2017-2018 Timberwolves Season Preview

Four years ago, the Wolves kicked off their third rebuild since 2004. The Wolves have held onto the longest playoff drought since then. But this rebuild really started with the decision that Ricky Rubio would be the guy to hold onto long-term over Kevin Love. Love was the face of rebuild-phase two. Because of that decision, the Wolves dealt Kevin Love that brought in Andrew Wiggins. The Wolves paired Wiggins with their own pick, a flyer (literally and in the department of potential) pick in Zach LaVine.
 
That picture brought me back to that kick off. It was a fun ride. The current roster is the fruit of that rebuild. Andrew Wiggins has sky high expectations and Zach LaVine has netted the Wolves Jimmy Butler.
The Wolves head into this 2017-2018 with the highest expectations since the Wolves made the Western Conference Finals. That season, the Wolves had an MVP and two All-Stars on the roster. The same can’t be said about this season. The Western Conference was since competitive back then, the last time the Wolves made the playoffs, but not as stacked as it is today. Big 3’s didn’t really exist and the 3-pointer was not as prevalent.
The current Wolves roster as it stands is much improved but also doesn’t really fit in with the trend of the league. 3-point shooting and team defense are still huge question marks. Jimmy Butler provides the Wolves with a lot of defense and leadership. The bridge has been built for Tom Thibodeau to reach his, now two, young stars.
I went into last season with super high expectations because of Tom Thibodeau but was still expecting less than what most fans and experts thought of the Wolves. I find myself in the same camp again. I break down the Wolves below and will make further predictions for the season in our Annual Season Preview.
The Givens
Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns is the Wolves’ greatest assets. He is going into the 3rd year of his career and is already arguably the best big man in the league. His inside-outside offensive game allows for him to simply take advantage of the defender’s weakness and take what opposing teams want to give him. His attitude is also what makes him amazing. He is extraordinarily competitive, poised in the face of the media and has fun playing the game. Regardless of the Wolves’ outcome this upcoming season, the Wolves still have Karl-Anthony Towns. On his rookie contract at that. He is an amazing basketball and fun to watch. So if the season implodes and the Wolves continues the longest playoff-drought in the league, the Wolves still have KAT.
What to watch with KAT this season though will be his defense. With Dieng moving to the bench, KAT will likely spend most of his time guarding centers. This could be good or this could be bad. The biggest concern though is that Towns will be relied on as the primary rim protector and shot contester. This will mean that KAT could end up in foul trouble more often. The next given will hopefully help KAT in this part of his game, but defense is certainly the part of his game that will define his next level.
Veteran Presence
This offseason brought in Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. All of these guys are no strangers to the playoffs. Each of these four guys have played significant, if not leading, roles on playoff teams in the last five years. The Wolves, historically, haven’t been a team to rock the boat in a way they did this past summer. The last time they did this, they made the Western Conference Finals.
As the Wolves’ marketing department runs away with the theme of ‘New Era’, the adding of these veterans is a major culture change regardless of the new jerseys and Target Center renovations. These guys will not have the patience to lose games as the Wolves have done in past years. This is a double-edge sword. The veterans will certainly be leading by example. They will be playing hard. If the young Wolves don’t follow or the combination of roster pieces don’t work, it is very possible the Wolves will have another, more unfortunate, ‘New Era’ if Jimmy Butler decides to leave in two years.
Our hope is that having the veterans around will help positively. We saw the impact Kevin Garnett had on KAT. The rest of the young pups is where the veteran presence should help more. It was clear that the Wolves struggled in implementing Thibs’ defensive schemes early on. Luckily, Thibodeau has brought in mostly veterans that have played for him or have familiarity with his system.
Things to watch
Andrew Wiggins
The newly-minted max contract (well $146.5M) Andrew Wiggins has probably the biggest question mark going into the season. Andrew Wiggins has proven that he can score like crazy. His shot has improved and he can get to the line with the best of ‘um. Wiggins showed flashes of greatness (yes, greatness) for stretches last season from going on scoring tears to game-winners to posterizing seven-footers.
