After a whirlwind month of action, the basketball-watching world has approached the most boring month of the year in the NBA — so looking over each and every team’s offseason is more imperative than ever. In this edition of “Grading the Offseason”, we’re taking a peek at the suddenly-erratic Minnesota Timberwolves.
Remember when the Timberwolves had the most exciting future in the league? Boy, a lot can change in just two years.
Minnesota, of course, was supposed to be the next big thing, all thanks to one of the most promising young duos in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Back then, they had an accomplished head coach calling the shots in Tom Thibodeau. Plus, adding an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler meant the future was here in the midwest.
Looking at where this team is at today, 2017 seems so very long ago. Butler and Thibodeau are gone, while Wiggins isn’t panning out as well as he had once projected. Towns has come into his own, but the Wolves need more than just him. Suddenly, more questions than answers regarding Minnesota’s future have arisen.
How exactly did the franchise get here after everything appeared to be going so well? Let’s examine.
It goes without saying, but things could not have started out worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19. It’s one thing when your star player wants out — but when he demands a trade just as training camp is about to begin, that puts everything out of whack with very little time to put it all back in order.
Despite making the playoffs, it only took one year for the Jimmy Butler situation to turn sour, holding absolutely nothing back when he made his trade request. So much drama went on during the Timberwolves’ training camp that, if filmed, it could have made for a very entertaining episode of Hard Knocks.
In any situation like that, obliging a trade request should be done ASAP. Instead, Thibodeau, for some reason, decided to drag it out 13 games into the season, a move that undoubtedly affected the team’s psyche. The Timberwolves went 4-9 before Butler was sold off to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
Technically, Minnesota improved from there by going 32-37 the rest of the way — but their 36-46 season overall was unremarkable.
As a whole, the roster didn’t leave any lasting impressions, but Towns — now a budding superstar — played the best basketball of his career. At first glance, Towns’ traditional statistics seem typical, but his per-36 averages tell a more in-depth story.
Per-36 statistics are flimsy numbers, especially so when used for players whose teams wouldn’t dare give that many minutes on a nightly basis. In Towns’ case, it’s different.
Since being coached by Thibodeau, Towns ranked fifth in minutes played on average with 37 — naturally, second behind Wiggins — in 2016-17, then 13th the following year with 35.6. Both Thibodeau and his replacement, Ryan Saunders, decreased Towns’ minutes to 33.1 this past season. When you factor in his numbers from that into per-36, Towns averaged career-bests in points (26.6), rebounds (13.5), and assists (3.7).
He also averaged a career-high in turnovers (3.4), but that probably had to do with the higher usage rate he had — almost 29 percent — in fewer minutes. With Butler gone, Towns took the bigger role in the Wolves’ offense and ran with it. With a higher number of shots, Towns still maintained his usual field goal percentage, almost 52 percent, and his solid three-point percentage of 40 percent.
With the fifth year of the KAT era swiftly approaching, Minnesota knows by now that he’ll be worth every penny of that contract extension that will take effect next season. Unfortunately, they can’t say the same for their other former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins continues to boggle fans everywhere on how far his value has fallen as a player. Just two years ago, the guy was averaging over 23 points on 45/35/76 splits. His stats were bound to decline when the team acquired Butler but, since that departure, Wiggins has failed to regain his old form.
18.1 points on 41/34/70 splits is just an odd regression for someone who is only 24 years old and possesses the physical advantages that Wiggins does. Still, he hasn’t been a total net negative for Minnesota — in fact, the Timberwolves are plus-1.1 with Wiggins on the floor. But when you’re paying somebody almost $25.5 million, that person needs to make a bigger impact. “Maple Jordan” has shown he has talent, but the less progress he makes, the more accurate the Jeff Green comparisons become.
Besides them, the next significant storyline was the play of Derrick Rose. Though he only played 51 games, Rose had his most efficient season as a shooter, sporting a true shooting percentage of 55.7. Rose has never been hailed as a three-point shooter, but on almost three attempts a game, the long-time veteran hit on 37 percent from distance.
His prime may be behind him, but this new version of D-Rose could hopefully make him a more vital player for his next team, even if it’s not with the Timberwolves. With all that he’s gone through, seeing him being in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award tugs at the heartstrings.
As for the rest of the team, Covington put up some of the best numbers in his career in Minnesota — but most of his season was cut short because of an ongoing knee injury. Dario Saric performed adequately in his role, but his minutes took a hit after being traded from Philadelphia. Jeff Teague spent half the season on the shelf and Tyus Jones continued to be under-utilized.
Even still, lots of turnover and injuries went on in Minnesota. This time around, regardless of results, the Timberwolves won’t need to endure the same amount of drama this coming season than they did in this last one — and that, ultimately, is a good start.
The Timberwolves wasted no time getting to work this offseason. On draft night, they traded Saric as well as the No. 11 overall pick to Phoenix for the sixth selection. With it, Minnesota took Jarrett Culver, whose high draft position stemmed from his all-around game.
Rumor had it that the real target they had in mind when they made the trade was Darius Garland. Whether that’s true or not, Culver has the potential to be a good fit next to Towns. His three-point shot definitely needs work, but his defense, versatility and playmaking abilities should make him a productive player from the start for the Timberwolves.
