From T-Wolves

Timberwolves 2017/18: A Primer


Wolves new logoThis post is all about introducing Joann to the new team. She’s a big fan. We will see 20 games or so at the Target Center this season (as we have for the past several) and I don’t have to drag her there, really I don’t. She loves basketball, the Timberwolves, and the Lynx. But–and this I just don’t understand–she pays no attention to off season moves and rumors. She figures she can watch the player introductions, track the scoreboard, and study the program on opening night and she’ll be good to go. I don’t get it. It’s as if she feels spending six months obsessing over draft projections, trade rumors, and questions about the 15th spot on the roster will not actually have any effect on the organization’s decisions or on the team’s success. Weird.

Ch-ch-changes

Change has been one of two constants for the Timberwolves since, at least, Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics after the 2004/05 season. Those of us silly or stubborn enough to follow the team since KG’s (initial) departure have lost track of the rebuilds. We’re now seeing the umpteenth. That’s as specific as I can be. The current rebuild began with the trade of Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins in August of 2014. It then caught a bit of non-Timberwolvesy good luck with the Minnesota nice bounce of a ping pong ball and a truly transformative player fell to the team. Karl-Anthony Towns was a turning point. When (if?) he learns to play defense, he may be the best player in the league.

The other constant of the post-KG Timberwolves has been, of course, the losing. Rebuilds haven’t changed that sad fact.

So I’m not calling this past off-season–which ends tonight–a full rebuild.[1] I’ll call it a major renovation. It began with the draft night trade of popular, promising, and flawed Zach Lavine to the Bulls for a top-ten player in Jimmy Butler. And by top-ten player, I don’t mean “potentially” or “at one-time” top-ten player. He is that now, and at the age of 28 he is entering what should be his prime. Adding him to the Timberwolves’ young and talented core of Towns, Wiggins, and Ricky Rubio was a coup.

If only the rest of the off season moves had been as clearly brilliant as the Butler deal. No, that’s unrealistic. But half as good would’ve been more than adequate.

Torn down to the studs

Ricky RubioIt is difficult, really, to deny this is a rebuild after what occurred following the Butler acquisition. In two swift moves that ripped the heart from the team and from many of its most avid fans, Coach and POBO (President of Basketball Operations) Tom Thibodeau swapped Rubio for Jeff Teague and a draft pick. Teague, three years older and a lesser talent than Rubio, was nevertheless signed to a slightly more expensive but significantly worse contract. Worse, because while Rubio’s was for two years, Teague’s is for three. But, and this is a big, Kardashian-sized but, Teague’s third year is a “player option,” which means he will opt-in only if he feels he cannot earn a similar amount on the open market. At the age of 31 at that point, he will want the security of a long-term deal. We keep him at $15 million for the 2019/20 season only if he is not worth that.

So why would Thibodeau make the change? Fit. That’s what we hear. The addition of Butler is problematic for a Timberwolves team that took the fewest three-point shots in the league last season. Butler is a ball-dominant shot creator and an infrequent and middling three-point shooter. With Wiggins, an inconsistent and unproven three-point shooter at the other wing, Thibodeau wants a point guard with a different skillet than Rubio. A point guard who can, in the half-court offense, camp out in a corner, ready to take a three-point shot while Butler (and sometimes Wiggins) attacks and distributes from the top of the circle. Thibodeau tried this with Wiggins at the top and Rubio in the corner at the start of last season. It was not pretty.

It will be different this season with Butler. Having Teague–a capable and willing shooter–in the corner will help. But I am disappointed Thibodeau lacks the flexibility to adapt his preferred style to one which would’ve allowed Rubio and Butler to thrive together. I’m unconvinced the team will not miss Rubio’s unique talent in a big way. Oh, they will be the best Timberwolves team in years and should, if healthy, make the playoffs. Casual fans of the team–those who have rarely seen the team play since KG left for Boston–will be happy to have their uninformed opinion of Rubio validated: “he couldn’t shoot and couldn’t win.” Expect to hear that from casual fans, local sportswriters for whom the NBA is an afterthought, and Kevin Lynch. It will grate.

Apart from the ignorant Lynch, those who have seen Rubio live more than a few times know something different. Not only is Rubio a joy to watch play, he is a fierce competitor who makes his teammates and team better. I’d love to go on, but this isn’t the post to litigate Rubio’s worth. Joann is already on board. Maybe I will do so at another time.

The roster

Well that’s enough crying about the departed Spaniard. It’s time for me to introduce Joann to the team’s new players and to let her know how she should expect the season to go.

Newcomers first

Jimmy Butler#23, SF-SG, Jimmy Butler: The best guard to ever suit up for the Wolves and he’s entering his prime. A tenacious defender, a shot creator, and a good passer. Not a great three-point shooter. Has played heavy minutes, but has been nicked-up a bit: no serious injuries. Yet. He is somewhat the player Wiggins should aspire to be, without Wiggins’s physical tools but with the heart and competitive fire Wiggins seems to lack.

Jeff Teague#0, PG, Jeff F. Teague: The “F” in his name here stands for “effin’,” not a middle name. A faction at CanisHoopus hung this moniker on him, as in “We’re swapping out Ricky for Jeff effin’ Teague?!” In truth he’s a decent if unspectacular replacement. A better shooter and finisher than Rubio, and a quicker player. Not as good a passer and not nearly the defender. Steady, and a better fit? We’ll see.

Taj Gibson#67, PF-C, Taj Gibson: Tough interior player and defender. Played for Thibs in Chicago and, the hope is, will teach his defense to the young pups. Not much of a scorer beyond two feet of the rim, though he did take a few three-pointers during the preseason. I suspect Wolves fans will really enjoy his gritty play. Many were unhappy about his signing because there were (perceived to be) better players and “fits” available at the time, and because at $14 million per two guaranteed years, his signing severely restricted the team’s ability to fill out the roster. He’s an old 32 with some history of being hurt.

