PG – Rubio/ Miller/ Jones
SG- Martin/ LaVine/ Wiggins
SF- Wiggins/ Muhammed/ Prince/ Rudez
PF- Garnett/ Bjelica/ Payne
C- Towns/ Dieng/ Pekovic
The offseason is finally over! Those of us with terrible fantasy football starts can re-shift our focuses back to basketball again. With training camp underway and the season starting in less than a month, its time to look at the roster and try to make some predictions. Wolves fans are well aware of the young assets this team has on it. The thing the Wolves as an organization have been renown of doing is bringing in young, valuable assets through the draft or other avenues and turning them into a little older-young, non-valuable roster-fillers. The Wolves have a long history of this and they added another to the wall of shame in Anthony Bennett. Bennett went back home to Toronto after the Wolves could not trade the bust of a number 1 pick. The Timberwolves need to move forward and change the culture immediately, since Anthony Bennett wasn’t entirely their fault.
The Wolves greatest responsibility is turning their young guys into guys who can contribute to a winning roster. Whether it be here or trading them for more assets, the Timberwolves can’t afford to let guys Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad become NBA Journeymen like previous young pups (refer to all players on the Wolves roster between 2004-2013 below the age of 25 with the exception of Kevin Love and Al Jefferson).
To make this year competitive, things need to happen. Things need to change. It needs to be a year where a transition happens. To do that, the Wolves need to do multiple things in order to ensure they make the most of this season. Along with these things I believe the T-Wolves need to emphasize, I will provide some bold predictions.
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Get the Young Pups Minutes, together. (See Portland, San Antonio, Warriors)
Bad teams usually have a lack of chemistry and/ or don’t have a core group of players. Team chemistry may be one of the most overlooked aspects of a good team in modern day sports. Most teams look to build with the best players they can find and expect a quick plug-n-play to win them a championship. Rarely do teams win championships by simply bringing in the best players, their first year. Look at the many times LeBron has jumped around and not won a championship his first year with a new team. Look at the many Laker teams that were assembled by attracting the best players that don’t translate into a championship right away.
The best team the Wolves can model themselves around is the Golden State Warriors, being that they are young and won a championship around a core they drafted. Using Basketball-Reference’s Lineup Finder, the most commonly used 3-man or 4 man combos are all playoff teams within the top 20, lead by the Clippers, Hawks, Spurs, and of course Golden State. This model of playing guys with each other is an age-old model used by the Spurs, literally, that has kept them competitive for decades. Its helps teams like the Blazers and Wizards steadily become playoff contenders.
But if you track the Warriors from the 2012-2013 season with the combination of Curry/ Thompson/ Lee, they were the 51st best combination in terms of Net Points, at +203, winning 47 games. Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green were rookies. In 2013-2014, Igoudala with Curry and Thompson became their best trio netting +506, ranking 1st in the league. They actually held the top 4 spots mixing David Lee in there. They would win 51 games. The 2014-15 season, without any major roster changes, they would go on to win an amazing 67 games and the trio of Curry/ Thompson/ Green would lead the league again with a historical +729 Net Points. These three guys played a total of three seasons together, Green played every NBA game with those two (Curry and Thompson).
Moral of the story? If you want to be good, your best players need to have a chemistry and have to be on the floor together. And if you want to be really good, let them be young guys that can grow together. The Wolves have the young pieces. I believe the Wolves don’t need to make any major roster changes beyond this point. They just need Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine/ Rubio/ Shabazz to build a chemistry on the court by logging minutes together. They need to learn together, win together, and lose together. Seeing Duncan/ Parker/ Ginobili all these years together shows that chemistry usually trumps talent.
The key will be a couple things. Rubio will need to understand Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine very well. They all are effective in very different ways. It is the job of Rubio to tailor his leadership to each of them. Rubio will need to get Wiggins set up to score in the half court offense. He will need to master the pick and roll with KAT. And he will need to learn to ignite the fastbreak and toss alley-oops to get LaVine easy buckets. Also, developing a Wiggins/ LaVine and Towns pick and roll will be essential for the development of the needed chemistry. The other extremely important piece, is health. Rubio and the gang need to stay healthy. The addition of Kander is huge as the Wolves have struggled with injuries for the last several years. There is nothing that replaces minutes logged together in real NBA games. And as a wise man once said in regards to a lack of chemistry,”You wasn’t with me shooting in the gym!” (Joke).