Since Culver sat out of Summer League, we won’t know for sure what he can do until the season starts. This trade also signified that the Timberwolves weren’t interested in committing to Saric, who was going to fetch some change and then some next offseason.
Next came free agency. Minnesota’s plans started and ended with D’Angelo Russell. The fit seemed flawless. Russell was coming off of a remarkable season, he would be a phenomenal second-in-command next to their center and, even better, he and Towns are best friends. What’s not to like?
With Brooklyn wrapped up in Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant rumors, Minnesota seemed poised to swoop in with a big-time offer sheet. So, until it wasn’t, Russell to the Timberwolves seemed not only feasible but nearly inevitable. And yet, as things currently stand, Russell won’t be donning a Timberwolves uniform this coming season. Golden State kiboshed Minnesota’s plans by getting a Russell in a sign-and-trade, a fine replacement for the injured Klay Thompson too.
The heartbreak over Minnesota’s failure to obtain Russell overshadowed a summer that was full of savvy moves. On the cheap, they signed and traded for Jake Layman, added Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell and traded for Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham as the third party in the aforementioned Russel deal, all of whom can be solid rotation players that cost $3.6 million or less each.
If the Timberwolves had just reeled in the big fish, their offseason would have been a wild success. Since they didn’t, their roster still has questions as far as how high the ceiling actually is.
PLAYERS IN: Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Jaylen Nowell, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin (Two-Way)
PLAYERS OUT: Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Mitchell Creek, C.J. Williams, Jared Terrell
Over the past few years, Minnesota has had the luxury of waiting for their two young starlets to blossom. In that time, one has come along nicely while the other hasn’t. With Towns’ extension kicking in this season, the Timberwolves are now on the clock for the next five years to build a better team around him before any potential trade request.
Towns has pledged his loyalty to the franchise and that shouldn’t be questioned. For now at least. Something that Glen Taylor and co. should keep in mind: Anthony Davis and LeBron James shared a similar sentiment with their first teams. Both wound up leaving because neither of those teams succeeded in building a playoff contender around them. It’s on management to do its best to avoid the same fate.
With the moves they made, the Timberwolves didn’t get worse per se, but they didn’t get better either. Where they finish depends on how they compare to their competition in their conference. What would tip the scale in their favor would be if they somehow managed to get their hands on Russell, but he’s ineligible to be moved until later on next season.
Even though they may have missed out on acquiring D-Lo, many are skeptical that Russell lasts the season with the Warriors. If the doubters are correct, expect Minnesota to bid like crazy for his services.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, if Minnesota wants to avoid a repeat of Kevin Love, they have to do everything in their power to remove the un from the uncertainty they have engulfed themselves with.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C
High-Performance Mindfulness: Mental Performance Consultant Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn
Jake Rauchbach and Dr. Rainer Meisterjahn dive into the NBA’s Mental Performance Space.
Dr. Rainer J. Meisterjahn is a Mental Performance Consultant and the Founder & Owner of Courtex Performance. Rainer and Courtex Performance provide basketball mental performance training, personality evaluation and professional development services for players, coaches and organizations from the youth to the international pro and NBA levels with the goal of empowering clients to maximize performance.
Rainer has worked as a consultant for multiple NBA organizations, particularly in the area of mental player evaluation, as well as in a mental training capacity. As a draft consultant, in collaboration with Courtex Director of Analytics, Dr. Dave Laughlin, Rainer has developed NBA Pre-Draft interview guides, tracked player behavior, conducted interviews, administered and interpreted mental assessments and broken down observations for the front office
Dr. Meisterjahn has made great traction at the NBA level within the Mental Performance space. He has consulted for teams such as the Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and the Milwaukee Bucks. Other clients include FIBA and NCAA Division-I, II and III teams and coaches. He has also spent time with the German Youth National Team players and German BBL teams, such as Oliver Würzberg s.Oliver Basketball Club. Working with players such as Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris, Rainer is quickly establishing himself as a leader within the Mental Performance space.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Dr. Rainer to pick his brain about the Courtex Performance LLC philosophy and to get his take on burgeoning mental performance space.
Jake Rauchbach: What’s up Dr. Rainer? Thanks for taking the time. Can you talk about your Courtex Performance’s philosophy on mental performance training?
Rainer Meisterjahn: Our philosophy is about three things. Firstly, mental training needs to be personalized to the individual – which means there is no cookie-cutter approach. You must understand the personality of the individual: What are their values? What are their motives? What are their goals?
The second part is that it has to be systematic. There has to be an ongoing systematic approach to it. There has to be regularity to it. We do a lot of stuff around developing the core values that are important to the individual and looking at what those core values look like in action, behaviorally on the court. We have players rate themselves. We have coaches provide ratings. In that context, we teach pre-game visualization, in-game focus cues and other techniques to help players regulate their focus in productive ways.
Thirdly, mental training really needs to take into account environmental factors. What is the culture of an organization? What’s the player’s role and what is their relationship with others that he or she deals with on a regular basis? This is really how we look at it.
JR: What’s your way of building rapport with players?
RM: Starting out it’s always about finding common ground, especially with players I may have nothing in common with on the surface. We may look different, we come from different places, and we are different ages. I am just always looking for the one thing that might connect you. Sometimes that’s a personality trait. Maybe the player is a little bit more of an introvert like I am, as well, and actually might appreciate when I take the time to chat one-on-one and get them away from the crowd.
