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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A Long Term View of the Wolves to Clear up the Short Term

When I disagree with the majority of Wolves fans on a subject, it typically inspires me to write. The stance on the Al Horford is one of those instances. While I love Horford as a player and  a mentor for his Dominican brother Karl-Anthony Towns, I generally don’t see him as a great fit for a couple reasons that aren’t necessarily related to his style of play. Horford is a great player and would definitely serve as a great mentor for the young pups. He is an anchor defensively and can stretch the defense with his shooting ability. He also managed to win a national championship in college dealing with Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer on the team. That is truly impressive.

The reason for being against Horford is long-winded. It took me down a path of the long-term outlook of the team. The team is young and could go in a multitude of directions over the next five years. But its important to look at the roster’s cap space and how it aligns with what the team is attempting to accomplish in that given season. What the team may be thinking about as a top priorities in a given season. Its very idealistic.

To do this, I have to assume a consistent career trajectory for the young players. I have to assume career-changing injuries don’t happen. I have to assume extremely significant moves aren’t made on a year-to-year basis. The outlook is focused on how the current players and assets play into the future. So it’s hard to do. But we will take a stab at it given what we know. First, here are the players’ salaries drawn out through 2019-2020. That is only four seasons from now. (via HoopsHype.com)

PLAYER NAME 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21
Ricky Rubio $12,700,000 $13,400,000 $14,100,000 $14,800,000 $0 $0
Nikola Pekovic $12,100,000 $12,100,000 $11,600,000 $0 $0 $0
Kevin Garnett $8,500,000 $8,000,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Kevin Martin $7,085,000 $3,336,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Andrew Wiggins $5,758,680 $6,006,600 $7,574,322 $9,846,619 $0 $0
Karl-Anthony Towns $5,703,600 $5,960,160 $6,216,840 $7,839,435 $10,191,265 $0
Nemanja Bjelica $3,950,000 $3,800,000 $3,950,000 $0 $0 $0
Anthony Bennett $3,650,000 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Zach LaVine $2,148,360 $2,240,880 $3,202,217 $4,428,666 $0 $0
Shabazz Muhammad $2,056,920 $3,046,299 $4,237,401 $0 $0 $0
Adreian Payne $1,938,840 $2,022,240 $3,100,093 $4,333,931 $0 $0
Tayshaun Prince $1,499,187 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Gorgui Dieng $1,474,440 $2,348,782 $3,384,596 $0 $0 $0
Tyus Jones $1,282,080 $1,339,680 $1,397,400 $2,444,052 $3,573,204 $0
Damjan Rudez $1,149,500 $1,199,000 $0 $0 $0 $0
Andre Miller $1,093,525 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
Greg Smith $197,111 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0
TOTALS $72,287,243 $63,600,641 $29,650,000 $14,800,000 $0 $0
We will look at seasons in the view of what the team is trying to accomplish as of the off-season. A few things to note. This is a rough outlook. I am not taking exact figures to project anything, just a broad forecast. There will be a lot of generalizations about dollar figures that may not be completely accurate. I am also not a salary cap expert. Just throwing paint and seeing where it sticks. So here we go..

2016-17 Season

Goal: Make the Playoffs

Priorities: Development of Players.

There is no doubt that for the next season the Wolves will want to make the playoffs. The team is young but with a coach like Thibs, its possible to make it happen. The playoff experience in this season would be extremely valuable for the young guys down the road. They will get to taste what it’s like. They will get to build on it for the future. So Thibs and Scott Layden have to be thinking that adding a couple veterans to the team could help boost the Wolves into the 8th spot. Using Flip’s model of mentoring, getting guys that can contribute and teach will be a top priority in Free Agency.

Thibodeau has said the Wolves will acquire players that align with the trajectory of the current roster. So this leads me to believe that whatever player that is signed/ traded for either is young enough to grow with the Wolves or old enough to contribute for two seasons max and fall off the books before the slew of contract extensions begin. This is precisely why I don’t believe Al Horford is the guy for the job. Horford is 29 and has a history of injuries that have plagued his career. With the cap increasing, Horford will seek Max dollars for a long time. With Horford in his prime now, he will regress as his salary increases. I wouldn’t be opposed to offering a Max contract to Horford if he were willing to take one for two, maybe even three years. But if I am Horford, I can get a four-year max offer or better in many places due to the Salary Cap increase.

Speaking on the Salary Cap increase quickly. The entire league more or less has cap space. The Wolves will have a maximum of $28M available this summer. That is going to lead to many players getting overpaid. The value of money is less when everyone has it, right? Save the cap space for someone worth it. KD would definitely be worth it. Other than that though, stick to the plan and focus on making the playoffs.

