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.
Advertisements

Ricky Rubio: Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Ricky Rubio has been the leading candidate for criticism this season, rightfully so. Rubio has never been able to shoot. All Wolves fans know it. The league knows it. Ricky even knows it. It seems to be haunting Rubio so much that he is passing up wide open lay ups.

We know Rubio’s limitations. I personally have given up on wishing that he would improve his shot. There was an opportunity this summer to work on his shot instead of playing for Spain. That said, I am taking Ricky for what he is.

Ricky is still a really good player. He is an above average defender. While he doesn’t have the greatest lateral quickness, his length disrupts opposing point guards and he plays passing lanes well. He is also a very gifted passer. He can find the open man. He makes the right decision when leading a fast break, as long as the decision doesn’t involve him scoring. He also is an exceptional free throw shooter. He is shooting 87% as of right now.

The thing I love most about Rubio is that he is truly a competitor. He loves to win. He is happy when he wins. He also forgets that he can’t shoot in clutch situations.

These are not invaluable skills to have. In a league filled with elite point guards, it is important to have a guy who can defend. And when you have three 20ppg scorers on your team, a guy to set them up is always helpful.

The question to me has always been, how did Rubio go from being a unicorn to a  50-cent dispensable-toy pony? What happened?

First, the system Rubio is playing in currently is terrible for him. Thibodeau has robbed Ricky of his creativity and autonomy to run an offense as he had while under Flip and Sam. Ricky usually started games with a shot-check when he took a couple quick midrange shots to see if he could make them and keep the defense honest. That no longer happens as much. Thibodeau has taken any comfort Ricky had left on the offensive end.

It also doesn’t help that Ricky is the 5th option on offense for the first time in his career. Last year, he at least had Tayshaun Prince or Kevin Garnett that could refuse the ball offensively. Ricky has a career low Usage % of 12.8%. His previous low was just above 16%.

The next reason Ricky has fallen off is that the game has completely moved completely behind the 3-point line. As the league has become progressively more 3-point oriented, Ricky’s value has slowly dropped.

In 2012-13 when Rubio had his highest Usage % of 21.2%, the New York Knicks led the league in 3-point attempts with 28.9 attempts per game. In 2013-14, Rubio had his best win share of 5.9 and the league’s leader in 3-point attempts was the Rockets with 26.6 attempts. Today, the Rockets, one of the leagues best teams, average almost 40 attempts.

The 13-14 season was the best season the Wolves have had in their playoff drought. The Wolves went 40-42. Ricky Rubio was still ‘developing his shot’ and the Wolves could fly under the radar having a point guard who couldn’t shoot because the league leader in 3-point attempts in the 13-14 season would be 12th best this season.

Rubio is currently in a system in which he can’t thrive and in a league that is trending in a way that exploits his weaknesses further and further. It is unfortunate. It makes me think of Ray Allen in a sense. What is Ray Allen was playing his best basketball in today’s NBA?  Would he be better than Steph Curry? Ray Allen played in an era that did not bode well with his strengths but still held most 3-point shooting records until Curry came along.

So please, don’t hate Ricky Rubio. Hate the game that has ruined Ricky Rubio. Had Rubio been in a different era, perhaps without the 3-point line, he would still be a unicorn.

The Timber Rebuilder.

 

 

What Dunn needs to do as a Starter

I think I spent more time thinking of cool titles about Kris Dunn starting than I did thinking about what to put in here. Partially because titles with ‘Dunn’ in it is fun to think of, but mainly because what Kris Dunn needs to do to succeed is simple. Some titles I thought of:

It’s Dunn time to start! (A little slang used here)

Rubio starting is Dunn

Playoff hopes are Dunn

Getting the Job Dunn

What needs to be Dunn?

Which is your favorite? I didn’t want to use any… Yet. Anyways, back to this post.

Dunn has been handed an opportunity on a silver platter. Ricky Rubio is out ‘indefinitely’, which usually means a long time. This news came after Rubio met with the doctor. He will now meet with a surgeon, which could mean Rubio is out longer than we even originally expected.

Thibodeau brought Dunn in with the idea that he is the point guard of the future. Rubio was also not traded because he certainly gives the Wolves the best chance to win now. Rubio is needed on this team still if they plan to make the playoffs this year, but an early injury could become a blessing in disguise.