In other cases, maybe you just kick it with a player over a mutual love for sneakers or music or whatever the case may be. Also, oftentimes approaching players from the perspective of wanting to utilize them as an expert, I think that really helps. Instead of coming at a player like you’re trying to fix him, you utilize him as an expert. All players have some expertise that can help a younger teammate, for instance. So you try to be as much of a learner as you are a teacher in the context of building rapport.
JR: How do you see this field progressing over the next 10 years?
RM: The big analytics wave started maybe about 10-12 years ago, and then maybe, about 5-6 years ago you had a pretty significant sports science movement to where organizations have started to build out more extensive sports science departments that are a couple steps up from that old school model of just having one or two athletic trainers on staff. I think mental health and mental training are both up and coming right now. I think that the NBA organizations, probably in some cases, are a little bit confused as to what’s what, and how those two things (mental health and mental performance) coexist.
It’s exciting that I think the NBA is starting to recognize the role of mental health a lot more and they’re acknowledging it and putting in place professionals to take charge of those efforts. The mental performance piece – I think it is still somewhat exploratory for a lot of organizations. I know, my guy Dan Kaulkstein has been with the Mavericks going on 20 years or so. I do think it is getting to that point that most organizations are going to start to bring in at least one consultant.
I think within the next 5-10 years, we are going to start looking at mental training departments. I think that is where the future is at. There are just too many opportunities, and there is just too much need within organizations to just simply have one person there.
Mental training can be done at the team level and it can be done at the individual athlete level, and it should be. You need mental training and leadership development within the coaching staff. Beyond that, you look at the front office. You look at the organization as a whole, the staff and the employees. You know most people are being overworked and they’re stressed and they have no tools and skills to deal with everything that is coming at them. You have the G League, which really should be about development not just from the neck down, but also from the neck-up as well. Now you have E-Sports teams within organizations, which is another really intriguing angle.
JR: What part do you think analytics departments are going play into validating Mental Performance?
RM: I think there is a lot that can be done in terms of tracking and analyzing player body language and working with an analytics department inside an organization to pump out information to educate coaches, and, for players, to set more tangible goals in key areas.
The more that we can show that mental training does make a tangible difference – in terms of not only in-game stats, but also in terms of longevity for a player in the league, things of that nature. Obviously, that stuff is powerful. It does take time to accumulate that type of information….As far as moving our field forward, I would agree that the more we can show tangible differences that we are able to make, I think that is really crucial.
JR: What are the differences in how a league like the German BBL and the NBA incorporate the mental performance coach?
RM: With the team in Wurzburg, I have had the luxury of working with a head coach in Denis Wucherer, who gives me the opportunity to work with players as a group, developing our cores values, our identity. Being on the court, working one-on-one with players – rebounding, passing – and building trust – being around the guys, showing that I am a basketball guy first and foremost and not a shrink. It’s been exciting to able to work like that.
NBA organizations are much more complex. You have a lot more people involved from front office people, coaches to performance staff. It is a little bit more complex, so sometimes it’s not as easy to get as much access as a club like Wurzburg has given me. At times that is probably necessary, but overall it limits what we are able to do a little bit. The more an organization develops trust in you to do it your way, that’s really where it’s at. You got to get in there and you got to be able to do the work. You can’t be a bystander.
Rainer made several big-time points. Firstly, mental performance is best employed through a customized, systematic process that factors in environmental elements. There is a big difference between mental health and mental performance.
Currently, there is a substantial need at the player, team, coaching staff and decision-maker level for mental performance resources that can provide effective High-Performance training. Analytics departments provide an opportunity to help validate tangible outcomes in mental performance and player behavior. German BBL teams seem to understand how to effectively employ the mental performance resource as a part of the greater coaching staff.
Lastly, just like the analytics and sports science waves, mental performance could be poised as the next major departmental build-out at the NBA level.
Minnesota Timberwolves 2019-20 NBA Season Preview
The Minnesota Timberwolves have new leadership but are bringing back functionally the same roster that missed the playoffs last year by 12 games. Can the Wolves improve enough internally to make the postseason or will the Wolves become sellers at the trade deadline? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
After another up and down season, the Timberwolves find themselves looking at a defining season in 2019-20. There is new leadership in place that is not tied to anyone on the roster, and all of the contracts and commitments made came from the previous regime, which means everyone starts with a clean slate.
That said, the clock is ticking on All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, who is entering the first season of his 5-year, $190 million extension signed in 2018. Modern NBA history says All-Stars won’t stay committed long if they don’t have a chance to win and win big, which put the pressure squarely on the new front office to turn the ship.
To say this is an important season for the future of the Wolves is an understatement.
The Wolves missed the playoffs last year by 12 games and are returning functionally the same roster, which means if things are going to change its going to have to come from internal growth or a mid-season trade. The outcome of the first half of the season could answer that question either way. The Wolves have solid players, the question is can they put it together?