So who fits into helping the Wolves making the playoffs without burning a hole in our pockets? If I am the Wolves, I am looking at Luol Deng and Jamal Crawford. Deng has been impressive playing the stretch four and has a history with Thibs. His defense is great and a very good 3-point shooter. Outside of Crawford being LaVine’s mentor with their connection to Seattle, Thibs has historically been a fan of Jamal Crawford. Crawford could help the Wolves scoring off the bench and step into the 1 or 2 as needed. A combination of these two guys fill some gaps for the Wolves. They also compliment the team if they decide to trade the 5th pick and Shabazz, as I suggest in my piece for last week.
What to do with Shabazz Muhammad is going to be something figured out over the course of the coming summer and/ or the 16-17 season. Where does he fit on the bench and in his role. Can he defend to be a net-positive player? Can the Wolves maximize his trade value? To me, he seems most valuable packaged alongside a draft pick if being traded. But I also think his ability to score off the bench will be necessary going forward, at least in the short-run.
2017-18 Season
Goal: Make the Playoffs, maybe advance
Priorities: Compete, Development, Retain Dieng
Summer after year 1 with Thibodeau. Fans expectations will likely become a little more realistic. We will also have a better idea of what this team is actually capable of. It will likely be the end of KG’s career, which financially means $8M will open up in cap space. If the Wolves follow the formula of getting cheap, formidable veterans in 16-17, they could potentially make a big splash in free agency this summer to make a push in 17-18. Things to note: LaVine and Wiggins will be 22 prior to the season and Towns will be 21.
A big decision will be what happens with Gorgui Dieng. How does he fit as a piece of the puzzle. Dieng will be 27 prior to the season and will likely look for a contract extension during the 16-17 season or will enter restricted free agency. Seeing a decent amount of cap space in the summer before 17-18, the Wolves could offer a contract similar to what Ricky Rubio received. Dieng will likely be a starter or at least an important part of the Wolves’ rotation. I can see him getting overpaid here, but offers enough to almost deserve it. The question will be, will he get a max contract? Again, this depends on many outcomes of the 16-17 season. But from a Wolves perspective, that may be a trap. The Wolves will need to extend LaVine, Wiggins and Towns who are 5-6 years younger.
The Wolves will likely have some trade bait. Depending on the league cap space environment and what happens between now and then, Nikola Pekovic will be on the final year of his contract for the 17-18 season. If there is a team looking for cap space then and the Wolves can benefit from taking on a contract of equal value to help them in the playoffs, it may be worth considering.

2018-19 Season
Goal: Compete for Western Conference Title
Priorities: Retain Talent
If we do the math, LaVine/ Wiggins will be 23 and Towns 22. This seems so far away but yet these guys stay so young. If you are still reading this from the top, you are awesome and this is why the Horford signing would be problematic. The Wolves will have a lot of extensions to start thinking about prior to the 18-19 summer. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine would potentially be restricted free agents this summer if not already extended. Chances are Andrew Wiggins would receive a max contract and Zach LaVine close to that. Cap Space will be of essence to retain these guys. The only guys under contract as of now would be Towns, Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio.
Rubio will be moving into the final year of his contract. He will be 27 going into the 18-19 season. It will be known at this point whether he is a part of the future of the franchise. Health and shooting will be big factors to deciding that by this point. If he proves he is a significant contributor to the success of this team, he will likely look for near max money. Ideally, whoever is signed in the summer of 2016 will be expired by now. Dieng could be taking in a significant amount of money and if the Wolves did replace Pekovic’s salary, there may not be enough pie to go around with LaVine and Wiggins.
Here is where the VERY rough estimates start getting thrown around: Wiggins at $20M, LaVine at $20M, Dieng at $17M, Towns at $8M, and two others accounting for, lets say, $10M (one being Tyus at $3M). That is $75M for 6 players alone. The league will likely have a salary cap of over $108M since the cap is projected to be around that for the 17-18 season once the new CBA is agreed upon.
Long story short, that leaves no less than $33M for the remaining 9 players on the Wolves roster, knowing the team will likely need to extend Towns to a max contract the next summer. This means, for Rubio to remain with the Wolves after this season, he will not be able to get a max contract. So this will be an interesting headline if and when we get to it.

2019-20 Season
Goal: Championship
Priorities: Retain Towns, development
I won’t go into too much depth here but before this summer will be finding a way to keep Towns long-term. The Wolves core will be entering their very early prime years. This is no excuse to not compete nonetheless. The Wolves have to believe that prior to the 19-20 season, if all things go right, they should be competing for a championship.
Chances are the Wolves have a ton of players we can’t predict will be on the roster at this point. So the development of role players, preferably younger, will be important since the Wolves will have money tied up.

Conclusion: If all goes well, the Wolves will not have all the flexibility in the world if they look to hold on to Wiggins, LaVine, Towns, and Dieng. But if they all develop, it may make sense to keep that team together. What we do see is that free agency decisions we make this summer, do impact what the Wolves do in what should be a pivotal summer prior to the 18-19 season when the Wolves should be competing. Ideally whoever the Wolves target this summer are short term boosts that don’t have long-term salary implications.