Timberwolves: A team dependant on Thibs' impact
Founded in 1989, the Minnesota Timberwolves were invariably poor for the first seven years of their existence, only winning between 15 and 29 games in each of them. In the first six, they had six top ten draft picks, but with them yielded only six journeymen - Pooh Richardson, Felton Spencer, Christian Laettner, Luc Longley, Isaiah Rider and Donyell Marshall. Some of those became decent players, but none were foundational pieces. New to the NBA, it took a long while for the Wolves to make their mark.
Their seventh attempt went far better. In the 1995 Draft, the Wolves drafted Kevin Garnett with the fifth overall pick. And although he left via trade in 2007 and had to be convinced into coming back in another trade eight years later, Garnett is still there now, 21 years on.
Garnett’s situation at any one time has always dictated the franchise’s entire fortunes. Minnesota missed the playoffs in Garnett's first year, as the high school phenomenon took one year to fully find his feet. But once he had done so, the Wolves then made eight straight playoff appearances. The first seven were never as higher than as a fourth seed, and each resulted in a first round exit - however, led by a prime Garnett (whose sensational play that season doesn’t ever seem to, but should, rank amongst the best individual seasons by any player ever), the eighth attempt saw a franchise record 58 regular season wins, a first overall seed, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
They haven't made the playoffs since. The 2004/05 edition of the Timberwolves returned almost exactly the same roster as the previous year's Conference Final team, but slumped from 58 to 44 wins, and from the first seed to the playoff-less ninth. Two seasons in the low 30 win range followed, before Garnett finally departed, traded to the Boston Celtics for myriad assets, many of which came to nothing. His role as both basketball lynchpin and the team's leading Kevin was replaced a year later with the drafting of Kevin Love, the team's best player for the next six years. But Love is not the player Garnett was, and whereas Garnett was long tarnished by his inability to get the team beyond the first round, Love could not even get them that far.
The story of the Timberwolves, then, is a story of mediocrity. It is filled with many insignificant years, one good year - which even then, given Garnett’s talents at the time and the regular season performance they put on, had a sense of anti-climax about it - and several flat-out bad ones. There has rarely been promise, the franchise being so often underachieving, and normally underwhelming.
However, the Timberwolves of now have almost as much promise as there is for a team to have. In conjunction with the death of Flip Saunders and the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, Glen Taylor's team have changed the majority of their basketball operations brain trust over this past summer, yet those departing have left quite the box of tricks for Thibodeau to work with.
The most cursory of looks at the depth chart alone is enough to get excited. There is talent, depth, potential, youth and athleticism at every position.
Up front, Karl-Anthony Towns is the best young big man in the world today, and alongside him at centre, Gorgui Dieng is one of the better young centres (if indeed he is on, and if specific positional determinations even really matter). The Timberwolves also went to great lengths to shore up their big man depth this offseason, signing the long-unheralded and highly productive Cole Aldrich to man the centre spot with Dieng, along with long-time fringe starter/quality backup Jordan Hill, who at 29 is now an established veteran presence. Behind them, Nikola Pekovic's career has been derailed by injury, but hopefully not terminally - when healthy, he is an offensive load well equipped to counter the four-out nature of the NBA today. And of course, if he does not choose to retire, Garnett is there, helping to make Towns into the new him.
In the back court, long time starlet Ricky Rubio leads at the point guard spot, now the highest paid Timberwolf and for a long time the primary playmaker. Although it feels as though he has been around for a thousand years, Rubio is still only 25, and although his improvements have been incremental and not best evidenced in his raw numbers, they are there. Rubio is an improved individual offensive talent, finally approaching tolerable efficiency in both his three-point shooting and close-to-the-basket finishing, always improving his game management and decision making along the way and raising his defense to an elite level.
If Rubio still isn’t deemed good enough going forward, his new point guard companion might be. After trudging through last year with the out-of-position Zach LaVine, the overmatched Tyus Jones and the Carboniferous era Andre Miller as backup point guards, and suffering noticeably without and behind Rubio as a result, the Wolves now have Kris Dunn, the best point guard in the last draft class and a player with star lead guard potential.
Dunn’s arrival also pushes LaVine back to where he should always have been, the shooting guard spot, where he pairs with Shabazz Muhammed in a dynamic and varied shooting guard rotation. LaVine’s dynamism in the open court and strong catch-and-shoot game pair with Muhammed’s disjointed but prolific post-up and driving games, and while Muhammed may have had a down year in 2015-16, as long as he stops shooting on every touch, he adds value going forward as a Bonzi Wells-style bench scorer – sporadic, but impactful.
Between the quartets of Towns, Dieng, Aldrich and Hill up front, and Rubio, LaVine, Dunn and Mohammed behind, the Wolves have a few more pieces. Nemanja Bjelica’s quirky silent-but-useful face-up four man game helps spread the floor, and although minutes might now be harder for him to come by, he facilitates the offense through shooting, cuts and ball movement. Free agent signing Brandon Rush had a fairly decent bounce-back year with the defending champion Golden State Warriors last season – now a 31-year-old veteran, Rush adds the three-and-D role wing player that has value on any team and adds a different dimension on the nights that Muhammad won’t temper his own hunger for scoring.
