 0.8 STL 1.4 BLK .546 FG% .858 FT%
Karl-Anthony Towns has yet to miss a regular season game in three years in the league while showing noticeable improvements each season. While it’s true that 2017-18 saw Towns’ scoring fall with the arrival of Jimmy Butler many of his other outputs stayed the same while he increased his 3-point shooting and free throw percentages. Overall on a per-game basis, Towns saw his production fall from seventh to eighth but this is a minuscule difference considering Towns didn’t miss a game. Given his ADP of 6-8, Towns owners saw a pleasant windfall by season’s end.
If nothing changes in Minnesota it can be comfortably assumed that Towns is in line for another top-5 total value year thanks to his guaranteed minutes in Thibs’ offense and his natural growth as a player. At only 22 years of age, Big KAT will likely continue to work on his scoring and defense which could lead to a bit more production. Towns’ largest opportunity lies in lifting his defensive production, while a potential move of Andrew Wiggins could present an added opportunity to increase his usage rate and scoring. If this is the case there will be ample opportunity for Towns to increase his output to push for the top overall spot in season-long value. Don’t be surprised if they work a little harder at keeping him happy after he was uninvolved during the playoffs.
ADP: 18/18 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 31/23 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 14/10 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 59
Stats: 36.7 MPG 22.2 PTS 1.2 3PM 5.3 REB 4.9 AST 2.0 STL 0.4 BLK .474 FG% .854 FT%
Jimmy Buckets had a successful first season by many accounts in Minnesota thanks to the Wolves’ playoff berth. The playoffs were the ultimate goal this season after a 13-year hiatus, yet Butler’s season ended on a sour note. Marred by injury in the regular and postseason, Butler left fantasy owners and fans asking what a truly healthy season would bring in the high octane Minnesota offense. Now heading into his age 29 season Butler is in his prime and likely has a couple of seasons of elite production left until his mileage starts to catch up with him.
Despite making the All-Star team, Butler chose to sit out the event to rest and promptly ended up getting injured in his first game after the break. The injury was due to a non-contact play and resulted in his right knee being scoped. Butler ended up having surgery to repair the injured cartilage in his knee and missed 17 straight games. He returned to play in the last three games of the regular season. In the final game of the regular season, Butler ended up injuring his wrist. Despite the wrist injury Butler played in all five playoff games, but was limited, averaging less than 16 points with six boards, four assists and most notably under a steal. It’s likely that both injuries will be fully healed by next season.
One thing to keep an eye on is Butler’s percentages, as he shot a career-high 47.3 percent last season after being at 45.5 percent the past two season. A slight fall off here could impact his per game rankings significantly. That said his production could be a result of the wealth of options that the Wolves possess, with all five starters being capable of hitting an open jumper. On the flip side Butler’s lack of health this season kept his minutes muted at 36.5 per game. This is the lowest minutes per game he’s played since becoming an All-Star.
ADP: 42/56 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 109/111 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 156/152 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 36.3 MPG 17.7 PTS 1.4 3PM 4.4 REB 2.0 AST 1.1 STL 0.6 BLK .438 FG% .643 FT%
Andrew Wiggins really struggled this season, making his apparent unhappiness understandable. His field goal attempts per game fell from over 19 to under 16 with the addition of Butler, Teague and Gibson. The result was a precipitous fall from a top-100 evaluation. Unfortunately for Wiggins and fantasy owners, his value is directly tied to his scoring and last year he lost confidence from the field while having his lowest scoring campaign since his rookie season. A key indicator of Wiggins’ unhappiness and possible mental hurdles was his free throw shooting which inexplicably fell to 64.1 percent from his career 76 percent shooting. It’s uncommon for a young scorer like Wiggins to suddenly regress from the charity stripe in this way.
While some expected the young wing to pick up some tips, tricks and defensive motivation from Butler it didn’t seem to happen last season. Wiggins barely set a career-high in steals but did not see any other noticeable changes to his auxiliary stats. Wiggins will be in the first season of his five-year extension next year so it’s unlikely that he’ll be playing for another team. Be conservative when considering his upside in the coming year. His lack of rebounds, assists, steals and blocks makes him a scoring specialist and last season his percentages fell off, resulting in major disappointment for those drafting Wiggins with a top-60 pick.