The questions are around the rest of his game. Can Wiggins contribute to other parts of the box score? Can Wiggins finally learn to play defense? How will Wiggins react to potentially being the third-scorer? Let’s answer these questions.
Will Wiggins finally start rebounding and distributing the ball? I really hope so. And I think so. Wiggins will have two more scorers (Butler and Teague) on the floor with him and one less rebounder  (Dieng to the bench) so naturally, he will have more opportunities to get rebounds and assists. That said, Wiggins will always look for his shot first. If he doesn’t, he is Harrison Barnes. No one wants that to change. He has, however, shown flashes of penetrating and dishing. I think as he draws the defense’s attention more, he will be more comfortable dishing the ball out to able-shooters all around him now.
His defensive effort will determine if he can start getting steals and blocks in the box score, which leads to the next question. Can Wiggins finally defend? One of Wiggins’ biggest factors that led him to be the number one pick was his defensive potential. It is all physically there. So what is the problem? Not really sure. But he has another year to really understand Thibs’ system and the perfect example in Jimmy Butler now. It will truly come down to his desire to defend. He will have less of a load offensively which should allow for more energy to go towards the defensive end.
Leading again into the next point, can Wiggins be a third-option? I don’t think Wiggins wants to be the third option and it is very possible he is actually the second leading scorer on the team this season. That said, I think Wiggins is perfect to be the third-option on offense. If the Wolves just ask that Wiggins be an average defender and just score, it would be a role Wiggins could fill fairly easily. Wiggins is a good enough shooter to be the third-option and then also take over the offense when Towns and/ or Butler are on the bench (will likely happen for a 1 minute a game).
The Point Guard Situation
The point guard position could very well be what makes or breaks the Wolves. First, Jeff Teague is probably the biggest wild card. The backup PG situation is probably even more iffy.
Jeff Teague has the biggest hole to fill on the court and in the heart of Wolves’ fans as he replaces Ricky Rubio. Many forget Teague was a former All-Star when the Hawks had the best record in the Eastern Conference a few years ago. He was eventually traded because the Hawks believed more in Dennis Schroader and didn’t want to extend Teague. The Pacers brought in Teague for a year rental before he ended up with the Wolves. The Wolves essentially gave Teague the contract the Hawks didn’t want to give him.
I still have to be convinced on Teague but in the pre-season, he has proven to fill a lot of voids that Rubio had in his game. The most obvious is the ability to shoot. Secondly, Teague can score and finish around the rim consistently. Teague doesn’t have Rubio’s length, but is an able-defender as well. He isn’t the playmaker that Rubio was, but his play-style might fit better with the current roster.
The biggest concern is defense. The point guard position is the deepest in the league and I am not convinced Teague will be able to consistently lock down the number of elite guards day-in and day-out in the Western Conference. There is no Kris Dunn either to come in off the bench to play defense either.
The Wolves backup point guard will be Tyus Jones. Finally, right? I have some anxiety around this. Tyus Jones is the type of player who is always an extension of the coach on the court and plays mistake free basketball. He is an underrated shooter and tries hard on both sides of the ball. But again, I don’t know if Jones has the strength, athleticism, or length to defend at a positive-level.
I don’t think the Wolves’ PG situation will look the same by the end of the year. There will be a team that will be interested in selling a defensive-minded guard that hopefully the Wolves can swoop in and grab.
Defense
This has to be the year right? The Wolves have been one of the worst defensive teams for the last four years, even with adding Thibodeau. Adding veterans, especially a defensive-minded Jimmy Butler, should help this. But this will be a major area to watch. The firepower in the Western conference will definitely test the Wolves’ defensive ability as well. But the hope when the Wolves hired Thibs was that the Wolves would be close to the defensive nightmare that his Bulls teams were.
The Rotation
