Timberwolves 2016-17 Season Preview, Keys to Success and Bold Predictions

It is that time of the year again, the NBA is coming back! The Wolves’ measure of success this coming season will be simple. Playoffs. Make ‘um and the season was a success. Don’t make ‘um and the season didn’t meet expectations. Right?

Tom Thibodeau takes over one of the most exciting young teams in the last decade after a year sabbatical. The Wolves young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be supported by veteran Ricky Rubio, rookie Kris Dunn, supporting young core pieces Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, and a slew of journeymen/ veterans that align with Thibs’ basketball philosophy.

The analogy I love using for the Timberwolves is ‘removing the training wheels.’ The training wheels were the veterans the team had on the roster that the Wolves could lean on when the rookies couldn’t balance things out. When LaVine wasn’t doing well as a starter, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin came in to help him. Kevin Garnett was also there in the ear of young Karl-Anthony Towns throughout the season. When the Wolves needed an extra push, the veterans stood in.

That won’t be the case this season. Ricky Rubio is as veteran as it gets on the Wolves. Rubio has started the most games than any other player on the entire roster. Andrew Wiggins will have to rely on his extensive experience of starting for two seasons. As you saw in our previous piece, we believe Wiggins needs to step it up this season on the defensive end of the floor for the Wolves to be successful. Karl-Anthony Towns, while gaining tons of national media attention, will absolutely have a target on his back around the league. He isn’t going to be able to slide under the scouting report-radars after the season he had. Then there is also Tom Thibodeau. Thibs was the most sought-after head coach this offseason, and that brings high expectations. Thibodeau will have to forgo a season of experimentation and ensure that the young Wolves can execute seamlessly.

Like any kid who learns how to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time, there will be bumps and bruises. You learn how fast you can turn and how to speed down a hill. The Wolves will have some bumps and bruises, especially early on. I may come off as pessimistic for the coming season, but in reality I am looking at this season as a transition period.

Every season has its ups and downs, so barring any major changes or injuries; we can expect a rotation that looks like this:

C- Dieng/ Aldrich/ Hill

PF – Towns/ Bjelica/ Payne

SF – Wiggins/ Rush

SG – LaVine/ Muhammad

PG – Rubio/ Dunn/ Jones

In looking at the rotation, the Timberwolves have a good list of point guards. I do believe we will see more of Tyus Jones this year. The Summer League MVP can be a secret weapon off the bench to help with 3-point shooting. The reason I feel that we will see Jones more is because I also believe we will see Kris Dunn play shooting guard this season. The Wolves are weak on perimeter depth, especially defensively. Dunn will take away from the Wolves ability to shoot, but will be able to add to the perimeter defensively. Jones and Dunn could see more time on the floor than Rubio Dunn in my opinion.

My concern is still on the perimeter. Zach LaVine without a solid backup is going to be interesting. I think Shabazz should be playing more of the 3 or even a small ball 4. It will be important to monitor Muhammad this season because his game changes a little bit every year. He has talked about learning more on Defense just being around Thibodeau and that he has a desire to start. It will be interesting to see where he fits in this season. He has a chance to be the leading scorer off the bench.

As of now, Brandon Rush seems like the natural fit coming in off the bench at the small forward position. Rush is going to have an opportunity to be a part of the rotation. There is a good chance that Bjelica could see some time at the 3, depending on matchups. That said, small forward depth is going to be concerning, if Shabazz is playing shooting guard.

Up front, the Wolves are good for now. A four-player rotation of Towns, Dieng, Bjelica, and Aldrich is great. All have a skillset that is valuable and needed. I am high on what Dieng will be able to do with Thibs. Dieng should get better defensively and seems to be adding a mid-range jump shot that will be able to stretch the floor. The coaching staff is high on Nemanja. The former Euroleague MVP is in better shape this season and ready for a breakout season. It will be interesting to see if Thibs using Belly like he did Mirotic in Chicago.

The Wolves still have Pekovic on the roster who is out for the year already. There is a 15th spot that will in all likelihood be Rasual Butler. It will likely change over the course of the year as injuries occur.