Dunn is in a very different situation than the Wolves’ previous rookies. Wiggins and Towns both were expected to produce immediately. Dunn is in a position where he does not need to be the first, second, or even third option offensively. He can slowly work himself into the offense. A luxury KAT and Wiggins didn’t really have.

What does Dunn need to do as a starter to be successful then? Like I said earlier, it is very simple. It should not be a surprise at all. But it is important for it to happen.

First, Dunn needs to do what he is known for and that is defense. I think Dunn has been impressive defensively in the first two games. He looks like a pest that disrupts the opposing team’s offense from getting set up. He gets the occasional steal from pressuring the ball. If he can master this, it will be the basis of his success. He will build confidence in his game at the NBA-level from his defense. It will also wear out his opponent when they need to play defense on him. It is easier said than done though. He will face the likes of Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Damien Lillard and Russell Westbrook multiple times early on this season. While Dunn won’t shut these guys down, he can try to contain them a little bit. It will certainly accelerate his experience.

Next, Kris will want to focus on not turning the ball over. This will be his backbone offensively. As a rookie, learning to not make mistakes will translate into him doing a ‘good job’. Luckily for Dunn, he has guys that he can rely on offensively to produce. He just needs to get them the ball and limit any mistakes. Kris Dunn will need to simplify his game and stick to the basics offensively. His baskets will come. Teams will game plan around forcing Dunn to beat them as he is most prone to making mistakes as a rookie.

If Dunn can play solid defense and limit mistakes offensively, his offensive game will come around. He should try to make the open shot. But mainly, he should try to take high percentage shots as much as possible. Dunn’s bread and butter was scoring around the rim in college. He can continue to do that and it will open up the floor for the Wolves. If teams see Dunn as a threat scoring at the rim, he will be able to penetrate and dish pretty easily.

With Rubio out, the opportunity for Dunn and the Wolves is great. I am optimistic still about what happens this season. An injury this early benefits the team in that Dunn will get heavy experience that could be valuable later in the year. Developing the backup point guard in that there isn’t a huge drop off will make a difference if the Wolves are fighting for a playoff spot. Dunn is being groomed to be the starter regardless, but this will certainly benefit the Wolves if Dunn becomes a strong bench contributor later this year when Rubio returns.

The Timber Rebuilder.

 

Experts not crazy about the Dieng deal, we disagree

Coming into work today I listened to a podcast like I usually do. I typically will listen to someone like Zach Lowe or Wolves’ fans favorite Dougie Wolfson. I have a personal NBA favorite in Nate Duncan, who hosts the Dunc’d on podcast with Danny Leroux. They are ‘Cap Space’ experts but also do a wonderful job breaking down games. They go super in-depth and are super nerdy. I can relate.

They analyzed the Gorgui Dieng extension, which he signed with the Wolves for 4-years and $64M. Many Wolves fans rejoiced, as it was a steal compared to what we expected for him to be able to sign this summer. One thing that Wolves fans have noted, rightfully so, is that big men are still getting paid big bucks. We saw the deals that Timofey Mozgov, Ian Mahinmi and Bismack Biyombo signed this summer. With the cap increase playing a factor as well, Wolves fans valued Gorgui Dieng right around, if not higher, than those bigs that got paid.

I typically always respect and agree with Nate Duncan and Danny. I couldn’t agree on this one. I call them experts here even though they may not be the names you hear everyday if you’re an average basketball fan. But they definitely know their stuff. They felt that Dieng could’ve potentially got this deal in the summer when he hit restricted free agency. The reasons they call that out is because Dieng would have a cap hold of around 250%-300% his current salary, which is not too high. We could’ve also used it to sign two other starters or one starter and a bench guy with our $40M in cap space this summer.

They also didn’t like it due to Dieng’s age, who will be 27 by next season. The contracts that were given out to those on rookie-scale contracts were mainly to 23-year-old players who will play most of their extension into and in their primes. A lot of the money given to guys like Adams and Oladipo was based on potential. Dennis Schroeder got an extension for $70M and they felt if he developed into an average point guard, he was worth the money.

