The Minnesota Timberwolves’ young core is widely regarded as the best in the NBA. Not only do they have a superstar in the making in Karl-Anthony Towns and a potential second star in Andrew Wiggins, they have other up-and-coming talents surrounding their cornerstones such as Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Shabazz Muhammad among others.
As if this core wasn’t scary enough, the Timberwolves managed to land Tom Thibodeau as their president of basketball operations and head coach. Thibodeau was arguably the best head coach on the market and it’ll be very interesting to see what he can do with this squad. It’s worth noting that Thibodeau never missed the playoffs in his five seasons as coach of the Chicago Bulls. In fact, he’s never finished with less than 45 wins in a season (and he has a .647 career winning percentage).
In other words, there’s a lot to be excited about in Minnesota. The team is almost certainly still a year or two away from seriously competing in the Western Conference, but progress is expected this year and the group believes that making the playoffs is a realistic goal.
Basketball Insiders previews the Timberwolves’ 2016-17 season.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Timberwolves will be a trendy pick for many as a sleeper this season, but history has taught us to never count on consistency from a team that relies heavily on its young core. Sure veteran head coach Tom Thibodeau has the pedigree to get the maximum amount of effort from his players. But that isn’t the point. Sure we can see the future All-Star potential just oozing off of guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But that isn’t the point. Learning how to win at the NBA level has humbled many kids on the rise and history hasn’t been kind to young and inexperienced units. While the Timberwolves have a core filled with future high performers, the team is still another 20-24 months away from being a legitimate challenger for a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Beware of the Timberwolves! Tom Thibodeau himself could probably squeeze 10 additional wins out of any basketball club, but with Kris Dunn joining up with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Thibodeau has some pieces to work with.
The Northwest Division may be one of the most difficult to predict in the NBA season. With Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland and the Trail Blazers continuing to grow, the only thing that we know for sure about the Northwest is that there will be some stiff competition there. I think I lean toward the Timberwolves as being the third best team in the division, narrowly edging out the Jazz, but I don’t say so with absolute conviction. One thing I can say, though, is that Thibodeau has made a career out of defying odds and getting the most with the least, so if for no other reason than his presence, you should expect the T-Wolves to take a major step forward this season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
There are several teams that have a nucleus of young, exciting talent to build on. But there is no team that has a core quite as exciting at the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, along with other still relatively young players like Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad. It can be argued that other teams have more young players, but with Towns and Wiggins, the Timberwolves have two of the best young prospects in the NBA. This is especially true with Towns, who put up monster numbers as a rookie and looks like he could be one of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later. If Tom Thibodeau can harness this group of young talent into a cohesive unit on both ends of the court, this team could make a big leap forward this upcoming season.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It’s tempting to put these guys higher up in the division standings because new head coach Tom Thibodeau certainly has done more with less, but this is one of the tougher divisions in basketball. It’s hard to imagine an upstart Wolves team suddenly upending Portland, Oklahoma City and Utah in the Northwest just because of a flashy new name at the helm. That said, Thibs should make some serious progress with this group, as he tends to milk every drop of success possible out of his rosters and there’s plenty of talent to milk this year. He’s got the last two Rookies of the Year in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but it’s not like that’s the only talent on the roster. Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio should keep the backcourt rotation entertaining, and we’re all hoping to eke one more year out of Kevin Garnett. This should be a fun team to watch this season, and this time next year we could very well be talking about them as a Northwest Division leader, not just a Northwest Division competitor.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
My in-depth thoughts on the Timberwolves can be found below throughout the rest of the preview, but I’ll try to sum them up a bit. Karl-Anthony Towns seems poised for superstardom. Andrew Wiggins continues to showcase his impressive two-way game and shouldn’t be slept on. The supporting cast has promising pieces, particularly in the backcourt with Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Tom Thibodeau is an excellent fit for this squad. Simply put, Minnesota should be very, very good soon (barring unexpected setbacks).
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
Andrew Wiggins actually led the Wolves in scoring last season with 20.7 points per game to Towns’ 18.3. However, Towns was far more efficient, shooting better than Wiggins from the field (54.2 percent to 45.9 percent), three-point range (34.1 percent to 30 percent) and the free throw line (81.1 percent to 76.1 percent). Towns also had the higher PER (22.5 to 16.5), offensive rating (112 to 106) and offensive win shares (5.4 to 3.4). The big man can score inside and out, and he should only continue to get better as he continues to gain experience and work with Kevin Garnett (assuming he’s back; more on that in a bit).