What does concern me this season is Thibs’ rotation. I hate the heavy minutes his starters play and I hate the platoon substitution method. The Wolves have certainly added depth this season, which we will get to, but there should be no reason why five of the bench players should be playing at once. My hope is that Thibodeau is not only to improve the team defensively but to adopt a rotation that other teams with ‘big threes’ use. There should be at least one of the big three on the floor at all times. I would imagine that Wiggins will get time as the only one of the ‘big three’ on the floor so he can meet his shot volume.
I am also interested in seeing what the Wolves could have as their ‘death’ lineup, i.e. the lineup they use to kill teams or their clutch time lineup. I don’t believe that Gibson will be in that lineup. I would love to see a lineup of Teague-Crawford-Wiggins-Butler-Towns. Will it happen? Will it be effective? We shall see!
The Bench
The resurrection of the Zoo Crew! If you know what the Zoo Crew is, you’re in the right place.
I am most excited to see the Wolves have a bench presence. While we will get into the signings and re-signings, the biggest improvement to the bench is having Gorgui Dieng again. Dieng was great off the bench early in his career but now with his experience as a starter and improved game, he gives the Wolves a starting-caliber player off the bench. Dieng’s toughness and hustle also bodes well as a bench player. The Wolves now don’t have to rely on Cole Aldrich being the first big man off the bench this season. That is a huge improvement.
The Wolves have then added the ageless Jamal Crawford. He isn’t incredibly efficient, but he gets buckets. He brings great experience too. My expectations aren’t super high for J-Crossover, but he will be a difference maker in at least a couple games this season.
Bringing in Crawford most likely impacts Shabazz Muhammad more than anyone. As many hope that Wiggins learns from Butler, I am praying that Shabazz learns from Crawford. Bazz has the potential to be the offensive sparkplug that Crawford was his entire career. Shabazz has the most to prove and lose this season if he isn’t able to put his game together because he will not get a better contract. I expect that Bazz will be playing harder than anyone on the team this season as he has the most the prove. As always, I have high expectations for him.
Bjelica has probably the biggest range in terms of role on the team. It is very possible that Belly could play well enough that he warrants a starting position by the time the year ends. He would perfectly space the floor and is tougher than what meets the eye. He showed flashes of thriving under Thibs. That said, Belly could completely fall out of the rotation this season too. Between KAT, Gibson, Dieng, someone playing small ball-4, and Thibs overplaying starters, Bjelica would be most expendable. If he can’t prove to be a better option than any of those other options, he could rack up a lot of ‘DNP-Coach’s Decisions’ this season.
Utilization of the G-League
The Iowa Wolves are here! And the Wolves draft Justin Patton who will likely play less than any other new T-Puppy due to injury and inexperience. Thibs was high on Patton and he was apparently a Wolves fan growing up. I still disagree with the pick but I hope I am wrong. That said, Patton will have the opportunity to be the first case study for the Wolves’ development practices in the G-League.
The truth is, the Wolves will need to be good at player development if they want to succeed long term. The G-League will be huge in developing young players but also filling in times when there are major injuries. The Wolves don’t have a good pick next season so developing what they have will be essential if they want to continue to be good once the sudden boost of free agents wears off.
The Wolves have a lot of questions going into the season and will be tested each night against a stacked Western Conference. The Wolves have the talent to make the playoffs this season but they could very well not make it if they don’t adapt early. There isn’t much time for the team to ‘build chemistry’ this season. That said, lets get into predictions.
Bold Predictions
– The Wolves will go 44-38 and make the 7th spot in the Western Conference.
– Karl-Anthony Towns will be an All-Star this season, finally.
– Andrew Wiggins will average more than Jimmy Butler
– The point guard situation will be the biggest question when the season ends
– Jimmy Butler makes an All-Defense team
– Taj Gibson will not be the starting power forward when the season ends
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The real concerns with Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins, naturally, has some trust issues. Rarely do you see a player of his caliber traded weeks after being the number 1 pick. He came to Minnesota and immediately had the spotlight on him after kicking off another rebuild.