One of my concerns for extending Dieng was absolutely his age. I made it clear on Twitter. He isn’t worth going $90M if a guy like Adams is getting $100M because of age. But for $64M, you can lock up a fringe-starting center in the new NBA. Dieng has proven himself as someone who can start at Center but also be effective off the bench. Because the Wolves do not have a power forward, Dieng is the starter at Center for the foreseeable future, with Towns at the 4.

Although the Wolves did sign Dieng to a contract into his 30s, they have essentially locked him up through his prime. They will likely get his best production over the next three seasons. They are paying for what he is now and not what he can be in three years, this is a less-risky route. Gorgui has proven he can fit into many roles and still be effective. He is usually a net-positive player on the floor, so having him do this for another 3 years at least is worth the contract he signed.

The criticism around Dieng’s position, alongside Towns, was another criticism. Signing a player to a long-term contract that plays the same position essentially as your best player isn’t smart for how you use your cap space. This is absolutely true. Dieng was criticized that he can’t shoot by Duncan, which I don’t believe is true. Dieng has had a very solid midrange shot (shot 46% from 10-15ft last season). He isn’t a stretch-player necessarily, but he does spread the floor well, above average for a center. Dieng, is also a very good free throw shooter, which is very rare for a big man.

In the next four years, the Wolves will need to find a starting power forward who can stretch the floor and defend. In the meantime though, the Wolves have a solid security blanket in the frontcourt if they don’t find that player right away or if Towns ever gets hurt.

Dieng has also produced more on the court, in a lesser role, than Steven Adams thus far. Yes, Adams is younger and a better defender. But Dieng did just sign for nearly $40M less. Looking at their numbers, you can see that Dieng has averaged more points, rebounds, and blocks per game through his career.

Rk,Player,From,To,G,GS,MP,FG,FGA,FG%,3P,3PA,3P%,2P,2PA,2P%,eFG%,FT,FTA,FT%,ORB,DRB,TRB,AST,STL,BLK,TOV,PF,PTS
1,Steven Adams\adamsst01,2014,2017,234,170,21.7,2.5,4.5,.561,0.0,0.0,.000,2.5,4.5,.562,.561,1.3,2.3,.557,2.4,3.6,6.0,0.7,0.5,1.0,1.1,2.8,6.3
2,Gorgui Dieng\dienggo01,2014,2017,217,105,24.4,3.2,6.2,.516,0.0,0.1,.276,3.1,6.0,.521,.519,2.1,2.7,.780,2.3,4.7,7.0,1.5,0.9,1.3,1.5,2.4,8.5

There is some concern about cap flexibility in the future. That is fair. But at some point, the Wolves need solid role players surrounding Towns and Wiggins. This was the first step in that direction. I am certain that Dieng would’ve received a larger paycheck had he waited for the summer. Thibodeau has also loved Dieng since his days in Chicago. It is hard to come by a big man that has Dieng’s skill set and also his character. Dieng is a hard worker, willing to take any role the team gives him, and wants to win.

Dieng’s character is a big factor in why keeping Dieng around instead of looking to free agency made more sense. Dieng won a championship while at Louisville. Dieng has led the Senegal National Team each summer, in which he usually dominates in International competition. Dieng is also a guy who invests a ton in his home country of Senegal, which this contract will absolutely help those efforts. Dieng is the type of ‘character-guy’ you want on your team and you want your young players to be surrounded by. A lot of time those things are overlooked in analyzing these extensions. Dieng reminds me of Nick Collision with the Thunder. It would be great if Dieng spent the rest of his career here in Minnesota.

 

Timberwolves ‘Measuring Stick’ Teams

The 2016-17 Season is right around the corner!! As the season progresses, it will be important for the Wolves to get an idea of how good they really are. One way to see how you are doing through the season outside of stats and standings is seeing how you perform against another team, typically around the same caliber as you. In the West, there are a handful of teams that are locks for the playoffs and there are about 8 teams competing for 3 spots in the West. There will be broken hearts. If the Wolves do make the playoffs, they have to serve the role of heart breaker.

But what teams can the Wolves use as measuring sticks this season? How can they tell if they are going to break hearts by the end of the year? First, lets define what a ‘measuring stick’ team is. A measuring stick team can come in many forms. First, they are likely a team that is on the bubble of the playoffs. They are a team that you probably performed poorly against the previous season. They are a team that you could potentially jump ahead of in the standings this season. They match up well against you and can be a test at things you think you improved on over the off-season.

