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2014-15 Minnesota Timberwolves Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-15 NBA season with a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves of the Northwest Division.

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Last season, The Minnesota Timberwolves missed the Playoffs for the tenth year in a row. Subsequently, Kevin Love demanded to be traded, and was ultimately sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for two number one overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. With a lot of incoming young talent, and Flip Saunders succeeding Rick Adelman as head coach, this season’s Timberwolves are sure to look a lot different than last year’s.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Five Guys Think

While it’s true that the Timberwolves were bad last year, and that they’ll probably be even worse this season without Kevin Love, it’s hard not to love what they got out of the summer’s highest-profile trade. Love was leaving no matter what, yet somehow Flip Saunders managed to get the last two years’ worth of #1 overall picks for him, including future superstar Andrew Wiggins. For his part, Wiggins really seems to be embracing his opportunity to lead a bad team and in fact appears to prefer it over playing a tertiary role behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Anthony Bennett had a strong Summer League and looks much trimmer, so there’s promise there, as well, and getting Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia as part of that three-way trade was a really nice bonus. Strong move for the Wolves, all things considered. It certainly brightens their future quite a bit.

5th Place – Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t reached the playoffs since the 2004 campaign, a distant time ago when Kevin Garnett was once a perennial MVP candidate for the franchise. On paper, at first glance, another trip to the lottery seems more plausible than a spot in the playoffs after the loss of All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a summer deal. However the deal allowed Minnesota significantly retool on the fly securing the last two No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The team also acquired veteran forward Thaddeus Young who is a guy ready to contribute right away. So while the 2014-15 campaign is likely another without a playoff berth, make no mistake things are looking up in Minnesota.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

It is not everyday that a free agent that is certain to flee as a free agent fetches the players selected with the top overall picks in two consecutive drafts. For that, Flip Saunders deserves credit; he certainly made lemonade out of lemons. The proponents of the T-Wolves accepting a package in return for Love that was headlined by Andrew Wiggins—a group that includes me—mostly understood and believed that Wiggins has the potential to be a special player in the long-run. For the Cavs, the trade made sense simply because the franchise did not have time to sit back and wait for Wiggins to develop into a star. The T-Wolves do. And for those that were quick to label Anthony Bennet a bust after one poor season marked by injury and poor direction from a since-fired head coach, they may eat their words soon enough. In the end, whether the Canadian combination can lead the T-Wolves to a place Love never did—the playoffs—they will each need to prove to be special talents at the NBA level. For now, the T-Wolves are married to those two, but it is with a few of their other players where the questions appear. With almost $70 million due to the combination of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin over the next four years, the T-Wolves would be wise to ship each of them out, bottom out, stockpile draft picks and allow Wiggins and Bennett to develop.  What is more interesting to consider is whether the franchise should commit to Ricky Rubio as a franchise player. Thus far, Rubio’s NBA tenure has been marked by inconsistency and disappointment. He has not come close to fulfilling the lofty expectations that followed him to the NBA, but here and now, the T-Wolves must decide whether he will be a part of the future or not. After the Love trade, the T-Wolves are stuck in the middle. They are a team with about $70 million committed to their 2014-15 ledger, but one that appears to be set for a rebuild. There is a fork in the road that seems to diverge with Pekovic, Martin and Rubio. Saunders certainly has some important decisions to make. As for this coming season, if the best the Wovles could do with love over the course of his six-year career there was 153-323, there is no question that their 10-year playoff drought will hit 11.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Timberwolves did a terrific job getting significant long-term pieces back for disgruntled star Kevin Love, and their future looks bright as a result. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick gives them building blocks going forward. Throw in Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III, all of whom are under 24 years old, and the Wolves have some players to get excited about going forward. The acquisitions of Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams, coupled with returning veterans like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea among others, also gives Minnesota some veteran pieces who can keep them competitive (and potentially end their playoff drought) while their young guys develop.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