Top Defensive Player: Ricky Rubio
You could make the case for Towns here as well and it would be excellent for the Wolves if Wiggins develops into the team’s top defensive player under Thibodeau. Kris Dunn may eventually fight for this distinction too. However, let’s show some love to Ricky Rubio’s defense. He has developed into a shutdown defender, which isn’t easy for a point guard in today’s NBA since he faces a star opponent on more nights than not. Last season, Rubio led the NBA in steals per game (2.1), steals per 48 minutes (3.35) and steal percentage (3.5 percent). And as my colleague Jesse Blancarte pointed out in a recent article about Rubio’s defense, these steals come as a result of his excellent positioning, awareness and length rather than reckless gambling. Another reason why Rubio’s defense is so important is that his great plays on that end typically lead to easy points for Minnesota since he is excellent in transition and has Towns, Wiggins and LaVine among others running alongside him. Which leads us to our next category…
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
In addition to playing very good defense, Rubio ranked fifth in the NBA in assists per game (8.7) and assist percentage (41.4 percent) last season behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and John Wall. Rubio is the kind of passer who creates easy buckets for his teammates and he can make some jaw-dropping plays with the ball in his hands. Rubio’s shooting remains an issue (37.4 percent from the field last year) and some have questioned what the future holds for him with younger floor generals like Dunn and LaVine on the Wolves’ roster, but the soon-to-be 26-year-old deserves credit in these two categories.
Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
Because Towns is so efficient and effective all over the court, it’s safe to assume that the ball will be in his hands if Minnesota is in need of a clutch bucket. Last April, Towns hit a game-winning turnaround hook shot to beat the Portland Trail Blazers. After the game, he thanked his teammates and coaches for trusting him in that position and said he knew the shot was good the moment it left his hand. He has the confidence that’s necessary to be a clutch threat, and he’s poised beyond his years. Expect to see more of Towns in the clutch going forward since the Wolves should have more close games and all signs point to Towns continuing to get better and consistently having the rock in late-game situations.
The Unheralded Player: Gorgui Dieng
Last season, Dieng averaged 10.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals in 27.1 minutes per game. He made the most of his minutes and remains one of the more underrated big men in the league entering his fourth NBA season. Dieng was an important piece for Minnesota last year, ranking second on the Wolves in offensive rating (113), defensive rating (106), win shares (5.9) and value over replacement player (2.5). Also, he finished first on the team in true shooting percentage (60.1 percent). At 26 years old, Dieng is a bit older than other members of Minnesota’s core and doesn’t have the same upside. However, he is a key part of their supporting cast who has done well on both ends of the court when given meaningful playing time.
Top New Addition: Kris Dunn
One could make the argument that Tom Thibodeau is actually the Wolves’ best new addition since he’ll have a huge impact on the franchise moving forward. However, if we’re focusing solely on players, Kris Dunn is clearly the team’s top offseason acquisition. Dunn was the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft and he’s one of the most NBA-ready players in this draft class. The 22-year-old guard is a terrific defender who should thrive under Thibodeau and, as previously mentioned, his arrival has some wondering about Rubio’s future in Minnesota. Last year, Dunn averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.5 steals while leading Providence to 24 wins. He shot 44.8 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three-point range. Among all college players, he ranked third in assist percentage (41.8 percent), sixth in steal percentage (4.3 percent) and 16th in Box Plus-Minus (11.3). In other words, Minnesota has added another extremely talented young player to their already scary core.
– Alex Kennedy
WHO WE LIKE
1. Andrew Wiggins
Towns is now viewed as the Timberwolves’ franchise player because his game is a perfect fit for today’s NBA and he was fantastic as a rookie, but Minnesota is also relying heavily on Wiggins going forward. He’s a cornerstone of this team too and he may even be flying under the radar a bit due to Towns overshadowing him. It’s worth noting that Wiggins played very well during his sophomore campaign, averaging 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal per game. He needs to become more efficient and consistent (especially with his shot and defense), but keep in mind that he’s still just 21 years old. He’s younger than incoming rookie Kris Dunn. Also, Thibodeau’s arrival should be great for Wiggins, who could become a two-way star in the same way that Jimmy Butler did under Thibs’ guidance. Towns’ ascent to stardom may have taken some attention off of Wiggins, but he also removes some of the pressure off him and makes the forward’s life easier by giving Minnesota a great player in the paint. Wiggins still has a ridiculously high ceiling and watching him develop should be fun.