Keys to Success

Who would’ve ever thought that a DJ Khaled reference would still be relevant when previewing a season? Here are our keys to success:

Defense

As a good friend of mine reminds me all the time, Tom Thibodeau has never coached a team that wasn’t in the top 10 in defense. There is no doubt in my mind that for the Timberwolves to really make it over the hump, they will need to be a top 10 defensive team. The team certainly has the physical assets on the roster. Karl-Anthony Towns was very good defensively last season. Gorgui Dieng and Cole Aldrich are solid rim protectors. Andrew Wiggins has the length and athletic ability to be a terror on the defensive end. Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn could also be incredible perimeter defenders. The key will be learning to play team defense and covering up for the liabilities on defense like Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, and Bjelica. Being a top-10 defensive team should translate to being a playoff team. But going from about the worst in the NBA to top 10, especially with the inexperience the Timberwolves have, is a rarity.

3- Point Shooting

Another area in which the Timberwolves were terrible in last season, second-to-last to be specific. The Wolves are relying on organic growth in their 3-point shooting, which is fairly risky. The way that the Wolves get better is if their perimeter players can carry the load from outside the arc, which wasn’t the case last year. Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio were bad. The Wolves added another guard who can’t shoot this offseason in Kris Dunn. That said, Brandon Rush was like adding a mini-band aid to the problem. The kind that Nelly used to wear below his eye in the 90’s. To make matters worse, Tom Thibodeau isn’t a huge advocate of the 3-pointer, but has indicated that his philosophy has changed a bit.

Wolves are as good as Wiggins and LaVine

cst 117830 Wolves Media Day
Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

I feel good about where Karl-Anthony Towns is as a player. If he didn’t improve this offseason, he would still be a net-positive player on the floor. While defense and 3-point shooting are factors that the team need to do better as a whole, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have the most pressure on them to produce this season. Both entering their third seasons, they both have a lot to prove around the league. Are they just incredible physical specimens or are they legitimate NBA talents? Throughout this piece and my overall criticality of the Wolves, a lot of it is around Wiggins and LaVine. I have beaten a dead horse on the Wiggins-development end, but the same has to go for LaVine.

LaVine has an opportunity to be one of the best inside-outside threats in the league offensively. I can live with Zach being below average defensively. But for LaVine, scoring efficiently and using the playmaking skills he developed will be what defines success. LaVine can score in bunches. But can he do that night-in and night-out? If LaVine is a guy who can average 17 points a game and shoot over 37% from three, he will solidify himself as the third-head on the three-headed monster for the Wolves.

The bench needs to be a factor

One thing that Thibodeau did this offseason that will turn out to be genius is seeking out cheap contracts for veterans that can add depth to a young team. The additions of Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill and Brandon Rush helped add front-court depth, toughness, and veteran experience. I am a fan of signing players who were bench warmers of good teams, especially if they had a niche. Aldrich was one of the best rim protectors in the NBA and nobody knew about it. Brandon Rush was an incredible three-point shooter, but because his skillset was redundant on a great team, he rarely got playing time.

 

Bold Predictions

 

  • Kris Dunn will be good, but will not be a serious candidate for Rookie of the Year
  • Gorgui Dieng will not come to an extension agreement this season and will earn a max contract this offseason. He will start most games for the Wolves.
  • Ricky Rubio will increase his trade value this season. We will see improvement in his jump shot.
  • Shabazz Muhammad will work his way out of Minnesota in hopes for a starting role. Whether that is via trade mid-season or a contract this summer.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns is an All Star, makes All-Defensive team and All-NBA team.
  • Andrew Wiggins is a replacement for the All-Star game (getting really bold here)
  • The Timberwolves end their 12-year drought and make the playoffs as a 7-seed!

 

Although I am still skeptical, I do think the Timberwolves can make the playoffs this season. Things will have to go right. It will require the trio of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine to really step up. My predictions are a fence-swing, especially with Wiggins being an All-Star. But I think the Wolves go into the All-Star break above .500 because someone outside of the three-headed monster. The biggest reason why I feel the Wolves have a successful season is because I truly believe Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng will thrive under Tom Thibodeau. That will be the difference maker.

 

I think the Wolves go 43-39 this season. A huge jump from 29-53. I would’ve felt better about this prediction if Kevin Garnett was still on the roster. Regardless, the young pups will lose the training wheels and it will be the beginning of something special. I can’t wait!

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