Let’s take a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Timberwolves are in serious need of a second star. Karl Anthony-Towns should continue to be productive, but even he needs to continue to develop – mostly on the defensive end of the floor. They were pleasantly surprised last season with the play and motor of Josh Okogie, who will be relied on even more so this season. Rookie Jarrett Culver projects to be a strong two-way player with a versatile offensive game – he should be another positive for the Wolves. And there is good depth in Noah Vonleh, Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Keita Bates-Diop. But the lack of efficiency and effort from Andrew Wiggins has hurt the T-Wolves developmental trajectory. As has been the case for a number of years now, if he improves his three-point shooting, shot selection, and defense, the Wolves have the potential to be a very different team. As currently constructed, they’re going to struggle to keep up with the best in the West.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Drew Maresca
We’re entering another year with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the focal points of the Wolves. Are there more expectations or less? Jimmy Butler is not around anymore, nor is Tom Thibodeau. Ryan Saunders is taking over and following in his late, great father’s footsteps. Can the 33-year-old continue to galvanize this underperforming franchise and turn it into a contender? Stocked with a plethora of forwards, the roster could make it difficult to do so this season. But with a mixture of veteran talent and interesting prospects, there might be a culture shift in Minnesota – and it will prove to be the mark of a new era. As a part of one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, it’s hard to see this team playing in the postseason, though.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Timberwolves have one incredibly good thing going for them, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns. He is a superstar and, luckily for the Wolves, they have him locked in for the next several years. After him though, the rest of the team is kind of a question mark. Robert Covington emerged as arguably the second-best player on the team, but his season was cut short due to injury. They lost some of their bench depth in Tyus Jones and Taj Gibson, and they’re looking to Jordan Bell and Shabazz Napier to fill those roles. What they really need though is Andrew Wiggins to play like the max contract guy the Wolves believed they had. He was once thought to be a budding star, but he’s been wildly inconsistent to say the least. If he plays as he should, maybe the Wolves challenge for the eighth seed. If not, look for another lottery finish.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
Things have to turn for the Timberwolves right? There is simply too much talent in Minnesota for them to be a team that’s outside the playoff picture. New team president Gersson Rosas resisted the temptation to blow things up in Minnesota, and beyond some minor changes, the bulk of last year’s team is coming back, as is Ryan Saunders at head coach. That could either make this the beginning of the end, or the turning point for the youth on the roster. There is little doubt Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise cornerstone, but if Andrew Wiggins doesn’t step up on a night to night basis, he could be gone by the trade deadline and that could start a tidal wave of changes. The Wolves have the talent to be a playoff team, the question is can they be consistent and healthy enough to cement themselves in the 7-8 seed discussion?
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
It’s a bit difficult to assess the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offseason. I like a lot of the smaller moves Minnesota made but I think the team may have missed the mark on what could end up being the biggest move of its offseason. I liked that Minnesota traded Dario Saric and the rights to Cameron Johnson (11th) to the Phoenix Suns for the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. However, rather than addressing the team’s point guard situation by drafting Coby White, Minnesota drafted Jarrett Culver. Culver is a talented player, but White is the better prospect in my opinion and could have been the long-term solution for a major area of need for this team. Having said that, I like that the team locked in Ryan Saunders at head coach, signed Noah Vonleh to a $2 million contract, signed Jordan Bell to a minimum contract (notably Bell will again be a restricted free agent after this upcoming season), acquired Shabazz Napier ($1,845,301 guaranteed for 2019-20), and claimed Tyrone Wallace off of waivers. Minnesota has an expensive roster, so adding talent on the margins at little cost is a nice outcome for this offseason. The team still has some foundational issues in terms of its overall roster balance but Minnesota showed some savviness this offseason.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Wolves have new management with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, which could lead to roster turnover, though the $122.2 million still owed to Anthony Wiggins isn’t exactly a liquid contract. The team has 15 guaranteed players, which means one would have to go for Ty Wallace and his non-guaranteed deal to stick.
The Wolves still have their $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception and almost $5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. By acquiring Jake Layman via sign and trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota is locked into a hard cap of $138.9 million, but they’re not close to that figure, at least $6.3 million under the $132.6 million luxury tax line.
Before November, the team needs to pick up its option on Josh Okogie.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Timberwolves’ fortunes start and end with Towns, particularly on the offensive end. His blend of size, agility and shooting touch is unrivaled in the NBA, even in the age of the unicorn. As Minnesota’s best three-point shooter (40.0 percent last season on 4.6 attempts per game), most-efficient scorer (57.2 effective field goal percentage last season) and even best free-throw shooter (83.6 percent last season), not to mention its best post player, Towns represents the most effective option at every level of the offensive attack.
With Derrick Rose and his 14.8 shot attempts per game now in Detroit, Towns’ workload should only increase. When Jimmy Butler arrived in 2017, Towns’ attempts per game fell from 18.0 the year before to 14.3. Last year’s uptick to 17.1 represented him picking up a share of Butler’s work, but it did not entirely compensate for what had been a trend line toward prolific offensive numbers. Approaching 20 shots per game would put Towns in the category of ball-handlers like Devin Booker (19.6 last season), Steph Curry (19.4) and Damian Lillard (19.2), but that is appropriate for a seven-footer who has handles enough to comfortably drive on other post players.
For that matter, there is hardly a bad shot for a player with Towns’ skillset. He scored 1.19 points per roll, 1.10 per spot-up and 1.02 per post-up last season, according to NBA.com.
Top Defensive Player: Robert Covington
Covington is a bit of an unknown commodity to Timberwolves’ fans, playing in only 22 games after he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He is a complete unknown in a Ryan Saunders system, not taking the court at all under Minnesota’s then-interim, now-permanent head coach due to a bone bruise that led to loose bodies in his knee.
