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5 Storylines to Follow for 2015-16 Timberwolves

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves start their season with heavy hearts against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, just days after the loss of president and head coach Flip Saunders. Let’s take a look at some of the things to watch for when it comes to these young Wolves this season.

  1. How Does the Team Respond to the Loss of Flip Saunders?

As stories came out Sunday of Flip Saunders’s passing, it became clear that more people knew and more was known of Flip’s worsening condition than was being reported. According to reports, Flip’s condition had worsened to the point that the sad news became a matter of when and not if, and that it’d be sooner rather than later. And to the extent that it was more widely known than reported, it’s admirable that media members allowed the family privacy in the midst of their heartache.

As a lifelong Timberwolves fan and one whose only inside information is the information that insiders relay to us lay people, Sunday’s news was as devastating as it was shocking. There were bits and pieces along the way that made it seem that Flip’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma was worse than the team had initially stated, highlighted by last week’s announcement that Flip wouldn’t be with the team for this coming season. But none of that prepared me for the heart-sinking news that scrolled across the TV screen on Sunday.

For the Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett is The Franchise, both in nickname and in stature. But a friend texted me earlier this week that he identifies the Wolves’ glory years as much with Flip as he does with Garnett, and I have to agree. Throughout their run in the late-1990s and early-2000s, the four pillars of the franchise were Glen Taylor in the owners’ seats, Kevin McHale as President of Basketball Operations with his sweaters in the stands, Flip Saunders on the sideline and Garnett on the court. Point guards and second options, sometimes one in the same, came and went. As did role players and shouldn’t-have-been role players.

But, always, those four remained. With Saunders at the helm, Garnett and the Timberwolves achieved a level of success that we hadn’t seen before, nor have we seen since. That Saunders will not be around to help Garnett and the team lead what will (hopefully) be the next era of Timberwolves success that Saunders helped orchestrate is a sports loss that pales in comparison to the individual loss that those close to him must be experiencing.

How the team responds to such an incredible loss will be fascinating in the saddest sense of the word. How the individuals that came here because of Flip are able to adapt and still implement his vision, from Garnett to Tayshaun Prince to Ernie Kander, will be instrumental to how the team performs.

As a Minnesotan from a basketball-loving family, I undoubtedly would’ve been a Timberwolves fan regardless of Flip’s presence. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun, nor would my passion for the team be nearly what it is today.  While others have commended Flip for the kind and caring man he was on and off the court, I only have my fandom to give as tribute to Flip Saunders. But for that fandom and the memories it created, I’ll be forever grateful. Rest in peace, Flip.

  1. Who Gets Minutes on the Wing?

Much was made of Sam Mitchell’s announcement that Zach LaVine would be the Timberwolves’ starting shooting guard at the beginning of the preseason. In the subsequent weeks, that announcement has proved to be premature, as LaVine struggled to find a rhythm and has since lost his starting spot.

In his place, Andrew Wiggins may slide up to the shooting-guard position, where, according to Sam Mitchell, Wiggins will be able to take advantage of his size, especially in the post-up situations that Wiggins relied on toward the end of his rookie year. Tayshaun Prince started the last three preseason games at small forward, which, along with the Kevin Garnett-Karl-Anthony Towns frontcourt pairing, would have to be the largest age gap between starting wings and starting bigs in the league.

Prince as a starter would undoubtedly put a better product on the court, especially on the defensive end, but is questionable in light of the organization’s desire to develop the young players at the expense of short-term wins. Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad will also be in line for significant playing time. Muhammad showed incredible improvement last year before an injury cut his season short. His strength on the block and the offensive glass make him a unique asset for the team to incorporate into its offense and future plans.

Martin can still put up points, though his defense has slipped further as he’s aged, making him a significant liability on that end of the court. He also, more than the other veterans on the team, will likely have trade value around the league for teams looking for a scoring punch on the wing and may thus find himself in a different uniform before the season’s over.

As for LaVine, he was drafted last year as a project, a “home run” swing in the words of Flip Saunders, with discussion that he’d likely spend much of the year in the D-league while he developed his game and his physique. Injuries thrust the physically-overmatched and out-of-position LaVine into the starting lineup as the team’s nominal point guard, where, by advanced metrics, he was one of the worst players in the league. He oozes athletic potential and should get time to develop on the court with actual NBA players, unlike the D-league talent with whom he played most of his minutes last year. Mitchell has also talked of moving LaVine back to point guard to get him more playing time. Gulp.

This doesn’t even include Nemanja Bjelica on the wing in ultra-big lineups and intriguing sharpshooter Damjan Rudez at the end of the bench. Injuries will no doubt help clarify the rotation throughout the year, but it’ll be interesting to see how the wing minutes shake out.