Tyus Jones looked overmatched with the speed and physicality of the NBA at times in his rookie year, but nevertheless has a decent floor general’s game in there that will translate if he can keep up. And although he has looked completely confused and lost on offense in his two NBA seasons thus far, there was once a time that Adreian Payne was considered extremely talented. Perhaps there can be again.
And then, of course, there is Andrew Wiggins. The elite athlete, defender and finisher that came out of Kansas and has rightly been given the opportunity in his NBA career thus far to prove that he can be “The Man” with the ball, to be more Kawhi Leonard or Carmelo Anthony than Rudy Gay, to fulfill the potential that his athletic gifts automatically bestow upon him. For all the three-and-D role player love in wing players today, and the reshaping of the NBA into a position-less league driven by the point guard (the one remaining readily definable position), every team needs that wing player who can get his own. Wiggins has developed his handle and moves to the point where he is becoming that player for Minnesota. The high volume three point shooting still lacks, but that will come.
Between the passing sensation that is Rubio and the master finisher that is Towns, Wiggins fits in as the third offensive centrepiece, and an increasingly impressive go-to option in late game situations. He is the man who can put his head down, create and score. This is something the Wolves have needed their entire history, first alongside Garnett, then alongside Love, and now alongside Towns. Wally Szczerbiak wasn’t it, Ricky Davis wasn’t it (although he never doubted himself), and Latrell Sprewell was only briefly it. Wiggins really could be it.
Of course, for all the talent outlined above, it is of note that most of it was already there last year too. Save for Dunn, Aldrich and Hill, it is the same front nine - the presumed starting lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns and Dieng is the same one that finished the last game of last season.
However, the line-up that finished last season had really begun to make progress. And what they lacked in depth, they now surely will not lack for again. Andre Miller is now Kris Dunn. Tayshaun Prince is now Jordan Hill. Greg Smith is now Cole Aldrich. Kevin Martin is now Brandon Rush.
Those are four upgrades, and considering their ages and the absolute taskmaster in Thibodeau now at the helm, the continued internal growth of the incumbent roster should be assumed too. What held the Timberwolves to only 29 wins last year was not so much the individual talents, nor their offensive cohesion, but inexperience, particularly defensively.
The Wolves of last season recorded a 13-win improvement on the year prior, finished a reasonably difficult run-in with a 12-16 record (including wins over the Warriors, Grizzlies and Thunder), and ranked 12th in offensive rating. But in the middle of the year, their offense fell apart as departed head coach Sam Mitchell struggled to find the right combinations (not helped by a stubborn refusal to release LaVine, instead sticking with the expired talents of Prince in the starting line-up). And all year long, they were poor defensively.
The defensive problems can be found throughout the roster. Rubio is the exception – his height, reads and instincts make him one of the better on-ball point guard defenders in the league, along with timely and energetic help defense. However, although Wiggins should be, could be and was once billed to be a great wing defender, he has yet to be. He floats around, does not get into a stance, does not create enough ball pressure, misses rotations, and generally belies his own combination of speed and length.
Alongside him, Zach LaVine runs into 27 ball screens a night and too often looks overmatched for both lateral foot speed and strength, and while Towns projects to be an exceptional defender in the Garnett mould both in the paint and on the perimeter, needless fouls and excessive block attempts combined with some over-rotating in pick-and-roll action leave him with room to improve.
Dieng, too, is the great misnomer – despite looking like a tremendous interior defensive presence with his athleticism and (admittedly declining) blocked shot numbers, Dieng is often out of position, wildly overhelps on the perimeter, and all too often is overpowered on the interior. The potential is there in all of them, but the results are there only in Rubio (and, for the most part, Towns).
Combined with that was one great offensive hole – shooting the ball. Rubio has always been a poor outside shooter, and while last year was his best career shooting year, it was pretty average. Wiggins much prefers the pull-up two to the catch-and-shoot three, and while Muhammad does love the latter, he is not that good at it. The remains of Kevin Martin helped a bit in this regard, but he has long since gone, thus leaving LaVine, Bjelica and an occasional turn from Towns as the floor spacers. The Wolves ranked 25th in three-point percentage last season and 29th in makes, and the aforementioned upgrades won’t move the needle in this aspect of the game much.
In essence, this is, therefore, a team with an uncertain short-term prognosis. They are on the rise, that much is known. We just don’t know how fast it will be yet.
How fast depends on the Thibodeau effect and the speed at which his pestering, unrelentingly committed style embeds the defensive discipline, principles and rotations that define his very being. There is enough individual offensive talent that even if Thibs sucks the fun and dynamicism out of that half of the game with far too many mid-range shots and overly scripted cuts off the ball (as plagued his time in Chicago), the Wolves can get by. The trade-off from that over-tinkering offensively is high-quality defense.
Depending on how quickly that is instigated, and on staying healthy, the Wolves could win anywhere between 32 and 52 games next year. We don’t know yet. All we can know is that the right pieces are in place. Next season, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be either The Next Big Thing or one year away from being it. The future is bright, and that future might be only two months away.
As for whether Garnett will be on the roster and be a part of the amelioration? We don’t know that yet either. But the team has only ever gone as far as he has taken them. It would only now be fitting if they can carry him to one more playoff run too.