Covington made his reputation in Philadelphia as a 3-and-D specialist, but even when his three-point percentage waned to 33.3 in 2016-17, his defensive aptitude justified the 6-foot-9 wing’s playing time. He can defend every position on the floor and should be the fulcrum to Saunders’ defensive schemes, if once again healthy.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
Partly by default as the only true point guard in what figures to be the Timberwolves’ top-eight players, Teague is the only genuine ball distributor on Minnesota’s roster. Acquiring Shabazz Napier from the Golden State Warriors put a nominal backup on the roster, but he has yet to average more than 2.6 assists per game in his four seasons.
This is a precarious position for the Timberwolves, particularly coming off the first season in his 10-year career in which Teague did not play at least 66 games, battling a litany of lower-body ailments to appear in only 42. Teague’s patient dribble and aptitude in the pick-and-roll game are ideal to fit with Towns. He may not be more than a league-average point guard, but he is a steady one and averaged 8.2 assists per game last year. Now, the Wolves need Teague more than ever.
Top Clutch Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
This may be another by default designation simply due to Towns’ offensive repertoire. Teague would rather move the ball than shoot more often than not, and Andrew Wiggins’ inefficient tendencies are exacerbated in pivotal situations. Towns, meanwhile, can score from any point on the court.
That Wiggins-Towns contrast has never been more on display than it was at the end of a January overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies. After Wiggins missed a long two from the top of the key, Towns snagged the rebound over Marc Gasol and then let loose a buzzer-beating fadeaway baseline jumper over Gasol, hitting nothing but net for the win. Those rebounding abilities — Towns averaged 12.4 per game last year — make him a constant threat for putbacks in clutch moments, as well.
The Unheralded Player: Josh Okogie
The No. 20 pick in the 2018 draft, Okogie earned notice from last season’s outset for his persistent defense and all-around hustle. He repeatedly wowed crowds with steals only to lose the ball in a chaotic drive to the bucket. Minutes later, Okogie would again flash his athleticism with a highlight reel dunk.
That was the general limit to his contributions, more intangible than anything else. Yet those intangibles earned Okogie 52 starts on a team racked by injuries and drama. The under-the-radar draft pick could have been in over his head, but instead earned the trust of his teammates and both coaching staffs. Yes, even Tom Thibodeau was willing to play this rookie, beginning with the third game of the season.
Okogie has spent the last month leading the Nigerian national team in the FIBA World Cup, averaging 12.6 points per game. More notably, he hit 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts, which would be a significant jump from his 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first NBA action.
Best New Addition: Jarrett Culver
The piece acquired for the No. 11 pick and Dario Šarić will forever be seen as the first move from new Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Even without that mantle, expectations would be large for Culver. Minnesota did not intend to have a high lottery pick for a long time after selecting Wiggins and Towns No. 1 overall in back-to-back drafts. Culver restores that belief moving forward.
The 6-foot-7 wing was known for his defense at Texas Tech, eventually developing a scorer’s mentality when it mattered most. That mentality did not inherently include efficiency, as Culver went 5-of-22 in the national championship game. The Timberwolves want his defense right now and will be content to let the rest of his game progress in time.
Not to put too much pressure on a rookie, as if the Rosas burden has not already done so, but Minnesota finished No. 24 in defensive rating last season, and Culver is pegged to be the best defender added to the roster. If that ranking improves, he may get much of the credit, but if it doesn’t, the offensive loss of Šarić could become a regret.
– Douglas Farmer
WHO WE LIKE
If any NBA franchise is grateful to have little attention paid to it this fall, it is the Timberwolves. A year ago, infamous practices featured Butler-led bench units embarrassing the supposed stars of the future, buttressing Butler’s berating of Minnesota front office personnel. The chaos undermined whatever credibility Thibodeau still had. The 4-9 start may have actually been better than it should have been, in retrospect.
Barring a complete shock, the Timberwolves will have a quiet preseason camp this time around. Towns has made an offseason point of embracing some of the free agent signees; Wiggins and Covington spent considerable time in Minneapolis over the offseason, compared to the roster going separate ways in 2018; and Saunders has a clear runway as head coach.
2. Outside Influence
Hiring Saunders as the permanent head coach was expected. It would have been hard to fire the son of the franchise’s most-beloved figure after only 42 games, especially as he had to pick up the debris from the Butler fiasco, the Thibdoeau disillusionment and then a rash of injuries.
Contrarily, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor hiring Rosas was unexpected. Taylor has long preferred to stay within the family, so to speak, and considered former Timberwolves players Calvin Booth and Chauncey Billups. Sticking to his norms would have meant bringing in one of them. Instead, Taylor shook things up.
Rosas brings an analytics-driven approach from Houston. His star hunting will be high in both risk and reward, but for a franchise that has rarely appealed to free agents, such innovation and aggression is necessary.
3. Ryan Saunders
Saunders is young, unproven and arguably unqualified, but he is also a crowd favorite, beloved by his roster and willing to adjust to improve. Implementing an up-tempo offense and a switch-heavy defense will be massive deviations from the previous regime, but those should also play into Towns’ strengths and a wing-heavy roster. With Covington, Wiggins, Okogie, Culver and 2018 second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop, Saunders will have both flexibility and numbers, concepts Thibodeau avoided wholesale.