New Orleans Pelicans

townsdavis

While the Pelicans won 30 games last season, they made the playoffs the season before with 45 wins. The ‘Brow hype has died down due to injuries, but I still believe Anthony Davis is one of the most talented players in the league. I also believe they added some solid pieces this offseason. I don’t know if the Pels make the playoffs, but they could serve as the ‘floor’ measuring stick this season. A team the Timberwolves have to outplay will be the Pelicans, and it may be harder than it sounds. Buddy Hield is probably one of the more NBA-ready rookies who can shoot the lights out. Solomon Hill signed with New Orleans this summer and I believe he could be a real difference maker. They also managed to steal away Langston Galloway and Terrance Jones. If health is on the Pelicans’ side, it may be hard for the Wolves to win 3 out of 4 meetings. They split the season series last year.

Regardless of team outcomes, this will also be a measuring stick for Karl-Anthony Towns. There is much debate around who is the best big man in the league. Davis and Towns are the future of that discussion. There is also the Kentucky rivalry to throw in there. It could turn into a Garnett/ Duncan-like rivalry in the future.

Dallas Mavericks

wigginsdirk.jpg

The Dallas Mavericks are looking to hold on to their playoff position with the acquisition of Harrison Barnes this offseason. The Mavericks finished 6th in the West with a 42-40 record. As Dirk is nearing the end of his career, it will be interesting to see how they hold on to playoff hopes. The reason they are a good measuring stick is because this is a team with experience and high-expectations. This is also a team that would likely need to fall out of the playoffs in order for the Wolves to make it in. The Wolves also lost all four matchups with the Mavs last season. In all the games, the Mavs wings found ways to torch the Wolves. Although Chandler Parsons is no longer with the Mavericks, it will be a good test to see if the Wolves perimeter defense improved against a team that has no shortage of scorers and shooters.

Denver Nuggets

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are a team still looking for an identity. They relied on the incredibly inefficient rookie Emmanual Mudiay at point guard last season. After winning 33 games, the Nuggets will try to improve through the development of their international big men. Jusuf Nurkic made a late push for Rookie of the Year, so it will be interesting to see how he responds in year two. Some how though, the Nuggets managed to win 3 of 4 meetings with the Timberwolves last season. Not underestimating the Nuggets, but if the Wolves are planning on having a successful season, they will need to out-win the Nuggets. The Wolves should be aiming to win 2-3 meetings this year.

To do that, the Wolves will need to figure out how to guard Danilo Gallinari. The Wolves haven’t been successful guarding stretch-4s who can shoot and operate out of the triple-threat. While coaching should help this, Gallinari was guarded by someone who had no business guarding him in OT last year, which really pointed out the Wolves gaps on the perimeter defensively. Can Wiggins guard him this season? We shall see.

 

Utah Jazz

Zach LaVine, Rodney Hood

The Utah Jazz are the ultimate measuring stick team for the Timberwolves. Not only are they divisional rivals, but they have a good amount of hype and barely didn’t make the playoffs last season. The Jazz are about as hungry, if not hungrier, for a playoff spot this season. According to @PaulDeVos7, the Wolves were only 5 wins behind the Jazz in the final 40 games last year. The Jazz did take the season series 3-1 with all of the games happening after December 30th. But what makes the Jazz incredibly intriguing is that they have players at each position that will not only challenge the Wolves, but are almost a toss up when discussing who is better.

Ricky Rubio is better than George Hill and that might be the biggest advantage the Wolves have. Derrick Favors is not better than Towns, but I do think Favors is fairly underrated. On the perimeter, Hayward is better than Wiggins and Hood edges out LaVine simply because he is a great two-way player. If the Wolves want to outplay the Jazz this season, Wiggins will have to outperform Gordon Hayward. The Jazz also have added a significant amount of depth by signing Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson, and Daunte Exum returning from injury.

The Wolves will have an advantage early in the season against the Jazz with Hayward injured. The Jazz won 40 games last year and could get closer to 50 this year. If the Wolves jump into the 40-win range, it will be important to win two games against the Jazz. Regardless, this could be a good rivalry this season. Especially if we see Andrew Wiggins continue his efforts in posterizing Rudy Gobert.


