October 11, 2017, 12:42 pm
An offseason that dramatically shifted the NBA landscape arguably began on draft night when the Timberwolves and Bulls agreed on a deal to send Jimmy Butler west. While the Celtics and Sixers had already completed their notorious trade, it didn’t vault a new team into the middle of the conference playoff picture where many expect the Timberwolves to prowl this season.
After spending 13 consecutive years in the lottery the Wolves feel they have a legitimate chance to break their streak and host playoff basketball in Minneapolis once again.
So what should be expected this season? Growth.
Tom Thibodeau endured his first losing season as a head coach, going 31-51, and wasn’t able to deploy a group of players that fit into his style. Thibodeau tends to rely on a lead ball handler who is able to beat guys off the dribble, score at the rim and kick out if they need to.
While departed point guard Ricky Rubio is an excellent playmaker and overlooked defender, he has been historically poor finishing in close, shooting under 50 percent within 3 feet of the basket.
In come Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. Each thrive in the pick and roll game and are able to get to the rim and finish, shooting 63 percent and 59 percent in their careers within three feet, respectively. Expect Thibs to interchange their roles throughout the season, and generally be effective.
Up front Karl-Anthony Towns is the focal point, with Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng providing the bulk of support. Towns is a monster and is able to score all over the court, which fits with Thibodeau’s mold as he isn’t afraid of bringing his big men away from the basket and even facilitate some offense.
Defensively he has room to improve, but that is to be expected out of a 3rd year center. Gibson is a vet that Thibs trusts and is likely to start while Dieng will come off the bench. Both players will struggle to find shots and are likely relegated to mid range jumpers, hard screens and defense.
Where this leaves Andrew Wiggins is the key to it all. Playing two bigs and two dribble-heavy guards leads to concerns about floor spacing and in that regard Wiggins does little to alleviate it. As a coach in Chicago, Thibodeau would use a series of screens and back door action to get Luol Deng the ball in space so he could use his superior athleticism to score.
Expect more of this action to crop up this season as Wiggins can show off his talent for scoring, and perhaps improve his efficiency, while they try to figure out how these pieces fit together.
So where does this collection of players lead? The Western Conference is as competitive as ever, and this is Year 1 of the new Wolves era, with last season serving as an evaluation period for coach and president Tom Thibodeau.
Offensively there is plenty of talent to make things work, and while it might take some time to get the pieces where they want, this should be a strong group despite spacing deficiencies. In order to make the next step, the biggest concern going forward is this team’s defensive ability. Towns, Dieng, Gibson and Cole Aldrich form a strong core to lock down the paint, and Butler is an All-NBA defender on the perimeter.
While Butler will likely guard the opposing team’s best player, he cannot guard everyone. Teague and Wiggins must step up for these Wolves to separate from the pack, and Wiggins in particular will have the spotlight on him. Fresh off of a max contract extension, Wiggins is the man moving forward. The physical measurements say he can take the next step, but it is up to him in the end. How far the Wolves can go leans on the defensive improvements of the young players.
In the shadow of the Golden State Warriors building a championship contender can feel like a hopeless affair, though these Wolves find themselves in a position unlike other teams. While they are still building towards a playoff appearance, bigger aspirations are also on the horizon. Moves were made to help the team now, but visions still remain on what’s ahead. Jimmy Butler was brought in to propel the playoff efforts, but the future rests on the shoulders of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.