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.
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