If there’s one thing the Minnesota Timberwolves fan base is immune to getting excited about after a 10-year (and counting) playoff drought, it’s the dawn of a new era. But, this fresh start featuring Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young, who they acquired this August while ridding themselves of the disgruntled Kevin Love and a couple of other excess pieces, really does hold a lot of promise. They’re relying heavily on Wiggins becoming their next star, but there’s enough veteran talent in place to make it to where the expectations won’t be too daunting from day one. There’s immense pressure on him, but more long-term than short-term. As great as Love was individually, a very low bar has been set for this year’s Timberwolves team to clear. And, with the depth and athleticism they’ve added this offseason, they very well could flirt with being a .500 basketball team – something they only did once with Love.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Move over Kevin Love, and enter Nikola Pekovic. Standing 6’11, and weighing in at 285 pounds, Pekovic is one of the most physically imposing big men in the league. In addition to his size, Pekovic is a skilled offensive player with an especially effective right-handed hook shot. With Love heading to Cleveland, Pekovic will take a higher priority offensively and will be the sole big man in the lane with the undersized Thaddeus Young taking over for Love. Pekovic averaged 17.5 points per game last year, third behind only Love, and Kevin Martin. Martin may score more than Pekovic on any given night, but Pekovic will be Minnesota’s only major threat in the painted area this upcoming season and a focal point in the Timberwolves’s offense.

Top Defensive Player: One of the biggest issues the Timberwolves had last season was their inability to protect the rim. Pekovic and Kevin Love as a frontcourt tandem simply could not keep opponents from scoring near the basket. But with Pekovic missing significant time last season because of an Achilles injury, Gorgui Dieng had the opportunity to fill in and show what he could do on both ends of the court. Last season Dieng blocked 2.2 shot per 36 minutes and contested many more each night. Entering this season, Dieng is still the only real rim protector for the Timberwolves. Number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins has the potential to be a lockdown defender, and the team’s best defensive player moving forward, but Dieng’s defensive ability to protect the rim makes him Minnesota’s top defensive player for the time being.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio has been one of the flashiest passers in the world since he was a teenager playing in Spain, but Rubio is more substance than style. Last season Rubio averaged 8.6 assists per game, good for third best in the league in just 32.2 minutes per game. Bump Rubio’s minutes up to 36 per game, which is roughly in line with the amount of minutes played Ty Lawson and John Wall, and Rubio would have finished second in the league in assists per game behind only Chris Paul.

Top Clutch Player: First, it must be noted that the Timberwolves were awful last season in late game situations. The Timberwolves lost their first 11 games of the season in games decided by four points or less. This trend did not end until January 24 when Kevin Martin hit a game winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. This offseason, the Timberwolves signed point guard Mo Williams to backup Ricky Rubio. Williams, age 31, is an eleven year veteran and has hit game winning shots as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Utah Jazz. Mo Williams may not be Kobe Bryant in terms of clutch shooting, but he may be the best clutch shooter in Minnesota this upcoming season.

The Unheralded Player: Overshadowed by the additions of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett is the addition of power forward Thaddeus Young. Young is not Love, and will fall well short of replacing Love’s nightly production, but Young is talented, young, and experienced. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. Young isn’t a superstar, and doesn’t generate buzz the way Wiggins does, but he will be a big factor in whether or not the Timberwolves compete for a Playoff spot this upcoming season.

Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young will likely have the biggest impact of all the new players heading to Minnesota this season, but Wiggins is a potential franchise player that Timberwolves fans can base hope for the future on. Wiggins has been compared to a young LeBron James in the past, but is more likely to end up as an elite two-way wing player like Paul George, which is pretty darn good. If Wiggins can improve his game quickly like George did, he’ll be one the best players in the league in just a few years.

– Jesse Blancarte

Who We Like

1. Andrew Wiggins: As previously stated, Wiggins is a potential franchise player and gives Timberwolves fans a reason to hope for a better future. Wiggins will have plenty of off-nights in his rookie season, but that should be expected for any 19 year old rookie, no matter how good he may be. Best of all, Wiggins reportedly preferred to be in Minnesota over Cleveland, looking to embrace a leadership position, rather than just another piece.