Speaking of rebuild, I have to wonder how often we use this word on our blog. It is a big reason why I started the blog. But I think, moving forward, I will make it a point to use the word ‘rebuild’ in every blog post. Sort of a personal challenge and a branding experiment.

Anyways, back to your regular scheduled programming, Andrew Wiggins.

So naturally, when Andrew heard his name in trade rumors to go back to Cleveland for Kyrie Irving, he would get frustrated. He is in the midst of locking down a max contract and that could be jeopardized due to a trade. Wiggins’ name also seems to only be mentioned mainly because he is really the last tradeable asset the Wolves have since the Wolves would never consider trading KAT. So I can understand his frustrations.

I want to also mention, I am a huge Andrew Wiggins believer still. While the league is all about 3 and D now, I don’t think you can have too many scorers on a roster. Wiggins has earned respect to average 24 points a game at the age of 22. In his three years so far, he has also improved his 3-point shot a decent amount and has proven he can get to the line at will.

The situation currently for Wiggins seems great as well. He now has Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler to help guide and mentor him to finally tapping into his defensive potential. He has all the tools to be a Jimmy Butler-level defender in the league, and if he does, he is easily a top 25 player. It is his one glaring weakness that everyone is waiting to see if he can improve going into his fourth year. It is clear that, for him to be worth the max contract extension he will get this year, he will need to at least be an average defender. I am not mad at Glen Taylor for expecting that of him.

I also don’t believe in trading Wiggins for Kyrie either. I would much rather have 6 years of Andrew Wiggins than 2 years of Kyrie. Kyrie’s ball dominance also doesn’t work great with Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins’ passive nature bodes well as the 3rd option on offense as it will also draw less double teams his way. The Wolves would benefit greatly from having Wiggins fill a Klay Thompson-like role on both ends of the floor.

Wiggins will have all the opportunity in the world to dominate the ball through 82 games, I am not concerned about that. I also think, Wiggins will become a plus-shooter and eventually, a plus-defender. What is really concerning me is his attitude.

Before I get into his attitude, it is important to note how NBA players have invited us into their personal lives. Social media let’s us know everything that they are doing, that they want to share. What they want to share is really their choice. Their choice does reflect on who they are because ultimately, they are portraying the self that they want us to see, knowing that fans see it. Does that make sense?

 

 

Whether the above post by IG was intended to take shots at Glen Taylor or not, it still leaves it up to people to interpret. I am not taking this up as the only issue. There has been a trend of these types of sub-messages through his social media that give the impression that he is dissatisfied with the situation. It is usually best not to tread the waters of leaving things up to fans to create their own messages, as timely as some of these posts have been.

I would be a little less critical with Andrew on these types of things had I seen he was buying into what the Wolves are doing. There wasn’t much from Andrew’s camp around the Jimmy Butler trade. I would’ve expected something from Wiggins, being the face of the franchise that he is. I don’t expect him to be as enthusiastic as KAT is for everything, that isn’t Wiggy, but something at least. Right?

I see more about Wiggins’ expensive cars and dogs than anything related to his team. He is free to do that all he wants. But it leaves me to question his commitment to the team when his non-car/dog posts are about loyalty and respect.

So what I am really concerned about is Wiggins’ attitude for this upcoming season. I don’t think a few social media posts justify to say it is a problem quite yet of course, but it will certainly be something to pay attention to this upcoming season. It will be interesting to see how he interacts with his teammates, new and old, on the course. I hate to instigate but I can’t be the only person with this concern. I am a firm believer in the need for every player on a team to buy into the team concept.

The Timber Rebuilder.

 

Making sense of the Wolves’ new direction

The Wolves have repositioned themselves from a team on the rise to a team that has risen. The dramatic draft night trade for Jimmy Butler to moving Ricky Rubio and adding Teague and Taj Gibson are all indications that the Wolves are making a serious run for the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau has made it clear that in order for the Wolves to win, they need tough-minded, defensive veterans around the young nucleus of Towns and Wiggins.