You have Veterans, Use them. (Unofficial mentors, change Martin’s role, Pek rough up guys)
Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller. This sounds like a championship team 10 years ago. But its not 10 years ago. The Wolves were very intentional about bringing in veterans with playoff and championship experience to mentor their young guys. KG makes sense. He is fully invested. Its hard to tell yet whether Prince and Miller will embrace their roles as mentors or just another check to round-out their careers. But the front office needs to take full advantage of these talented guys on the roster.
Assign these guys as official mentors to these guys. Garnett is a direct influence to the entire team and culture, but he needs to take Towns, Dieng, and Payne under his wing. Prince will work directly with Wiggins and Bazz. It is quite interesting to see that Prince shares a similar personality to Wiggins and Shabazz and quieter guys. Andre Miller will get to mentor LaVine, Rubio, and the young Tyus Jones. My hope is that the young guys are sponges to the experiences of the veterans.
But don’t forget there are other veterans on the team. Kevin Martin and Pekovic should not be forgotten. Martin can be an incredible resource to the young-scoring wings on the team. Martin has always found ways to score even though he doesn’t dominate athletically. Martin should share this knowledge as well as be a good test to the wings to try and defend him in practice. Pekovic will be useful (if healthy) to bang around the young guys in the post. There aren’t many scarier guys in the league outside of big Pek.
Maybe I am the only one, but I hope the coaches run a 5-on-5 scrimmage with Miller-Martin-Prince-KG-Pekovic vs LaVine-Shabazz-Wiggins-Dieng-Towns. That would be extremely entertaining.
There is no replacement for winning games. A steady increase will give the Wolves something to build on. And while having the worst record in the league last year, there is no where to go but up. But a culture change needs to be established. The Timberwolves own the longest active streak of not making the playoffs. Everyone in the organization is used to coming out and not competing. The hope is, KG changes that.
Reasons I love Rubio and Towns is that they are fierce competitors. They love to win. I think both of these guys with KG healthy will be the ignition to changing that culture. The Wolves played significantly better with Rubio on the floor. Towns only lost one game last year. Wiggins, LaVine, and Shabazz need to buy into that mentality as well. Dieng is also a competitor, people forget he won a championship at Louisville.
The first step to competing is defense. And what we saw in the training camp was an emphasis on just that. The Wolves were easily the worst defensive team last season and that needs to change. Defensive not only wins championships but it does win games. The Wolves found themselves blown out early in games in which they had a solid offensive outing but defensively, did nothing. The Wolves have good pieces defensively in Rubio, Wiggins, Towns, Dieng, and of course the veterans KG and Prince. The key difference will be getting guys like LaVine and Shabazz to buy-in defensively.
Culture will play the next part in competing. The point of winning games isn’t necessarily to win a championship this year, because that is not happening. But to change the mentality that it is okay to lose in Minnesota. Minnesota will NEED to win 30 or more games this season. I am predicting the wolves go 39-43 this season, and I am being optimistic. That doesn’t get us a good draft pick or get us in the playoffs. But it does push for a more experienced team to sneak in by 2016-17. A team that doesn’t give up in the clutch or against teams with more talent.
Last, the Wolves have to do a few things better on the offensive end to compete. They HAVE to shoot the 3 better. And they have to improve their ball movement. Flip has gotten offended when people criticize his lack of use of the 3-pointer, but numbers and history don’t lie. His teams don’t shoot the three and shoot the mid-range shot, the worst shot in basketball, more than normal. The team didn’t bring in any 3-point specialists, and lost guys like Gary Neal, Robbie Hummel, and Chase Budinger, who were reliable 3-point threats. Word is Karl Towns has a nice stroke but chances are we won’t see that come into fruition for a few years. So the Wolves are left to depend on the development of Wiggins, Shabazz, and LaVine as well as Kevin Martin becoming healthy. Ricky Rubio will be heavily depended on for both portions. As he is healthy, he helps move the ball around. He, again, has worked on his three-point shot all summer. It is important that he can hit the occasional open tray. Towns will be an X-factor as well in that he can shoot and pass the ball.