He may have been a questionable hire on paper, but Saunders is also not another coaching retread. Minnesota just lived through that cycle. Doing so again would have been a step backward simply by staying put.
4. Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell
Two of the Timberwolves’ few free agent signings, both Vonleh and Bell should be able to play alongside Towns in Saunders’ system in ways Gorgui Dieng cannot. Neither is a dominant player, but that is not needed when Towns is on the floor. Either Vonleh or Bell should be able to defend a power forward when opponents go big while still being able to run the floor to keep up the pace.
These were minimal signings by Rosas and intentionally so, each on only one-year deals, but they will not compromise Towns and could come to be a solid fit with the superstar.
– Douglas Farmer
Towns might not yet be a top-10 player in the NBA, but he is on the cusp and could offer a dominant season as Minnesota’s unquestioned leader, finally. Any team with such a cornerstone will construct everything around him, and the Timberwolves are no different. The bevy of wings, the malleable big-man free agent signings and even the chosen head coach all accommodate Towns.
In a season stilted by mayhem, Minnesota still finished No. 13 in the league in offensive rating. Steering into Towns in every way possible will only help that figure further. The wings and Vonleh, Bell and Jake Layman should slightly reduce Towns’ defensive workload while not depriving him of offensive opportunities. For a player with his skillset, allowing him every shot attempt he desires is both the prudent and the efficient decision.
– Douglas Farmer
This remains a lengthier list than the previous categories, but it can all trace back to a singular shortcoming. It could be argued the best offensive post-up threat on the roster beyond Towns is Wiggins and his 0.74 points per post-up last season. The secondary ball-handler beyond Teague may also have to be Wiggins.
These concerns all landing on the same slight shoulders underscores the Timberwolves’ tipping point. Wiggins has a max contract, but until he becomes a semblance of a max-contract player, this roster will remain depleted in areas it cannot afford to be if it wants to avoid the cellar of the Western Conference.
A charitable view would claim the year-plus of Butler stagnated Wiggins’ growth even more than it did Towns’. Indeed, Wiggins’ career highs in 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and field goal attempts per game all came in 2016-17, the season prior to Butler’s arrival. A return to those levels may not be what Taylor had in mind when he committed years of max-contract space to Wiggins to be Towns’ second-fiddle, but it would be a distinct improvement from last season, nonetheless.
– Douglas Farmer
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Timberwolves show enough evidence of long-term potential to keep Towns from forcing his way out sooner than later?
Minnesota will claim playoff aspirations this season, but in the competitive whirlwind that will be the Western Conference, it is an unrealistic hope in 2019-20. If things stay that way, though, the Timberwolves’ situation will quickly become dire. Towns is signed through 2023-24, but in the current era of player empowerment, those contract lengths are mere hiccups to moving along. If Towns voices a desire to contend for the playoffs, a majority of the other 29 franchises will call Rosas to gauge trade possibilities.
Minnesota needs to at least be respectable this season to give Towns reason to believe playoff contention is not far off. Doing so will come as a result of leaning on Towns more than ever until Rosas’ front office can figure out what big deal it inevitably wants to swing.
Towns is capable of such a monster season so as to keep the Timberwolves in vague playoff conversations past the All-Star break, maybe even into May. For now, that kind of individual showcase should placate him. That will give Rosas the time needed to thoroughly understand the mismanaged roster on hand.
– Douglas Farmer
Memphis Grizzlies 2019-20 NBA Season Preview
The Memphis Grizzlies have embraced the full rebuild, which could make the upcoming season brutal to watch, but necessary to restart the franchise around the promising young guys on the roster. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
The Memphis Grizzlies have finally closed the door on the “Grit and grind” era after trading away franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over the past year. The Grizzlies drafted one future star in Jaren Jackson Jr last year, and look to have nabbed another in Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both will need time to find their way in the NBA, which seems to suit the Grizzlies just fine as they seem to have fully embraced the rough road of a rebuild.
