Redemption – an act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake. That should be the key word for the 2015-16 Timberwolves after the atrocity that occurred last season. With a healthy roster, another No. 1 overall draft pick, a year of youthful experience under their belts and three old-school vets to show them the ropes, there’s nowhere for this version of the Wolves to go but up.
What Happened Last Year
The 2014-15 season kicked off with a blockbuster trade involving franchise cornerstone Kevin Love leaving town in exchange for a player many felt could be the face of a franchise in young Andrew Wiggins (and Anthony Bennett, but sadly he was nearly as irrelevant in Minnesota as he was in Cleveland). As the season kicked off, so to did the list of injuries to key rotation players: Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. The shining light from those injuries was opportunity for the young talent to gain valuable experience (Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad), although that resulted in a bunch of losses.
Following a decent lose, win, lose, win four game start to the season was a series of numbers: 5, 3, 6, 15, 5, 3, 2, 4, 6, 12. Those aren’t lucky Powerball numbers folks. They were the losing streaks the Wolves and their fans had to sit through last season. It wasn’t until early February that the Wolves managed to string together consecutive victories, and for that five-day period, they actually managed to grab three of them! The month of February also brought the return of Kevin Garnett to the Twin Cities, although he didn’t play much last year.
Minnesota finished with the worst record in the league at 16-66, and that worst record turned into the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
What Happened This Summer
With that No. 1 pick, the Wolves added another key component to their future. With Rubio, LaVine and Wiggins already plugged into key positions, adding Karl-Anthony Towns to the frontcourt made the roster all but complete for years down the road. With KG on board for another season, there’s no better tutor for the former Wildcat to mentor under. Likewise can be said for Wiggins, LaVine and Rubio, who now have veterans Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller to lean on:
One of the key components to the growth of Wiggins was his time with the Canadian national team and their pursuit of an Olympic berth during the FIBA Tournament in August/September. Coming up short both as a team and as an individual should equate to a more focused and aggressive version of the Rookie of the Year.
On a sad note, the Wolves’ most successful coach Flip Saunders has been battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and it appears he won’t be returning to the sidelines this season. In Saunders’s place is former Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell.
The most interesting thing about the 2015-16 version of the Wolves is that the whole team can be defined as an “x-factor.” How will Wiggins improve in his second year? How will Towns adapt to the rigors of the NBA? Will Rubio stay healthy for an entire season? Will LaVine take advantage of his starting spot? How will the team play under Mitchell when they expected Saunders to run the show? The questions are endless, and should they all come out positively, the young Wolves may be the surprise of the West.
However, if we had to narrow it down to a couple of specific players, one would be newcomer Nemanja Bjelica, and the other would be Dieng. Originally drafted by the Washington Wizards with the 35th pick in 2010, Bjelica’s rights were picked up in a trade with Minnesota, but he spent the next five years tearing up the Euroleague. Projected to play at either forward spot, Bjelica has the ability to shoot, put the ball on the floor and initiate the offense, or comfortably bang in the paint against bigger opponents:
Dieng, on the other hand, could be an important piece off the bench, especially with Pekovic still hurting. Teaming with either Towns, Garnett or Bjelica, Dieng has the ability to play either post position. Chipping in just short of double-digit points on average and a shade over eight boards a game, Dieng provides Minnesota with an asset on both ends of the court.
Defensively, Dieng has decent individual skills, but is known more for his help-side defense and rim protecting, although there’s plenty of room for improvement. Offensively, the third-year big man possesses a nice mid-range jumper and a knack for helping the Wolves secure second-chance opportunities off the glass with three of his eight rebounds per game coming on the offensive end. While there’s hope Pekovic returns to his 2011-2013 ability, the backup center position appears to be Dieng’s to lose for now.
It won’t be hard for the Wolves to improve on last season, and if there’s even a sniff of a chance that they do worse than the 16 victories they captured last year, then the team should be completely dismantled and Minnesota fans will have to settle for the Golden Gophers. But let’s be serious, that shouldn’t happen with this group, and it’s important for Wiggins to continue his development and team up with Towns to become the 1-2 punch that everyone expects them to be, regardless of their minimal NBA experience.
Is a playoff spot realistic for the young Wolves? Not in the West, but an increase to the 30-win mark shouldn’t be out of the realm of reality. Is Towns a lock for the ROY award, giving the club back-to-back recipients? Not necessarily, as D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and Emmanual Mudiay will all have quality minutes to show their worth, and dark horses Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson will certainly be in the race.
While they certainly offer the team a valuable mix of experience, scoring, rebounding and defense, a trade involving either Martin or Pekovic wouldn’t be a surprise, but losing one or both could hurt the team in the short term as the young pups still need seasoning. Should the front office be successful in keeping the core of this roster together, a playoff berth in a year or two isn’t out of reach, but seeing the team double the amount of victories they had last season and remaining competitive in the Western Conference past the Christmas is a step in the right direction.