April 30, 2018, 1:16 pm
The tumultuous season that it was for the Minnesota Timberwolves came to a close at the hands of the Houston Rockets and now preparations for the offseason begin.
Judging success for the Wolves this season is a tough exercise given the number of factors that played into it. First off, it was only the second year that Head Coach and President Tom Thibodeau has had to work with and shape the team he envisions as a long term contender. There were also a number of injuries, particularly to Jimmy Butler, that set the team back from reaching its full potential. Finally the development of the young players wasn’t exactly clear, and if anything seemed stymied in certain areas. The team often looked disjointed and berated.
Given all of that, a team coming off a 47-win season and their first playoff appearance in 14 years has it’s fair share of questions regarding its future, and a number of doubters. Some believe major changes are needed to preserve the bright future ahead with Karl-Anthony Towns, and perhaps Andrew Wiggins, in the fold. Others say a few minor tweaks is all it will require.
Their biggest problem ahead, though, is acting on these changes, no matter if they’re drastic or small. The franchise is in a tight spot and all the moves they do, or don’t, make could have serious repercussions down the road.
In 2016, Tom Thibodeau was brought in to not only be the Wolves new head coach, but also their President of Basketball Operations, a title currently held by only two other coaches in the NBA.
Inheriting an extremely young and inexperienced roster, Thibodeau knew the challenge ahead to achieve his vision. Instead of developing a young core, he targeted a quicker path to success. Bringing on four new veteran players while shipping out two promising young players, it was clear that Thibs wanted to change the culture surrounding the franchise and bring a winning mentality back to the Wolves.
Thibs was also expected to bring in new defensive schemes that would vault the Wolves up into the NBA’s best and the new veteran additions, mainly Butler and Taj Gibson, would ideally expedite that transition. Two years in, the Wolves ranked 26th and 22nd in defensive rating, improving by less than a point from year one to year two. Certain areas got even worse, such as opponent’s field goal percentage and opponents’ rebounding.
With nearly total control over roster construction, scheming and player rotations, Thibs is, quite fairly, the main target of criticism for the seemingly lack of development on the defensive end. His old school style on both ends of the floor is nearly outdated in the NBA today where 3-pointers reign supreme.
With an open roster space nearly all season long and clear needs on the wing and 3-point shooting, Thibs stood pat at the trade deadline and had a quiet post-deadline signing period (when the Wolves had TWO open roster spots), eventually signing a fourth point guard. Derrick Rose was a polarizing signing at the time, and played into the infamous “Timberbulls” mockery of Thibs just assembling his former Chicago Bulls’ for another run (Joakim Noah, line one).
There’s an argument to be had that giving a head coach president duties isn’t the best idea. Currently Greg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy and Thibodeau are the only three to have that sort of power. Popovich has had R.C. Buford at his side, a respected executive, taking a large amount of pressure off Pop and is about the only success story when merging these two jobs.
Mike Budenholzer held that power for some time and oversaw the decline of the Hawks from their 60-win team to a lottery team. He stepped down from executive duties after nearly two years, and then a year after that left the organization altogether.
Doc Rivers held that title since coming over from Boston, the major reason he left. He inherited about as much one could as for: Chris Paul in his prime, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at 24 and 25, respectively, and an owner willing to spend plenty of money. The Clippers never were able to separate themselves though, and were always plagued with a short bench and lack of wings.
Rivers was eventually removed from the executive role after a string of failures, and Steve Ballmer, their owner, recognized the tough nature of doing both jobs.
“It turns out that running a franchise and coaching are two enormous and different jobs. The notion that one person can fairly focus on them and give them all the attention they need isn’t the case,” said Ballmer.
It was a nice way to strip Rivers of power, but also recognizing the difficulties of competently running things with so much on your plate. How Thibs managed to get this title is a mystery for another day, but it’s fair to say that with all the responsibilities he has, drastic improvement is tough to expect. This type of position rarely works in the NBA, with the only clear example happening in the most stable, structured organization in the league.
A vocal group want Thibs out completely in yet another dramatic shift in the power structure for this organization. That remains unlikely, especially considering he has more than $20 million remaining owed, a figure that’s unlikely to be absorbed by owner Glen Taylor, but also because of potential repercussions of his departure.
Quipping about Thibs targeting his former Bulls aside, he seems to have established a longstanding loyalty to those same players. Butler, in particular, has his coaches’ back all the way. Not that other current Wolves don’t, but Butler’s loyalty runs to the core.