Develop Roles Now
Clearly distinguishing roles will be crucial for the Wolves, especially for the Pups. Wiggins and Towns will need to be formed into the faces of the Franchise. Who is Batman and who is Robin? When Garnett and Marbury were in town, the problem with two Batmans was partially because roles were not defined. What my concern is with Wiggins and Towns is, they are two Robins. So what happens then? Garnett will need to help these two find their identities and then find comfort in those. There is nothing greater to this organization than developing the last two number 1 picks together. There aren’t enough words to say to emphasize that point.
The most interesting roles will be for Shabazz and LaVine. My bold prediction is that LaVine ends up as the starter and Martin moves to the bench. LaVine has to show that he will put up more effort than Martin on the defensive end, and it will be hard to deny him that spot. A consistent jumper would be great as well. Also, I believe it will be essential the Wolves develop Shabazz as a 6th man and knowing what that means. Muhammad showed a lot of promise last year before falling to injury. He ate up other teams backup small forwards. He lost a lot of weight again this season so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain that. Shabazz provides the energy and scoring to be an elite 6th man. These two will need to be built into their roles as they have the most trade value to lose or gain this season. Most other guys’ value will not change as much as these two. Either they develop into assets this season or just young guys who may be worth taking a chance on. The Wolves will need to have them play into their roles to increase or maintain their value around the league since one of them may be the odd man out in a few years.
Rubio has to become the captain of the ship. He has done a wonderful job embracing it thus far. He understands that he needs to lead by example and I have no question that Rubio will succeed here. The Wolves have put some pressure by adding Tyus Jones, but it will be a year for Rubio to prove he can stay healthy and can compete.
Find a Diamond in the Rough
The rest of the roster has some very interesting pieces that need to be discussed. To me, value is huge. And getting a return on your value is what makes a franchise successful. There are two guys on the roster the Wolves felt were worth a 1st-Round pick. Tyus Jones and Adreian Payne. The Wolves drafted Jones with a late first-rounder (via two early 2nd-rounders) this offseason and acquired Payne last season for a future 1st-Round pick. At this point, measuring their present value, they would be difficult to trade for a first round pick, meaning they aren’t really meeting their value. They both have a lot of players ahead in the depth chart and should see time in the D-League pending any injuries. I believe both were not great moves, but both being on the roster means they need to be taken care of. Finding ways to develop both will make a huge difference in the future as to whether they can be moved for more valuable pieces or will just become expiring contracts. The hope is both can become competent reserves, but they can’t be left on the back burner.
The Wolves also quietly added Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica can score inside and outside. He is a former second round pick of the Wolves that finally came over. At 27, its hard to tell where he fits in to the Wolves long term plans. His present value is pretty unknown. He had a great summer playing for Serbia while leading them far and even hitting a buzzer beater over Germany. If he can find minutes and develop a role for himself, he has the potential to surprise a lot of people. My biggest concern is his defense and being a 3-point shooter in a bad season for shooters. We have seen a lot of 3-point shooters arrive in Minnesota and freeze. If he can prove to have some value and then develop into a decent role player, this signing could be a great win for the Wolves.
One of the more underrated players in the league is Gorgui Dieng. I am a huge fan. Gorgui quietly led the team in rebounds and blocks last season. He also led the team in offensive win shares, defensive win shares, win shares, defensive box plus/ minus, and box plus/ minus. He is essentially the most efficient and effective player to be playing on the team. He didn’t show great progression offensively last season but I believe will come back much better this season. Dieng is also only 25 and usually left out of the young nucleus conversations, guilty of that myself. Dieng is a proven winner and if he can find a bigger role, he seems to be the one Timberwolves with the least value to lose, and if he can prove to improve his offense this season, I believe a contender will be after him. Dieng is a piece every good team has and I would advise holding on to him for as long as possible.
- Wolves don’t make the playoffs. End season 39-43. Will probably laugh at this in April.
- Zach LaVine becomes starting SG by the end of the year
- Dieng becomes a starter by the end of the year
- Muhammed get consideration for 6th Man of the Year
- Wiggins is an All-Star (More so due to All-Star game being in Toronto)
- Sam Mitchell will last this season
- Karl Towns will be a top three consideration for ROY
Overall, it will be an exciting season for the Wolves. They still need 3 point shooting but have a good group of defenders. Team defense should improve and a lot of the young guys will assume bigger roles to help the Wolves improve and more than double their win total from last year.
Here is to season 12 to not making the playoffs!