2. Zach LaVine
LaVine’s athleticism is obviously off the charts, but his overall game has significantly improved since he entered the league. Last year, he averaged 14 points on 45.2 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three-point range. As my colleague Tommy Beer pointed out recently, LaVine was the only Minnesota player to hit more than 65 threes last year and he shot a very impressive 43.3 percent from behind the arc (87-202) over the final 50 games of the season. Also, LaVine cut back his turnovers (from 2.5 per game as a rookie to 1.9 last year) even though he was playing more minutes and was more involved offensively. That’s exactly what the Wolves want to see from him, and it’s worth noting that he is still just 21 years old.
3. Kevin Garnett
Garnett hasn’t indicated whether he’ll return to the court next season. Like he has done in recent summers, the veteran big man is contemplating retirement. However, he is under contract for the 2016-17 season with a $8,000,000 salary so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back. Either way, he has indicated that he’d like to be involved with the organization in some capacity moving forward and that’s great for all of the young players in Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns, in particular, has really enjoyed learning from Garnett and is soaking up the future Hall of Famer’s advice like a sponge. At this stage in his career, the 40-year-old doesn’t make much of a difference on the court (he averaged just 3.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game last year and appeared in just 38 contests). But that’s not really important. Think of him more like a very well paid assistant coach who has the respect of every single person in the organization. Having him around can only help the young squad, especially as they look to take their defense to the next level under Thibodeau (who was an assistant coach in Boston when Garnett won his lone championship in 2008).
4. Tom Thibodeau
As stated earlier, he was a terrific addition for the Wolves this summer. During his time in Chicago, Thibodeau was consistently named one of the top coaches in the NBA by general managers in their annual survey and his teams produced on the court. Defense is obviously his specialty and he has the personnel to make the Wolves very good on that end of the floor (although it may take some time). Even if the Wolves need one more year of development before seriously competing, it’s hard not to like this hire for Minnesota. Thibodeau has been criticized for playing his guys big minutes (which may have contributed to injuries and declined production), but it’s possible that he learned from his experiences in Chicago and could alter his approach.
– Alex Kennedy
SALARY CAP 101
With 15 guaranteed players, the Timberwolves will need to open roster space if they want to keep invites Toure’ Murry and/or John Lucas. Minnesota can get to $13.4 million NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. Given teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season, the Wolves are likely to start the seasons at $3.9 million under that mark. Any shortfall will be paid out to the team’s rostered players at the end of the year.
It’s not entirely clear yet if Kevin Garnett will play through his 22nd season. He’s in the final year of his contract at $8 million. The Wolves also need to decide on rookie-scale options for Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne and Tyus Jones before November – all likely to be picked up. The team also has until the end of October to give extensions to Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Looking ahead to next summer, Minnesota could have roughly $31 million in spending power.
– Eric Pincus
Towns’ potential is off the charts, but he’s far from a project. In fact, one could make the case that he’s already one of the better big men in the league. Few teams have a seven-footer who’s quite so well-rounded and efficient; he averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 54.2 percent from the field last year as a 20-year-old. He certainly gives the Wolves an advantage in the paint and causes match-up problems. The team’s athleticism is also a big strength. But perhaps the best thing that the Wolves have going for them is Thibodeau, who should win the coaching battle most nights.
– Alex Kennedy
With any up-and-coming team, the group’s inexperience will lead to common mistakes. The hope is that Thibodeau can clean up the team’s play, especially defensively, but that may take time. Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories in recent years. Shooting and defense are two areas where they need to make big strides if they want to compete at a high level, especially with the direction the league is moving.
– Alex Kennedy
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Timberwolves make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season?
Earlier this week, Karl-Anthony Towns made headlines when he said that he expects Minnesota to crack the Western Conference’s top eight this upcoming season.
“We’ve got to make the playoffs,” Towns said in an interview with Jared Zwerling of NBPA.com. “We’ve got to do something special, and it’s up to us to continue to work and to make that happen.”
This would be quite the jump in the standings, considering the team won just 29 games last year. However, with internal development, a terrific new coach in Tom Thibodeau and some new immediate-impact players like Kris Dunn, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill among others, it’s reasonable to expect the Wolves to be better.
Also, it is true that the conference is coming off of a down year in which the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets won just 41 games (as opposed to the 45 or more wins it typically takes to make the postseason in the West).
Still, Minnesota must fight off last year’s playoff teams plus fellow up-and-coming squads like the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans (who were depleted by injuries last year), Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns among others. It remains to be seen if they can make the leap this season and keep Thibodeau’s postseason streak intact.
– Alex Kennedy
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