2. Gorgui Dieng: Last season, on March 20, Dieng registered 22 points, 21 rebounds, and 4 assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng registered 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and one block. These are two of Dieng’s biggest games from last season, but are flashes of how good he can be moving forward. Also, as previously stated, Dieng is the only defensive anchor the Timberwolves currently have, and is insurance in case Pekovic struggles with injuries again.

3. Zach LaVine: Zach LaVine is arguably the most athletic player to come out of this year’s draft class, and yes, that includes the ultra-athletic Wiggins. LaVine has said that he wants to play both guard positions, and showed flashes of that at the Las Vegas Summer League. If LaVine can learn to effectively play the point guard position, we may be labeling him as the steal of this year’s draft in a few seasons.

4. Flip Saunders: After vetting candidates to take over for outgoing head coach Rick Adelman, team president Flip Saunders hired himself as the next head coach of the Timberwolves. Saunders hiring himself while names like George Karl and Lionel Hollins were available has been questioned, but guess who was coaching the Timberwolves the last time they were in the postseason over ten years ago? Flip Saunders. But even if you’re not on board with Saunders hiring himself as head coach, he still deserves credit for landing two number one overall picks in Wiggins and Bennett, and acquiring Young to replace Love.

5. Anthony Bennett: Anthony Bennett may have had a disappointing rookie season in Cleveland, but is still a significant talent that could bounce back this upcoming season. Entering his rookie season, Bennett was recovering from a shoulder injury and was out of shape. He has reportedly slimmed down this offseason, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to improve his sleep apnea. Bennett is now breathing better and looking to show that he was worth being selected number one overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

– Jesse Blancarte

Strengths

Youth and athleticism. This team is now built for the future with Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, Bennett, Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad making up one of the most exciting young cores in the league. Youth is not a recipe for winning at the highest levels, but for now this team will at least be one of the most exciting in the league to watch. Even some of the older players are athletic enough to keep up with the young guys, including Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and Thaddeus Young.

Weaknesses

Winning close games. This team struggled to close out close games last season, and that was with Kevin Love on the roster. Veteran players like Kevin Martin and Mo Williams have hit big shots at times throughout their careers, but beyond those two there aren’t many proven clutch shooters on this roster. Execution in late game situations is key, but with so many young players on the roster, and Flip Saunders entering his first season back on the bench for Minnesota, closing out games will again be a struggle for the Timberwolves.

– Jesse Blancarte

The Salary Cap

The Timberwolves are hard-capped by virtue of their $3.75 million Mid-Level Exception deal with Mo Williams, but Minnesota is well below the luxury tax line.  Barring a trade or buyout, the team is set with 15 guaranteed players.  Camp invites Kyrylo Fesenko and Brady Heslip may have a difficult time sticking to the regular season.   The Wolves picked up a $6.3 million traded player exception in the Kevin Love deal.  Minnesota also has $1.6 million of their MLE left, but as noted – no roster space.  Ricky Rubio is eligible for an extension before the season, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Here is a very interesting thought exercise: Should Minnesota have been willing to make the Kevin Love trade even if all indications were that he wanted to stay and re-sign a long-term maximum contract?  Back in March, I rated Love as the fourth-best player in the league, and at 26 I think he is a good bet to remain in that lofty strata for the next three years or so before declining due to age.  Love would also require a new super maximum contract, and could really maximize his money by re-upping right as the 2016 TV contracts kick in, or when he becomes a 10-year veteran.  In any event, he would likely be worth it, but his cap number would be one of the biggest in the league over the next five to seven years assuming he continues to play well.