ADP: 43/47 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 46/56 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 50/57 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 70
Stats: 33.0 MPG 14.2 PTS 1.2 3PM 3.0 REB 7.0 AST 1.5 STL 0.3 BLK .446 FG% .845 FT%
Jeff Teague joined the Wolves last offseason on a three-year contract to help run their new and improved offense. Teague did a valiant job as the floor general for the newly assembled roster, settling slightly above his ADP. The normally-healthy Teague did miss 12 games this season with a left knee injury and an Achilles/heel injury after only missing a combined 15 games over the last four seasons which contributed to the minor dip in production. Teague ended up missing four games due to the Achilles and seven games with the knee but finished the season healthy.
Despite the injuries, Teague did have some bright spots including a career-high 3-point rate and second highest 3-point percentage thanks to how many wide open catch and shoot opportunities KAT, Wiggins and Butler generated. Still, at times, it seemed like the floor general Jeff Teague was ceding to his more talented teammates in Butler and Towns which he wasn’t completely comfortable with. Teague’s usage rate dipped to its lowest numbers since 2011-12, as did his assist rate. Unsurprisingly this lead to a reduction in the amount of possessions Teague drove it to the rim, resulting in a career-low percentage of shots attempted from within three feet of the rim and a dip in his free throw attempts.
With a season under his belt look for Teague to continue to adapt to his new surroundings and what’s asked of him as the lead guard for the Wolves. A silver lining might be a possible trade of Andrew Wiggins which could possibly open up a few more touches per game as Wiggins is second on the team in usage rate. Additionally, regarding his playing time, it’s possible that Teague can see a slight uptick in minutes per game if he’s healthier in the coming season.
ADP: 144/132 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 50/44 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 88/74 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 33.3 MPG 12.2 PTS 0.1 3PM 7.1 REB 1.2 AST 0.8 STL 0.7 BLK .577 FG% .768 FT%
Fresh off a two-year, $28 million dollar contract Taj Gibson logged career-highs in minutes while appearing in all 82 games. Gibson was recruited by Thibs thanks to his defensive prowess both as a communicator and as an individual defender. This allowed the newly signed Gibson to take over the starting power forward role for Gorgui Dieng, giving the Wolves a sorely needed veteran in their frontcourt.
Gibson registered solid numbers as a starter and outperformed his ADP in all formats as he was projected with under 30 mpg but ended up almost doubling Dieng’s mpg. While Gibson isn’t likely to completely change his game during the offseason it’s possible that he may work a bit more on his corner three to allow him to continue to keep the defense honest when teams help off him. That said Gibson seems to be content grinding out solid production in the post while delivering across the board production for his owners.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 203/182 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 222/200 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 67
Stats: 20.5 MPG 6.8 PTS 1.1 3PM 4.1 REB 1.3 AST 0.8 STL 0.2 BLK .462 FG% .800 FT%
Bjelica, a crowd favorite and a sharpshooter off the bench, could find himself moving on this offseason as a restricted free agent if his price tag gets wild. After developing on the Wolves bench Bjelica played 21 games as a starter in his third season. During his stint covering for Butler he averaged 34 mpg, 10.8 points, 6.8 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals a game. Most importantly in either role, Bjelica shot over 41 percent from deep, making him a bonafide, if reluctant, sharpshooter.
Something unique about Bjelica is his age as he’s turning 30 in May, likely making this his last shot at a sizable deal. Look for his agent to find him the most money possible, and if that happens to be a perennial lottery team his camp might hope that the Wolves match. If he ends up sticking around feel free to leave him undrafted and on the wire till injury strikes.