While an argument could be made for all the ‘bubble’ teams, we felt like this was a diverse group and could test out different things against the Wolves. Agree? Disagree? Have other ‘measuring stick’ teams? Let us know!

The Timber Rebuilder.

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!

Andrew Wiggins’ Criticality

Karl-Anthony Towns has made Minnesota sports fans fall in love with him. The kid is 20 years old but understands that for the Timberwolves to be successful, they need a crowd again. The Wolves compete with the Vikings and Twins for sports ticket dollars in the Twin Cities. So Towns has been seen cheering on the Vikings and Twins all over his snap chat. It is quite entertaining. Towns also has been on his PR-grind around the nation doing interviews and commercials that are just now appearing everywhere. I thought Zach LaVine, the China-traveling, dunk champion, was marketable. But no, Towns feels like he is running a presidential campaign.

So why start this post talking about KAT? Well, because he already has all the attention. The National media can’t stop talking about how good he is. He is expected to be an all-star. He is everyone’s focus. It is easy to talk about him and to love what he is doing, right?

Behind the KAT shine, is a quiet, laid-back Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins was disrespected in NBA2K17 when he was rated 6 points lower than his partner Towns at a, semi-respectable 82. Wiggins came out of his hiding and stated he like Call of Duty better, a witty response. But as they say, games are becoming much more realistic. And as of right now, Wiggins hasn’t proven much more than he can score at the NBA-level.

Besides the release of Andrew Wiggins’ hiking boots, that I intend on buying to help me through the brutal Minnesota winter, there has been videos of Wiggins working hard on his game. He is improving his ball-handling and looks to be able to shoot off of the dribble. Fitting his personality, he has laid low throughout most of the summer. Without the veteran presence of Kevin Garnett, Wiggins will have the most experience in the starting lineup this season outside of Ricky Rubio. It is a scary thought to think but, Andrew Wiggins will need to be a leader.

It isn’t in Wiggy to be a vocal leader like KG was. He doesn’t need to be. KAT is going to attract all the media attention but it may be on Wiggins to set the tone early and close out games late. Not only that, but he will have to carry a lot of the load on both ends of the court.

While he has been able to score, he will need to do so more efficiently and get others involved. Adding a consistent 3-pointer will be the first way to improve. He shot 24% from behind the arc before the All Star break and 41% after. Wiggins being an inside-outside threat will help open up the floor for him to penetrate and get others involved.

On the defensive side is where the real work will need to be done. While I have hope with Thibodeau in town, I still think a good amount of defense is just effort. Wiggins has to be able to carry the weight on the offense side and come back and do the same on defense. Wiggins has a terrible Defensive rating of 114 last season. He also had a pretty bad Defensive Box Plus/ Minus of -2.5.

The reason the Timberwolves need Andrew Wiggins to turn it around defensively is because he has the physical tools to be able to guard C.J McCollum and Kevin Durant. And if Wiggins is going to start alongside Zach LaVine, there is a good chance Wiggins will be guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player. Wiggins had to play alongside Tayshaun Prince for most of the season for the simple fact that Wiggins could not handle the responsibility on both ends of the court. With the training wheels off ( I love this phrase for the Wolves this season), it is time for Wiggins to truly make a leap on this end.

There is also the rebounding conversation. With getting bigger and stronger and wiser, rebounding should come a little more naturally. Wiggins’ rebounding numbers dropped from his rookie to sophomore year, mainly because he was playing more shooting guard. At least that is the excuse I am making. While the Wolves have some exceptional rebounding big men, the Wolves were second to last in rebounding last season. A clear gap is where your small forward is averaging 3 rebounds. Please Wiggins, let’s get some boards this season.

While Towns is getting all the attention, the team will not being able to make the playoffs and make significant strides forward unless Andrew Wiggins improves. It feels like a lot of this season will be dependent upon his development. We have seen Anthony Davis’ Pelicans take a significant step back, partially due to not having a supporting figure with Davis.

I don’t see anyone being more critical to the Wolves’ success this season than Andrew Wiggins. Karl-Anthony Towns can put up the same numbers he did last year and will be an All Star. Wiggins will need to show he can be at a Jimmy Butler-level before he gets that kind of respect. I will be watching Maple Jordan extra carefully this season. There is no doubt about that.