Would Minnesota have been able to build a championship contender around Love?  The rising cap would have provided increased flexibility for a team that was largely capped-out in the near term.  And it is possible that development from Gorgui Dieng and a trade of Nikola Pekovic for some wing help might have enabled Minnesota to become a solid playoff team even in the loaded West.  But it is very difficult to envision the Wolves’ 2013-14 core contending for a championship even with Love.  Granted, solid playoff contention probably sounds like nirvana to tortured Wolves fans at this point, but if we look at it from the lens of winning a championship the odds were low indeed.

So the Wolves were not exactly throwing away a wonderful future with the Love trade.  Whether it was a desirable transaction depends on what one thinks of Wiggins and Bennett.  If one assumed that the Wolves would get the typical number one pick production from each of them, it’s obviously a great trade.  But we can probably foreclose that possibility for Bennett at this point after his miserable rookie year, although I do not think he is a total lost cause.  Wiggins on the other hand certainly has the potential to be a superstar.  That said, even number one picks are unlikely to become top-five players in the league the way Love is right now.  And I believe it is unlikely Wiggins reaches superstar status.  Nonetheless, many and perhaps most disagree with me.

So it is a close case whether this would have been a good trade or not in a vacuum.  For Minnesota to get this return with Love’s free agency gun to their head is remarkable, even if it was more the product of fortunate events in Cleveland than amazing management.

That said, the decision to obtain Young (a potential free agent in 2015) from the Sixers over taking Miami’s top-10 protected pick seems very shortsighted.  Young will either leave for nothing or need to be overpaid next summer.  Neither scenario is preferable to having a cost-controlled draft pick that is likely to fall in the late teens based on Miami’s performance this year.  The upside is getting slightly closer to playoff contention this year, but very likely falling short.

Best Case

44-38

This is a team with a lot of variability given how much they will be relying on young players.  Many of them, like Wiggins and LaVine, are unlikely to be winning contributors in their first years.  But there is a slight chance they might.  In this best case scenario, the Wolves actually sneak into the playoffs as the bottom of the West playoff field takes a step back to more normal levels.  Wiggins turns into a viable three and D player right away, and Young is a defensive upgrade on Love.  Rubio, Wiggins, Brewer, Young, and Dieng form an ultraathletic unit that runs the ball down teams’ throats and effectively switches everything defensively. Young, Dieng, and Pekovic are a solid frontcourt rotation, and Saunders figures out how to play Dieng and Pekovic together effectively.  Rubio takes a step forward, and Minnesota’s defense moves into the low teens while the offense avoids dropping into the 20s after Love’s departure.  This team was one of the unluckiest in recent memory last year, with the point-differential of a 48-win team.  They could drop off significantly and not see nearly the decline in record that might be expected from losing Love if they have better luck.

Worst Case

25-57

Love did much more for this team than anyone, even the stats-inclined, realized.  The offense completely grinds to a halt without adequate spacing.  Wiggins can’t hit from outside, Rubio continues to be one of the worst shooters in NBA history, none of the other young wings step up, Dieng and Pekovic together hurt the spacing even more, and the team finishes in the bottom-five offensively.  Wiggins has a huge adjustment to NBA defense and doesn’t really help the team on that end, and it slips into the 20s as well.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Will Flip Saunders embrace the youth or play the veterans and fight for the playoffs?

The current thinking in the NBA is that if a team isn’t a contender, it should bottom out and keep building up through the draft. But Flip Saunders made it clear by acquiring Thaddeus Young that he wanted to compete for a Playoff spot next season, rather than bottoming out and adding more young talent through the draft like the Philadelphia 76ers. The Timberwolves now have a roster that is split between talented, but inexperienced players and solid veterans. Flip Saunders will have the task of playing his young players to get them experience, while trying to compete for the Playoffs. The question is whether he will sacrifice developing his younger players in favor of playing his veterans in an attempt at earning one of last Playoffs spots. In a loaded Western Conference, it makes more sense long-term for Saunders to give his younger players as much time and experience as they can handle and live with the results, even if that means an 11th season outside of the Playoffs.

– Jesse Blancarte

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