• After a string of 14 consecutive years missing the postseason, the Wolves finally broke through and tasted some sweet victory. For this franchise, it was a monumental achievement and one that should have been a spring board into future success, but it was clear early on that the journey would not be so simple.

    Upon reflection, last season felt more disappointing than the final result indicated, especially for a team that faced such a long playoff drought. The Wolves were in third place as late as February, and while no lead is considered comfortable in the NBA, they certainly looked to be one of the stronger teams in that tier below the Rockets and Warriors. It took until the final game, though, to secure a playoff appearance and saved what could have been a dramatic collapse in the second-half of the season.

    Everything nearly came crashing down after the All-Star break when Jimmy Butler went down with a serious knee injury. The team lost four-of-six games without Butler earlier in the season by an average margin of 16.5 points per game, and they looked to be losing him the rest of the year. Minnesota went 8-9 without him, but in the tight Western Conference, that was enough to push them from third to eighth.

    There was no doubt that the Wolves missed his defensive presence during the season, and if he stayed healthy perhaps the team could have secured a higher playoff seed. Alas, they were matched-up with the Rockets, and despite Houston playing their worst ball of the season still lost in five games.

    From sheer jubilance to utter disappointment, the Wolves entered the offseason with more questions than answers about their roster, and little money to fix it. For someone who didn’t follow the team closely, it may have seemed like a quiet summer. The moves the team made were low-key, but there were still plenty of fireworks.

    The team re-signed Derrick Rose and allowed Nemanja Bjelica and Jamal Crawford to walk. They brought on Anthony Tolliver as the ‘major’ free agent. They also drafted Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop and signed on James Nunnally and Luol Deng to minimum contracts.

    All these moves seem solid on the surface for a team that’s completely cap tied. The Wolves have a strong starting five on paper, but needed some more versatility from the bench, which they accomplished. Unfortunately there were deeper set issues all along that were never addressed and then the shocking trade request was announced just days before training camp opened.

    Butler’s trade request came to the public light at an awkward time, but it has since been reported (straight from Butler) that it came all the way back in April, soon after Butler declined to fly back to Minneapolis with the team following their Game 5 defeat. Thibodeau and the Wolves’ inaction left this to fester into the toxic situation we’ve seen unfold in training camp when they could have had an entire summer to re-brand and move on. Now the Butler saga will remain a dark cloud over the team for as long as he remains a wolf.

    Unfortunately this has been all too familiar for the franchise. The positive momentum built last year was covering up the serious dysfunction within the team, one that reaches all the way to the top. In some ways this embarrassing turn of events can serve as an opportunity for the team to just rip off the band-aid and move on. It’s time to bring the focus back on the young players again. The Wolves were able to secure a long-term commitment from Towns, it’s time to fully commit to him.

    This admittedly paints a rough picture for the Wolves in the upcoming season, but there are still plenty of reasons to pay attention. For starters, Butler is going to be must-watch basketball this year, so long as he’s in Minnesota. His…. animated first practice with the team, comically aside, did bring up a valid point. If the Wolves want to win, they need him. When Butler was inactive last season the team gave up 112.8 points per game, compared to 105.1 when he played. With Derrick Rose filling in for Butler in the preseason, the Wolves gave up 123.8 points per game.

    The Wolves have maybe four players, including Butler, they can rely on defensively, and that’s being generous. With Rose in the starting five, Taj Gibson is the only reliable defender, and that is obviously a huge problem.

    Butler already plays like he has a chip on his shoulder at all times, now playing with a sort of vendetta against the franchise that pays his checks, it could make for some incredible moments.

    The Wolves’ regular starting five last year was also very good when they played together. As much as the majority of them don’t like each other, they showed last season that they can compete on a nightly basis. Perhaps they can fuel some of that negative energy and take it out on the opposition.