Let’s take at a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s been a long, long time since the Grizzlies had an opening night that didn’t feature Mike Conley Jr. or Marc Gasol on the roster. Over a decade, in fact. The era of Grit-N-Grind is over with, and now it’s the kids’ turn to take over. Continuing a rebuild that began with the upstart Jaren Jackson Jr., rookie sensation Ja Morant should provide us with plenty of exciting moments. Fellow first-year addition Brandon Clarke looks as prepared as anybody to contribute right away as well. We’ll see if Taylor Jenkins is the right man for the job in Memphis, as he’s got a responsibility to uphold to bring this fresh roster together.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Grizzlies didn’t turn a corner as quickly as the Pelicans did, but they made a lot of progress. They now feature two franchise cornerstones in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and some pieces they’ll look to learn more about in 2019-20, including Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson and Tyus Jones. While Andre Iguodala is a great piece both on and off of the court, he recently let it be known that he prefers a release to finish out his career with a contender. It’s hard to know what the Grizzlies season will look like, but it will be considerably worse if they let Iguodala walk for nothing in return. There isn’t nearly enough established talent to make a playoff push, but the Grizzlies are in a good place – just not necessarily for 2019-20.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Grizzlies officially moved on from the Grit and Grind era. They’re ushering in a new beginning with some intriguing young players. Jaren Jackson Jr. was a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year. They now get pair him up with Ja Morant, one of college basketball’s best playmakers. They’ve got a few other young guys in Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton who could also help make up the new core. There should be some exciting basketball in Memphis, albeit a lot of losses. New head coach Taylor Jenkins is getting his first head coaching opportunity so it’s going to be a learning season for everyone. Expect a team that plays incredibly hard, but won’t win many games.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
I have been critical of some deals that Memphis Grizzlies have made and failed to make in the past. I have no such criticisms for the Grizzlies this offseason. Memphis made several significant deals that are detailed more throughout this season preview, so I will focus on a few moves I particularly liked. Memphis finally traded point guard Mike Conley and ended up with a better package than I would have expected considering Conley has an early termination option for the 2020-21 season. Ja Morant was the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick, in my opinion. Trading Julian Washburn to the Golden State Warriors for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 first-rounder was a great move. That draft pick may end up being quite valuable depending on how the next few seasons go for Golden State. Also, Memphis has Iguodala on the roster and could eventually trade him for a nice return assuming a contender is willing to pay that price. Jae Crowder is on a value contract and can be flipped for more assets. Signing Tyus Jones is a nice addition. Even trading C.J. Miles for Dwight Howard and buying out Howard saved money. Simply put, Memphis made smart moves, added young talent, acquired future assets, rebalanced the roster and made the most of their tools this offseason.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Grizzlies have a lot of up-side youth. That bodes well for the future, but not much for the upcoming season. Head coach Taylor Jenkins might be the most unproven guy we’ve seen in awhile land a top job in the NBA. This makes him more likely a placeholder through the rebuild than the future of the franchise, which will likely make this season tough to watch as not only will the players have to learn on the job, so will the head coach. This season looks to be a throw away season focused on developing the young guys, and while that’s good for the long-term, in the short term the Grizzlies are in for a tough season.
5th place – Southwest Division.
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Grizzlies cycled through multiple trades this offseason, including the deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The team has a high payroll but currently stands at roughly $3.2 million under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold of $132.6 million. The issue for the team is roster space, with 16 players under standard NBA contracts.
Both Bruno Caboclo ($300,000) and Ivan Rabb ($371,758) have sizable partial-guarantees. If the Grizzlies want to keep the two developing players, they’ll need to shed a total of three fully-guaranteed contracts to make room. That could mean Andre Iguodala (though reports say the team has not explored a buyout and expects the forward to report to camp), Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. If not, someone else has to go, unless Caboclo and Rabb don’t make the cut.
The Grizzlies also have to decide on team options for Josh Jackson, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Grayson Allen before November. The franchise still has its $3.6 million Bi-Annual Exception available, along with multiple trade exceptions (the largest at $7.7 million for Conley), but roster space and avoiding the tax may limit any significant additional spending. Memphis is hard-capped at $138.9 million after using their full Mid-Level Exception on Tyus Jones.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The offense in Memphis will run through the versatile big man. Jackson’s unique combination of size, agility, and length is the perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can stretch the floor, as he made 51 three-pointers last season at a respectable 36 percent clip. He can block shots, handle the ball like a guard, and has showcased some impressive post moves.
While Jackson will continue to develop his game, he is also entering his sophomore season in the league. Teams will now be game-planning for him, and he will need to make adjustments and learn how to combat defensive schemes designed to slow him down. He can score from many areas on the floor, and Memphis will desperately need that this season.
Top Defensive Player: Kyle Anderson
Anderson is not the flashy name that comes to mind when you think about tough defenders in the league. However, his deceptive speed and athleticism can be used to his advantage, and his high basketball IQ always has him in the right spot on the floor. Despite playing just 43 games last season, he nearly led the team in steals and was top-five in blocks per game for the Grizzlies. He ranked 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus a year ago.
Memphis does not have the one standout high-level defender, but they do have a great collection of defensive talent. Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas are outstanding rim protectors. They also added three excellent defenders this offseason in Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Brandon Clarke. It remains to be seen how much if any, Iguodala plays for Memphis, but Crowder is a great defender that can guard multiple positions.
Top Playmaker: Ja Morant
It will take some time, but this will ultimately be Ja Morant’s show. Rookies typically need time and experience before they can become the focal point of the offense, even on a bad team. For Morant, that will mean utilizing Jackson and relying on him to finish plays and bail them out when the offense bogs down and becomes stagnant.
The No. 2 overall draft pick from this summer will be a high-level pick-and-roll player almost from the start. The front office has surrounded him with a smorgasbord of quality role players. The key for Morant will be finding his comfort zone and figuring out the game. It took time for Trae Young in Atlanta, but he eventually settled in and flourished. Ja will be given ample time and opportunity to get to that point, so patience will be key with him.
Top Clutch Player: Dillon Brooks
The Grizzlies do not yet have a player they feel comfortable with taking over late in a close game. Fortunately for them, they do not necessarily need someone like that right now. Their young roster does not have many guys that have played in big games or shined in monumental moments. Iguodala would fit the bill here, but it is unlikely that he plays the entire season in Memphis. Crowder has hit some big shots in his career, but if they need someone to create and go get a bucket, Brooks has the confidence and the ability to make something happen with the ball.