Jamal Crawford#11, SG, Jamal Crawford: A three-time sixth Man of the Year award winner and, at 37, in a rather steep decline. His past two seasons have not been good. Still, he can be a steadying influence on the second unit. His superior ball-handling skills and veteran leadership will be important alongside young point guard Tyus Jones. And, on occasion, he will provide a glimpse of his old scoring-in-bunches ability.

— Other new faces include the veteran third-string point guard Aaron Brooks and rookie 17th overall draft pick Justin Patton, a C-F who will spend time with the Wolves’ G-league team in Iowa. Hopefuls Marcus Georges-Hunt (a guard) and Anthony Brown (F) round out roster and will also see time in Iowa.

The incumbents

Karl Anthony Towns#32,C-F, Karl Anthony Towns: The Big KAT. Offensively, he is already playing at a level only achieved by the biggest names of the past. Only Wilt Chamberlain’s early numbers clearly exceed his among centers. Defense? It has been offensive and he must improve it considerably. He only has to get to average to become–at least if Joel Embiid’s health remains an issue–the best center in the league. He seems likely to do so, though maybe not this season.

Andrew Wiggins#22, G-F, Andrew Wiggins: Somewhat of an enigma. He looks terrible when measured by most advanced statistical measures. A significant percentage of the Wolves’ most ardent fans believe he will never live up to the max contract he just signed. Many would have preferred to see him traded. I am not among them. I have what may be an irrational belief that some combination of maturity (physical and mental), a better team, and continuity (he’s played for three head coaches in as many years in the league) has him on the cusp of a breakout season. His scoring may go down, but if he can score more efficiently and improve markedly in other areas, he will have turned a corner. Defense, court awareness, and consistency will be important in this respect. I do believe his three-point shooting numbers will improve significantly.

Georgi Dieng#5, C, Georgi Dieng: Just a solid player, (now) reliable on defense, and underrated as a passer and scorer. I thought he too often tried to guard everybody in his first couple of years with the team, which often resulted in his guarding no one, but he’s improved steadily. It appears Thibs will bring him off the bench this year and that he will be paired more with Bjelica than Towns in the front court. This is a good thing. Georgi should be effective against second-line centers and the odd fit with Towns won’t be a problem for the team. For salary cap reasons, Dieng’s long-term future in Minnesota is in question. I would be sorry to see him go.

Nemanja Bjelica#8, F, Nemanja Bjelica: Bjelly will be a key to a very successful season as opposed a season successful merely by the Wolves’ standards. If he can stretch the floor a bit and utilize his talents as a superior ball handler and passer from the power forward position, the Wolves can dream of home court and a series win or two in the playoffs. It is hard to see how they do it without a contributing modern NBA power forward on the roster. Bjelica can be that player. Will he?

Tyus Jones#1, PG, Tyus Jones: This is the year the local kid gets to shine. Last year Thibs drafted his “point guard of the future,” whom he, if rumors were true, expected to supplant Rubio as starter by midseason. I didn’t believe the coach be that stupid, especially after seeing Kris Dunn play. But the trade of Rubio makes it believable. Now Dunn has been traded and the backup point guard position is Jones’s to lose. I don’t expect he will. He seems likely to mature into a quality NBA reserve.

Shabazz Muhammad#15, SF-PF, Shabazz Muhammad: Bazzy tested the free agent waters over the off season and found them decidedly frigid. In the end, he settled for a one-year minimum contract to return to the Wolves. He will be out to prove something and to earn a better contract somewhere for 2018/19. His minutes, though (barring injuries), will depend on his playing within Thibodeau’s system. It should be an interesting dynamic. He is an easy guy to root for.

— One last holdover: Cole Aldrich, the “break glass in case of emergency” backup center. He’s a good bet to be moved during the season.

The outlook

Wolves' new phosphorescent pond-scum green uniforms. So how will the season go? Here is a list of my best guesstimates, prognostications, and fantasies:

  • Stats leaders — Towns 24 PPG, 11.8 RPG; Teague 7.5 APG; Wiggins 39% 3PT%; Butler 2.0 Steals.
  • Towns will be an all-star for the first time. Butler will make the team as an injury replacement.
  • Bjelica will get some votes for Sixth Man of the Year (he will deserve more than he gets, but won’t score enough to impress voters).
  • The Wolves’ new “phosphorescent pond-scum green” uniforms will be the talk of the league, but not in a good way.
  • Taj Gibson will go down at some point with an injury, and rookie Justin Patton will get minutes and impress as “Adreien Payne with an upside.”
  • Cole Aldrich will be traded.
  • The Wolves will beat the Spurs in San Antonio on opening night and then lay an egg in the home opener versus Utah.
  • During the post-game show after the home opening loss, a game in which Rubio obviously outplays Teague, Kevin Lynch will praise Teague and double-down on his criticisms of Rubio. Tom Hanneman will be caught on camera rolling his eyes.
  • The Wolves will finish with 43 wins.
  • The Wolves, Nuggets, Jazz, and Blazers will compete for the final two playoff spots in the West.
  • Wolves finish 9th, one game away from a playoff berth.

So there you have it. Go Wolves!

Notes

  1. I wrote this post before last night’s opener–a loss in San Antonio–but was unable to proofread and add all of the sparkly bits (photos and links) in time to go live before the game. But I’ve resisted the urge to change some of what I’d already written. For example, I might have placed more emphasis on the gap between Rubio’s defense and Teague’s (JFT was not impressive on D last night), and I might not have been so sanguine about the likelihood Towns will improve his defense anytime soon (KAT was not impressive on D last night). [^]