  1. Will Andrew Wiggins Take the Next Step?

Andrew Wiggins showed obvious promise in his rookie season, shouldering an unconscionable workload for a 19-year-old as the team’s primary option on offense and often tasked with guarding the other team’s top offensive threat. Commentators have compared Wiggins’s potential to that of Paul George, who entered the league as a raw, hyper-athletic wing known for his defensive prowess who developed into a superstar through his offensive improvement. Wiggins doesn’t have quite the size of George, but in order to reach those lofty aspirations, Wiggins will need to improve two key dimensions of his offensive game: shot selection and playmaking.

As the chart below illustrates, Wiggins’s shot selection improved throughout the first part of the year, steadily decreasing the number of mid-range shots, particularly the dreaded long twos, that kill a player’s shooting efficiency, replacing them with the tasty shots at the rim and beyond the arc that teams like Golden State and Houston thrive on. However, this shot selection regressed around the All-Star break, with Wiggins again shooting more mid-range shots at the expense of “better” looks:

Wiggins Shots

It should be noted that this downturn in shot selection coincided with teammates’ injuries, leaving Wiggins to shoulder an even higher offensive burden. And it should further be noted that this may have been by design, as Flip Saunders repeatedly emphasized in the media his desire to develop Wiggins’s strengths as a post-up scorer rather than letting him develop his three-point shot.

However, far too many possessions at the end of the season ended in isolations and post-ups on the wing, leading to step-back and fadeaway jumpers that inhibited his efficiency. To his credit, Wiggins steadily increased the percentage of his shots at the rim. He also drew more free throws as the season went on. In order to take the next step as a player, Wiggins needs to continue to get to the rim and the free throw line, and to exhibit better shot selection. He may also need a better offensive system to work with.

Wiggins will also need to become a better ball handler and playmaker, especially in light of Mitchell’s desire to have Wiggins spend more time at shooting guard. Aside from his patented baseline spin back toward the center of the court, Wiggins has shown few countermoves off the dribble to supplement his quick first step. His dribble tends to be too high, making it easier for defenders to disrupt his offensive flow.

This resulted in Wiggins doing little in terms of creating open looks for his teammates during the early parts of his rookie season. By season’s end, Wiggins started showing progress on this front, and his passing has been perhaps the most promising development of the preseason for the team, as he appears more comfortable reading defenses and taking advantage of the attention he draws on the offensive end.

  1. What Should Be Expected from Karl-Anthony Towns?

In order for the team to realize its vast potential in coming years, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will need to develop into the superstars they were drafted to be. And with Wiggins on the wing and Towns down low, Timberwolves fans are right to have sky-high hopes for the team’s future.

But expectations for Towns should be tempered in his first season. The list of teenage big men who’ve made positive contributions in their first year is incredibly short. Even Anthony Davis, destroyer of worlds, could do little to bring success to the then-Hornets as a rookie. It’s true that few have had the upside of Towns, particularly on the defensive end and as a passer, but expecting more than the occasional flashes mixed in with too many fouls and getting overpowered down low is probably asking too much. As a fan, I hope he comes out and lights the world on fire, but our expectations should be far short of that.

  1. What is Adriean Payne’s Role on the Team?

At the beginning of the preseason, Adriean Payne had the inside track to the backup/sometimes starter role at power forward. Given Kevin Garnett’s age and minutes limit, that put Payne in line for significant playing time. Since the preseason started, however, Payne’s role on the team has appeared to decrease, with Nemanja Bjelica now looking to get the lion’s share of the backup power forward minutes.

Bjelica, profiled here earlier this summer, confirmed early scouting reports this preseason, showing the ball handling, passing and playmaking abilities of a true point forward in the NBA. His defense remains suspect, as he doesn’t have the strength to handle the more imposing bigs in the post or the quickness to defend wings on the perimeter, but his ability to work as a secondary ball handler makes him an asset for a team with limited playmaking beyond Ricky Rubio. And with Garnett, Bjelica, Dieng, possibly Towns and even Muhammad playing minutes at the power-forward spot in certain lineups, it’s unclear if there are enough minutes available to develop Payne’s skill set.

While only in his second year, Payne is already 25 years old and has been a disappointment thus far. At 6’10” with athleticism and length, Payne looks like a prototypical power forward in warm-ups, but he hasn’t yet translated that physical profile into productivity. Payne can be indecisive and too often settles for long jumpers on offense. He was also too out-of-position on defense to make a positive impact on that end during his rookie year. And unlike the now-departed Anthony Bennett, Payne appears to almost try too hard; rather than letting the game come to him, he asserts himself in ways that don’t make a positive impact.

For a team in rebuilding mode, trading a protected future first-round pick for a player with limited upside was a questionable move at the time and looks worse with hindsight. While some may point to the lottery protections as a reasonable hedge, Wiggins and Towns need only look to Garnett across the locker room to see what can happen to a superstar in his prime when the team doesn’t have the assets or draft capital to build and maintain roster depth.

Payne may well be able to harness his high motor and athleticism and turn himself into an NBA rotation player. But his opportunity, as silly as it seems, may be limited given Minnesota’s crowded frontcourt.

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