No team in the NBA has a brighter future than the Minnesota Timberwolves. That much is crystal clear.
What isn’t so clear are what we can expect from a group of hyper-talented, hyper-young players who are years away from their primes for the 2016-17 season.
The Timberwolves are on the brink of exiting a long and arduous rebuilding process that has stopped and restarted numerous times. After 12 straight years of missing the playoffs that has seen the two greatest players in franchise history be sent to play elsewhere, the Wolves are primed to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Wolves are headlined by Karl-Anthony Towns, the best building block in the league at the moment. They also have a 21-year old wing in Andrew Wiggins who averaged 20.7 points as a sophomore. When Towns won Rookie of the Year last season, the Wolves became the first team since the Buffalo Braves in 1974 to have back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners.
In addition to the duo of Towns and Wiggins, the Wolves selected promising point guard Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. For most teams, Zach LaVine would be the prized prospect for a franchise, but he has to settle for being the fourth-best on the Wolves.
The days of the Wolves being a joke are over with, and their rise to contention seems inevitable, even if it doesn’t happen this year. The Wolves have a young group and a coach who is primed to get the absolute most out of this group.
Throughout the great young cores or young duos in NBA history, the leap into contention has started with one giant leap followed by gradual improvement in the win totals.
With Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, and Dunn, the Wolves have a chance to join those groups.
The Timberwolves still have a way to go, given their 29-53 record last season. Getting to 29 wins was a 13-win increase from the year before. It’s important to remember that the Wolves started off last season with tragedy, losing head coach and team president Flip Saunders to Hodgkin’s lymphoma just three days before the start of the season. Sam Mitchell stepped in as interim head coach but was replaced with Tom Thibodeau in the offseason.
Thibodeau has a reputation for being one of the best head coaches in the game for his five-year stint with the Chicago Bulls in which the Bulls went 255-139. In Thibodeau’s first season, the Bulls went from a 41-41 team to a 62-20 record, winning Coach of the Year for the win increase. Thibodeau never won less than 45 games in a season with the Bulls, despite missing former MVP Derrick Rose for much of his last three seasons.
Thibodeau was considered the architect of the Boston Celtics’ defense during their era of contention with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. He lived up to his defensive reputation with the Bulls, taking them from 10th in Defensive Efficiency to 1st in Thibodeau’s first season as head coach in 2010-11. In Thibodeau’s five seasons with the Bulls, they finished first, first, fifth, second, and eleventh in Defensive Efficiency.
Hell will freeze over before a Thibodeau-coached defense falls in the bottom four of the league, which is exactly what the T-Wolves did last season when they gave up 107.1 points per 100 possessions per ESPN’s Hollinger Team Stats.
With such a young group, it’s unfair to assume that the Wolves will skyrocket to the elite level that the Celtics and Bulls reached under Thibodeau’s watch. However, it would be a huge surprise if we don’t see them make significant progress defensively.
Towns could be the perfect anchor of Thibodeau’s defense. Thibodeau’s defense has centered around mobile bigs who can help out on pick-and-roll switches. If you were making a big to play the role that Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah mastered, it would be Towns.
If Joakim Noah garnered MVP votes under Tom Thibodeau, Karl-Anthony Towns might well win as a write-in for the U.S. presidency.
— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) April 20, 2016
The sky is truly the limit for Towns, who’s coming off one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history. He has a chance to truly revolutionize the center position in the modern NBA. He’s a basketball unicorn, a true center who can play like a guard without sacrificing any size.
Of players with at least 50 isolations, Towns ranked first in points per possession (1.19). He can generate offense on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He’s too big and strong for non-centers. He’s too quick and is too good of a ball-handler for true centers. He’s already a matchup nightmare, and he can’t legally drink alcohol yet.
A year from now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Towns is hands down the best center in the NBA.
Towns and Thibodeau provide a solid floor for this season, as it’s hard to imagine a top coach and a superstar-in-the-making who fits perfectly under him failing too miserably.
The rise of Towns has overshadowed Andrew Wiggins, who quietly cracked the top 20 in points per game in his sophomore campaign.
Wiggins’ development will likely determine whether or not the Wolves can surprise the world and sneak into the playoffs. Wiggins has been a disappointment defensively, although it’s perfectly normal for young players to struggle defensively.
Wiggins has the athleticism and length to be an elite defender, but he’s yet to put it all together to begin to scrape his defensive potential. If it doesn’t happen under Thibodeau, it probably is never going to happen.
Wiggins also must help out offensively in ways that don’t involve being a bit of a volume scorer, a role he’s had to assume in his first two seasons. With a more well-rounded team and going into the season as a confirmed second option, he must be more efficient. He’s been a below-average three-point shooter thus far (30.4 career three-point percentage). One red flag for the Wolves is their lack of shooting. If Wiggins can become a capable three-point threat, the Wolves offense will reap great benefits.
Last season, the Timberwolves ranked second-to-last in three-pointers attempted per game (16.4). The reason for that in part is that they simply didn’t have the personnel to take many three-pointers. Only three players (LaVine, Nemanja Bjelica, and Kevin Martin, whose contract was bought out in March) finished with a three-point percentage above the league average of 35.4 percent.
The issue was barely addressed over the offseason. They added Dunn, who shot 37.2 percent on three-pointers as a senior at Providence. They signed Brandon Rush, a versatile wing who has shot 40.3 percent from deep throughout his eight-year NBA career. Other than that, any improvement will have to come from within.
Zach LaVine, known by most of the NBA world as a gravity-defying dunker, helped out tremendously when given a bigger role. After the All-Star Break, LaVine saw his minutes go from 24.3 minutes per contest to 35 minutes. The extra minutes saw his three-point shooting rise to 5.4 attempts per game on a 43.7 percent clip. Expect LaVine to log heavy minutes as a floor-spacer.
The Timberwolves were among the league’s worst at spreading the floor and playing defense. It would be a shocker if the Wolves didn’t improve to at least league-average defensively. Despite their lack of shooting, the Wolves finished the season 11th in offensive rating. If they can just stay in that range offensively and be league-average defensively, a winning record is extremely possible.
The Western Conference isn’t as deep as it has been over the past decade, where it would take a win total in the high-40’s to have a chance at the playoffs. Outside of the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Jazz, and Trail Blazers, there are playoff spots for the taking.
Vegas has set the over/under win total at 41.5 for the young Wolves. While that win total may seem like a significant jump from where they were a year ago without adding starting caliber veterans, it’s a very obtainable goal.
— Covers (@Covers) September 26, 2016
It’s only a matter of time before the Wolves become contenders. The 2016-17 season could easily become the year that they assert their presence as the team that has next.