ADP: NA/158 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 193/208 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 264/276 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 80
Stats: 20.7 MPG 10.3 PTS 1.3 3PM 1.2 REB 2.3 AST 0.5 STL 0.1 BLK .415 FG% .903 FT%
Crawford was the Wolves’ only double-digit scorer off the bench this season while logging the most minutes of any non-starter. Given Crawford is a free agent it’s likely that he’ll move on to greener pastures, to an offense that allows him to possibly approach 25 mpg. Crawford has discovered somewhat of a fountain of youth in the NBA while moving from one fast-paced offense to another. Look for the professional scorer as a possible stopgap in case of injury but for the most part, he should be left on the wire and admired from afar.
That said Crawford did play poorly defensively this season, ranking dead last for shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. That said the entire Wolves team was a poor defensive squad and Crawford simply accentuated those issues with his lack of defensive prowess.
ADP: 60/79 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 194/186 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 260/252 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 79
Stats: 16.9 MPG 5.9 PTS 0.2 3PM 4.5 REB 0.9 AST 0.6 STL 0.5 BLK .479 FG% .775 FT%
This year Gorgui Dieng got stuck playing third fiddle on a two-person bike. With his minutes plummeting from 32.4 last season to 16.9 in 2017-18 Dieng left lots of fantasy owners high and dry. While it’s not inconceivable that someone convinces Thibs to play their “$62.8 million man” over 20 minutes per game next season, it’s unlikely that Dieng overtakes Taj Gibson. In Thibs’ offense that’s all that matters.
The main silver lining for Dieng was his new-found range. Losing Ricky Rubio was hard for a player who made his money on easy layups last season. With one year under his belt playing as a stretch 4/5 Dieng should be ready to pick up any slack next season. Another alternative could see Dieng being shipped elsewhere, restoring his top-50 potential but an elite backup big is a luxury a top team needs.
ADP: NA/NA (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 165/150 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 234/213 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 17.9 MPG 5.1 PTS 0.2 3PM 4.5 REB 0.9 AST 0.6 STL 0.5 BLK .479 FG% .775 FT%
Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native, proved that he had something to offer the NBA this season. In 11 games as a starter, he averaged 33.7 minutes, 9.4 points, 4.5 assists and a whopping 2.9 steals. Besides this relatively short stretch of productivity Jones’ playing time was sporadic as he ended up averaging under 18 minutes per game. Jones did have an impressive plus-minus on the season and he will open next year as the defacto backup for Jeff Teague unless D-Rose returns. Jones is eligible for an extension this offseason but may look to wait for an additional year in hopes of a bigger payday.
ADP: 103/122 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 357/396 (8/9-cat), Per Game Value: 349/404 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 26
Stats: 16.8 MPG 5.9 PTS 0.2 3PM 4.5 REB 0.9 AST 0.6 STL 0.5 BLK .479 FG% .775 FT%
Derrick Rose may be the most telling story of a player whose body failed to accept the rigors placed upon it with heavy minutes. After only missing seven games in his first three seasons while averaging 37.1 minutes per game Rose suffered the first on many injuries in his fourth season. His tenth year as a pro was the most unceremonious for Rose who took multiple breaks away from the game, even contemplating retirement during mid-season. Ultimately Rose was traded by the Cavs to Utah and subsequently waived by the Jazz. This opened the door for Rose to reunite with some of his former teammates and his former coach in Minnesota.
While Rose’s regular season performances were nothing to write home about he was able to find some success during the playoffs against the Rockets. He scored 16 or more points in three of the five games while shooting a completely unsustainable 51 percent from three. Rose is a free agent and could possibly return if Thibs wants to have his veteran presence around. That said Rose may retire and should not be on any draft boards moving forward.
The Wolves absolutely have to figure out a way to keep KAT happy. Thibs’ tendencies will remain his tendencies, but someone up top should try and convince him that the starters can get a few extra minutes of rest during the regular season. This is a playoff team, and at full health they weren’t really struggling to compete for a top-four seed. There’s no sense in burning out the stars now. Minnesota is probably regretting that Wiggins contract and could look to trade him and increase their future flexibility, but the core here is set. For the first time in a long time, the Wolves could become serious players. Despite all the internal quibbling, they’re in a decent spot going forward.