Josh Jackson is an interesting candidate here as well. Jackson was hot and cold in Phoenix, and Memphis sees him as an intriguing project right now. It will be interesting to see how he slides into the rotation, and what role they want him to fill this year. Jackson and Morant could very well be this guy for Memphis as well, but Brooks will want the ball at the end of close games.
The Unheralded Player: Tyus Jones
Tyus Jones joins a team where he will fit in nicely as a top-level backup point guard. Playing that same role in Minnesota, Jones will be an excellent replacement for Delon Wright for the Grizzlies. Jones has an extremely high basketball IQ and rarely turns the ball over. Last year Jones posted a 6.9 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in NBA history.
Jones does not gamble much and exhibits excellent court vision. He had career-high marks in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season with the Timberwolves. The 23-year old guard is entering his fifth season in the league and will be a steady rock for Morant to lean on during his rookie campaign.
Best New Addition: Ja Morant
There were several nice additions that the Grizzlies front office was able to land this offseason. Several new role players are going to shape this franchise over the coming years. After winning the Summer League championship and MVP honors, Clarke has already been dubbed as the steal of the draft. Their first pick this year is still the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Despite the truckload of players that Memphis added, Morant is without a doubt their best new piece. The keys to the franchise belong to him and Jackson, who are both still very young. Jackson is still 19, and Morant just turned 20 last month. The future is bright is Memphis, but they will have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
– Chad Smith
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jaren Jackson Jr
What is there not to love about this kid? He already possesses so many skills and has a solid head on his shoulders. He has already gotten a great feel of the modern NBA. Last season he was either hitting three-pointers (142 attempts) or working inside (389 attempts around the rim) while anchoring the defense. He had the lowest defensive rating among rookies last season and knows how to get to the free-throw line.
2. Ja Morant
Most superstar players in the NBA are great at many things, but elite in one area. For Morant, his elite skill is his passing. His supreme court vision and passing ability were on full display at Murray State. The young point guard is much more than just an athlete. His ability to create off the dribble and get his teammates open shots is something coaches dream of. Morant’s ceiling is incredibly high, and he will be given plenty of time to develop.
3. Jae Crowder
Every team needs a veteran leader, especially one that is willing to sacrifice and lead by example. Crowder is willing and able to lay it all out on the line. He will guard the best offensive player, dive for loose balls, and do whatever it takes for his teammates. Those traits are what help teams gel and genuinely care for one another. Both Crowder and Valanciunas will be key factors in how quickly this team learns the nuances of the game.
4. Dillon Brooks
After playing in all 82 games during his rookie campaign, Brooks only managed to play in 18 games last season due to injury. Brooks has a strong build and can be a very good defender at times. His shooting has not been outstanding (44 percent his rookie year), but he is arguably the Grizzlies’ best effective shooter. With the attention on Jackson and Morant, Brooks could have some excellent open looks this season.
– Chad Smith
After finally moving on from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the young Grizzlies are on their way up. The team will be moving at a much quicker pace, which is something Memphis hasn’t experienced in quite some time. They ranked 30th in pace last season and 26th in attendance. You can bank on both of those numbers improving this year, as they will boast one of the more exciting young duos in the league. They are oozing with young talent at nearly every position.
There is also something to be said for having strength in numbers. A team like the Rockets have the star power in the starting lineup, but their bench is almost non-existent. The Warriors ran into trouble in the Finals last year after injuries depleted their roster. The Grizzlies have an extremely deep team, with a bunch of parts that all work very nicely together.
– Chad Smith
These guys are babies. The Grizzlies have the seventh-youngest roster in the league and are going to rely on the growth and emergence of essentially two teenagers. They are more than that obviously, but they are going to experience some growing pains, and they will have to figure it out in a gauntlet of a Western Conference. Fortunately, they have some quality veterans like Iguodala and Crowder that they can lean on, but their time in Memphis may be short-lived.
The Grizzlies will desperately need to improve their overall shooting, as they were 27th in offensive rating and dead last in points per game last season. In terms of three-point shooting, they ranked 27th in threes made and 25th in three-point percentage. The addition of Crowder and the return of Brooks should help there, but they do not have a strong and consistent three-point shooter.
– Chad Smith
THE BURNING QUESTION
How will Taylor Jenkins be graded in his first season as Head Coach?
All of the buzz surrounding Memphis is how their young duo will look. With so many roster moves and potential buyout deals and draft picks, it is easy to overlook the new Head Coach of the organization. While it is Taylor’s first lead role, he certainly brings some valuable coaching experience with him.
Jenkins spent last season as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Before that, he was with Budenholzer in Atlanta for five years, where they made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals in addition to three other playoff appearances. In 2013, Jenkins guided the Austin Toros (Spurs G League affiliate) to the Semifinals.
It will be interesting to see the rotation that Jenkins goes with, with so many bodies on the roster. There are some unknowns as well, with guys like Clarke, Grayson Allen, Josh Jackson, Bruno Caboclo, De’Anthony Melton, and Miles Plumlee. They need to figure out who can play, and who cannot. The best way to make that determination is with playing time on the court.
The players are going to be learning on the job, and so will their coach. The relationship between the two is going to be vital in terms of the growth and success of the organization. This is going to take time, but the Grizzlies seemingly have everything lined up to be a real contender in the foreseeable future.
For Jenkins, his grade will be determined not by how many meaningful basketball games they win, but by how he can develop his young cornerstone players.
– Chad Smith