For many, the replacement of Ricky Rubio with Jeff Teague has been hard to swallow. Rubio was the longest tenured player on the roster and had shown significant improvements in the second half of the season. It was clear though, both sides of the relationship were not thrilled to be together. Rubio wanted to be more involved in the organization and wanted to be appreciated while the organization clearly had issues with Rubio’s inability to shoot or finish at the rim. The move will likely be best for both sides.
The Wolves got what might be the best return for Rubio that they might have been able to get in the last two years, a first-round pick and cap space. As an opportunist, you have to know when to sell high. The only way that Rubio could be more coveted is if he developed a jump shot, which will likely not happen. He has removed his ‘injury’ tag and showed signs of being able to score and create last year. Since Rubio is not a player that relies on his speed or athleticism, he could stretch out his career if healthy. The only issue is the Wolves needed shooting. And badly.
While Teague isn’t known as a lights out shooter, he is certainly not the liability that Rubio was. Teague has been able to shoot over 35% over the last two years and is just a couple years removed from being an All-Star. He has a good amount of playoff experience and most importantly, can finish around the rim. This combination of shooting and driving ability is going to make the biggest difference for the Wolves. First, teams will have a nightmare defending the pick-and-roll with Teague and (Insert Butler, Wiggins, or Towns here). Second, Teague will be able to help the Wolves when they need scoring outside of their big 3, something the Wolves could not rely on with Rubio. Outside of LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns last year, the Wolves struggled to find a fourth scorer.
The secondary benefits of adding Teague is that he will not need the ball to be effective, another flaw of having Rubio on the current roster. Teague can spot up for 3 if needed and demand some respect from opposing defenses. Also, Teague has played with other dominate point guards in the past which lets him play off the ball in situations, which will be helpful if Thibs is looking to let Butler or Wiggins handle the ball more often.
On the defensive end, Teague is still pesky. He had a better defensive win share than Rubio last season. While he doesn’t have the length of Rubio, he will still be able to guard other teams’ best guard if needed. Luckily for the Wolves, they will be able to throw Teague, Butler, or Wiggins at a team’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis. I will say, this is where the Wolves will miss Kris Dunn. Dunn would have been a great compliment to Teague. Yes, I still am a Dunn-believer.
We can now look at what adding Taj Gibson means. He could mean a lot of things really. He could mean a move of Towns to the center position and Dieng being the 6th man with Bjelica coming in for support. He could also come off of the bench if Dieng remains in the starting lineup. Regardless the role he plays in the lineup, he brings much needed toughness and defense. The Wolves should finally have someone to set the tone in terms of physicality. We watched way too many Wolves get beat around the paint for rebounds and uncontested shots.
The Wolves also have allowed Shabazz Muhammad to become an unrestricted free agent at this point. This doesn’t mean he is gone, but it basically does mean he is gone with the Wolves lack of cap space and shooting still. Shabazz is also one of my favorite Wolves but I also don’t think it will be as sad to see him leave for the average Wolves fan as it was to see LaVine and Rubio go.
The Wolves are currently looking to create cap space to sign more players for some bench depth. They are looking to move Cole Aldrich and the pick they received in the Rubio trade. This would indicate they are still trying to solve their shooting problem. I hope. I also can’t imagine they are ready to let Tyus Jones be the full-time backup point guard. But a good amount of the options that the Wolves had are now off the board. So it will be interesting to see what direction they go. My hope is signing CJ Miles or Patrick Patterson to fill out the bench and then signing a backup point guard like Ty Lawson.
It will be important to pay attention to the Wolves Summer League team. Deandre Burton and VJ Beachum could have legitimate chances of making the Wolves roster if they are in need of bodies. The Wolves are also light on the wings outside of Butler and Wiggins. Fully expecting Thibodeau to give them a majority of the minutes in the game, in case of garbage time or an emergency, a summer league player could help out. The Wolves have a ton of roster spots available and not a ton of cap room, so it would make sense at least two guys get two-way contracts for the Wolves.
Expecting more moves certainly, it is clear the identity Thibodeau is developing here in Minnesota. He wants a defensive-minded team that has a veteran toughness. Not much different than the Bulls teams he has coached in the past. Thibodeau does not seem to value shooting as much as the rest of the league, which is concerning.
The team seems to be filled out in two-phases. The first phase is the immediate phase, which is the next two years. It is likely aimed at keeping the core of the team intact as Wiggins, Butler, and Towns will all be able to sign extensions in the next two years. This immediate phase is also designed to win now, not necessarily a championship, but to get to the playoffs. This playoff experience is crucial for Towns and Wiggins mainly. With the help of the veterans, Thibs is hoping to redefine the playoff-less culture in Minnesota and get the monkey off their backs.
The second phase will be around truly competing and it is all dependent on the development of Wiggins and Towns, most importantly on the defensive end of the floor. The next two years will be about getting them experience, chemistry, and understanding so that when the majority of the Wolves’ contracts expire over the course of the next three years, they can rebuild around Wiggins and Towns, who could be in the prime of their careers and better all-around players.
It remains to be seen what role Jimmy Butler plays in all of this. Its just too early. His contract expires in two years and a lot can change from now until then. The rest of the players on the Wolves roster, which maybe the exception of Justin Patton, should change three years from now. Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson should not be relevant once their contracts expire. But the goal should be to instill the basketball values that all three of the new veterans have in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
So while most fans will be excited to see the new additions in Wolves uniforms, I will be watching the development of Towns and Wiggins very closely. The success of this team truly rides on their shoulders.