    This team will be an interesting follow through the season thanks to their unpredictability. Butler could be traded at any time really, but it feels likely that nothing will happen on that front until December at the earliest. Talks have all but stalled with the Miami Heat, and it sounds like there wasn’t much traction elsewhere. This could also be Thibodeau’s last hurrah as well. There’s not much reason to keep him and his archaic schemes around, especially when he inevitably loses Butler.

    When the season comes to a close the team could be left with Towns and Wiggins as the prominent players, a potential bright young piece from the Butler trade (Josh Richardson, for example), a couple of first round picks and their own promising rookies Okogie and Bates-Diop, with the opportunity to hire a new General Manager and Head Coach. That collection of pieces should be enough to make both positions desirable to fill and set the team back on the right track.

    In the meantime, root for Butler and the team to succeed. A successful team for the Wolves can be dangerous in the Western Conference and puts pressure on the outside teams to make a deal. Root for Thibodeau to open up the floor for Towns and Wiggins. Shifting the focus back to the young players is all that matters for the Wolves going forward. If Thibodeau won’t do that, find someone who will.

    Projected Starters:

    PG- Jeff Teague
    SG- Jimmy Butler
    SF- Andrew Wiggins
    PF- Taj Gibson
    C- Karl-Anthony Towns

    The lineup that had the most minutes in the NBA last season also had a net rating of 7.3. Butler is not expected to miss any game action with his injury recovery and trade request, so as long as he’s in there this lineup should compete. Towns saw a sizable dip in attempts last year (18.0 per game to 14.3) but remained elite offensively. Wiggins saw a dip as well, but his efficiency dropped. Gibson had his most efficient offensive season of his career last year and likely falls back to earth a bit. Teague remains extremely consistent.

    Defensively this lineup features Butler and Gibson holding up as much as they can. Thibodeau doesn’t switch often and “ice’s” most screens. The corner three is often left wide open, a spot the Wolves can consistently be beat at.

    Projected Role Players:

    Tyus Jones
    Derrick Rose
    Anthony Tolliver
    Gorgui Dieng

    The third most-used lineup for the Wolves last year included Jones with the starters, replacing Teague. It was also the Wolves best lineup combination, by far, with a net rating of 24.3. Unfortunately Jones only managed to find time when Teague was injured, playing 33.7 minutes per game as a starter for Teague, and 15.4 minutes as a reserve. He is the only true backup point guard on the roster.

    Rose was predictably bad in the short regular season stint with the Wolves, but provided an offensive boost in the playoffs. Likely inherits most of Crawford’s bad minutes, not much of a change is expected there. Tolliver inherits Bjelica’s minutes and will have the greenlight at all times. he won’t be shy about shooting either, something the Wolves grew tired about with Bejlica. Dieng shot 43 percent between 15 and 24 feet last season, a number he needs to sustain if he wants a rotation slot.

    The Rest:

    Josh Okogie
    Keita Bates-Diop
    Luol Deng
    James Nunnally
    C.J. WIlliams
    Jared Terrell
    Justin Patton

    Assuming Thibs is around for the season, which as of now looks to be the case, the Wolves’ rotation will be tight, exceeding no more than 10 guys a night, but usually eight or nine. That leaves this last group of players more-or-less glued to the bench without a surprising turn of events. Okogie and Bates-Diop both played over 20 minutes per game in all five preseason games, but that is not likely to last.

    Should an unfortunate injury befall one of the wing players, or Butler and eventually traded, Okogie seems the most likely to earn some minutes. The team is still woefully thin on the wing and Okogie is about all they have. Bates-Diop could be an option as well, but Thibs has never trusted rookies so neither seem likely to make a huge impact. Nunnally’s shooting ability should be something the Wolves absolutely look at (team was last in 3-point shooting last year), but so far this preseason he’s been stuck on the bench. Deng is more of a backup four these days and hasn’t played much at all the last two years, Williams and Terrell will both spend a lot of time in Iowa and Patton is injured.

    Prediction:

    40-42 (plus or minus five, depending on Butler), 5th in the division, 10th in the conference.

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