Butler’s contract is eligible for an extension this summer. If no deal is reached, he could become a free agent next year. In an interview just after his injury, Butler said that he’d be open to staying in Minnesota if they take care of him.
“I mean, in the most humble way possible, if they don’t take care of me this summer, I think the summer after that, I’m’a end up playing somewhere. Let’s not worry about that. Look, money’s never the issue for me. If you win, that takes care of everything. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. When that presents itself, we’ll think about it and talk about it,” he said.
Getting rid of Thibs completely likely means severing a connection with Butler and him walking next year, which would be a disastrous turn of events. The Wolves know this, and that’s why he’s likely to continue to stick around. He could potentially see his executive powers reigned in a bit, or the Wolves looking to bring in someone above him, a la Jerry West joining the Clippers. So while change in the power structure seems necessary, it’s not quite that easy.
With so many new faces coming in, including three of them who prefer to operate with the ball in their hands, adding to a roster with two players who were in the top-30 in usage rate the season prior was going to be a challenge and chemistry would take time to develop.
Every situation is different, but typically it takes time for drastically shifted rosters to come together, especially when integrating young players into new schemes and asking veteran players to take a step back. That’s exactly what happened when Thibs added Jimmy Butler along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Wiggins and Towns were still learning Thibs’ schemes as the feature players in his offense, when suddenly Butler stepped in and shifted things around a bit. Every player on the roster had to sacrifice time with the ball to accommodate their new teammates, and it noticeably effected some, including Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng.
Butler had the benefit of playing for Thibs in the past, but there was still an adjustment period for everyone, which was prevalent throughout the season and even into the playoffs. The team never quite gelled together and it showed often.
All that being said, the team still had an offensive rating that ranked fourth in the league. Towns, Butler and Gibson were all efficient, with KAT and Taj having their best seasons to date. That played a large role because often times the Wolves relied on excellent individual talent as opposed to a collective team effort.
They also ranked high while having to offset Wiggins who had another inefficient season, arguably his worst yet. Field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage were all down from last season.
It’s fair to consider that Wiggins isn’t a proper fit on the team. His offensive role was drastically reduced and his defense didn’t take the steps that many envisioned when Thibs took the helm two years ago.
To his credit Wiggins cut down his long two attempts (the least efficient shot in basketball) and took more 3-pointers. The problem is team-wide there was a lack of reliable 3-point shooting. One of the main focuses this offseason will be adding shooters, ideally at the wing.
The problem with moving on from Wiggins here is that his $146 million contract kicks in this summer, carrying a 21 percent cap hit with him (approximately $25 million). While still valuable as a 23 year old wing, his contract will be tough to move and may require a complex deal.
If the Wolves simply want to add to their current roster, it will be tough as well given they are already over the salary cap. Even if the Wolves renounce their rights to their five free-agents, waive Cole Aldrich’s non-guaranteed money and Jamal Crawford declines his player option, the Wolves will be a hair under the salary cap, giving them extremely limited flexibility.
They could open space up with a trade of Dieng, but the Wolves would be left with Justin Patton as the only reserve big man off the bench. Patton played in one NBA game this year, partly due to injury, and he’s going to miss the entire summer with another foot injury.
So the top two players on the Wolves are a great building block, but the roster gets complicated from there. Any minor adjustments are going to require some significant hurdles, and major shake ups seem unlikely.
What can they do?
Change for the Wolves this season feels needed, but unlikely because of the many complexities surrounding the team. The power structure at the top makes it tough for the team to operate efficiently. Player development seems stagnated with old school ideals and players that don’t quite mesh with the system. The roster needs some tweaking, but the financial situation ties them down. Standing pat just pushes back all these issues to another time, and doesn’t alleviate them completely.
The crux of change seems to center around Tom Thibodeau, and what the Wolves do with him. Something needs to happen there, but the team has to take care in how they approach it because of his close ties to Butler. At the same time, the team assembled by Thibs himself doesn’t quite fit the scheme he’s attempting to run.
Perhaps the Wolves can trade Wiggins for a better roster fit, or they can dump all their assets with Dieng in order to gain financial flexibility. The team might be able to convince some veterans to sign for the minimum and plug some holes. Maybe the Wolves decide they don’t like the direction and blow it up, ousting Thibs and trading Butler while going all in with KAT and Wiggins.
Thibs is infamous for his stubbornness throughout his career, but now more than ever the Wolves are stepping into a time where even the slightest adjustment can have huge ramifications. Perhaps some caution is best served here. The team broke a 14-year streak and two young stars leading the way, but the franchise feels like it’s in a more delicate spot than ever before.