The Minnesota Timberwolves have been pretty bad for a long time; 12 years and counting in fact, the longest playoff drought in the NBA. The last time Minnesota was in the playoffs was in 2004, when Kevin Garnett was the MVP and led them to the Western Conference Finals, escaping first round losses they had taken for 7 straight years. They lost to the Los Angeles Lakers that year, but it was the best postseason performance for the team ever.
Since then Minnesota has never made the playoffs, or even accumulated a winning record. Their best season since then was the 2013-14 season, in which they finished 10th in the West with a 40-42 record. Even with all the losing, they seemed to struggle to use high draft picks to accumulate a ton of solid talent.
However, things look to have changed in the last couple years, and the Timberwolves fans are excited to possibly see the team get over the hill and really be competitive this year. There are even some who think this is the season in which they will finally make a playoff run.
After finishing 29-53 last seaon, and 13th in the conference, there is no doubt the future is looking up, but it will take a drastic improvement to move up at least 8 spots in the standings in just 1 year. There are a lot of reasons to be both hopeful and skeptical about the upcoming season.
The biggest reason to be excited about this team is the return of the same young core that established themselves last year with another year under their belt. Their assumed starting 5 is Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng, who ended up forging a quality group before the season ended.
Tom Thibodeau, the newly-hired head coach, who actually won the NBA finals as a defensive assistant coach with the Boston Celtics that featured Kevin Garnett, will bring the kind of toughness and defensive presence that the team needs. They were tied for 23rd in the league in terms of opponents’ points, at 106.0 points per game, so they will need to improve on that to be a good squad, but Thibodeau is seen as an expert in that field, so he should be able to help them get better at team defense, even if a lot of their players have not shown great ability to
They are one of the youngest starting 5’s in the league, with Rubio being the most veteran player going into his 6th season. Thibodeau’s biggest downfall on his last team, the Chicago Bulls, was that he might have overplayed his stars. However, as this team is really young and athletic, there should be no problem with them playing a lot of minutes, especially if it leads to more wins.
There is a real chance that their 5th overall pick, PG Kris Dunn will be the third consecutive Rookie of the Year, after Wiggins and Towns took the award in the last two years. He is projected 2nd in this ESPN summer preview. In his college years at Providence, Dunn showed an ability to not only score the ball, but also to run an offense and play great on-ball defense, something that the Timberwolves desperately need, after finishing 28th in defensive efficiency last season. In a league that has as many good point guards as ever, the Wolves could gain a big boost if Dunn is immediately able to come in and make an impact on the defensive side.
Last year was not one in which the Timberwolves were amongst the league-leaders in many positive statistical categories, but there were some bright spots that they should look to continue and improve upon to be a more efficient team. They ended the season 7th overall in field goal percentage, which they can improve upon with a better chemistry and using their athleticism and speed to get fast break points, especially if Rubio and Dunn are as able to run the offense and make precise passes as they should be able to.
They were 8th in assists per game, which goes hand in hand with their high field goal percentage, as they all looked to get each other the ball plenty. In this new age of the NBA, in which ball movement and unselfishness is as important as ever, and a whole crew of players who are on a similar development arc, they should continue to grow together and avoid playing with ego to grow on offense.
Surprisingly, Minnesota ended up 2nd in the league in free throw attempts last year. This has a lot to do with the fact that they played as much offense inside the free throw line as anyone, opting to drive the basket instead of a ton of 3 balls like some teams. Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine are all improving on their jumpers, but their best skills on offense as of now are getting into the pain, drawing contact, and finishing near the basket.
It is unclear whether Kevin Garnett will play in his 22nd NBA season, or elect to retire. However, if he is to give it another year, he will not be making as much impact with his play on the court as his influence on the young players on the team. He is a champion, who holds just about every statistical career record for the Timberwolves. He exudes toughness and will hold every player on the squad accountable to improve and reach their potential. If and when the team is able to start stringing together a decent streak of wins, he will be one of the few players who is able to set an example of how to act in big games and even the playoffs.
NBA playoff teams have All-Stars. It’s that simple. Out of the 16 teams in last year’s postseason, 12 of the teams had at least 1 player on the All-Star team. Out of the teams that did not, each had players who were more than deserving, but just were not able to make very competitive rosters. The Wolves, if they hope to make a run to the playoffs, will need Towns, Wiggins, or both to play at a level to at least be considered for the All-Star roster. Rookie of the Year is great, but when it comes to making an impact in the NBA, they both need to keep improving.
All the off-season acquisitions that the Timberwolves made, they really tried to shore up their bench play. They picked up former Golden State Warrior G Brandon Rush and former Indiana Pacer PF/C Jordan Hill. Neither will be starters, according to the depth chart, but will likely make real contributions. They need an improved bench too, so this could not have come soon enough. After the All-Star break, they ranked 28th in the league in bench scoring. Part of it had to do with injuries forcing normal bench players moving up and having the former benchwarmers move up and play significant minutes. Neither are particularly incredible defenders, but getting a front and back court player who can put the ball in the basket will be helpful regardless.
It would also be unfair to not mention PG Tyus Jones when discussing improved bench play, who managed to win this year’s Summer League MVP, leading the squad to the championship game, where they lost a close game against the Chicago Bulls, that went to overtime and took a ridiculous shot to take the game. He will probably be 3rd on the depth chart at the PG position, but if he can capitalize on the minutes he does get, could make at least some difference.
All these reasons seem to point to at least some improvement, and it would be a disappointment to not be at least a little better than last year. There are some who hope for the team to have a legitimate shot at one of the last playoff spots in the West. There are also plenty of reasons to be skeptical that fans and media may be getting ahead of themselves a little bit.
ESPN’s 2016-17 Western Conference Preview places the Timberwolves at 10th in the conference, but with a 10-win improvement, going to 39-43 after last year’s 29-53 record. 10 more wins in an 82-game season is nothing to be scoffed at, and if it were true, they would likely be one of the most improved teams in the league. In most years, the 8th place Western Conference team to take the last playoff spot usually hover around .500, such as the Houston Rockets this year, who finished exactly 42-42, and promptly got smacked by Golden State.
As mentioned before, the Wolves tied 23rd last year in opponents’ points per game, and were 29th in rebounds per game, even with Towns averaging a double-double in his first year. They added Thibodeau, who should address these issues, and put in a new scheme for the team to play solid team defense, but that can only do so much based on the defensive talent of the players. Very few of their guys were able to be too stout on that side of the ball, and they didn’t add anyone, other than rookie PG Dunn to try and fix those issues.
The 3-point shot has become so important in today’s NBA, and frankly the stunk at that part of the game last season, and didn’t do very much to fix that issue either. They shot just 33.8% from behind the arc, ranking them 26th in the league, and just 29th in total makes and attempts per game, at 5.5-16.4. To be fair, LaVine, post All-Star break, became one of the better jump shooters in the league.
They lost Kevin Martin mid-season, who was one of their best options to take jumpers, leaving them. Rubio is horrendous most of the time from that part of the floor, and Dunn is ok but unproven as a shooter, which means they will unlikely have a lot of shooting from their PG position regardless of his position.
There seems to be a theme that correlates with the playoff and overall improvement hopes of the Timberwolves: they are relying on drastic improvement from their young core at all levels of their games. Towns and Wiggins will get better, and there is no reason LaVine shouldn’t be able to at least come close to his post-All-Star break numbers in that category. These 3 guys are gong to have a lot on their shoulders in terms of carrying both the offense and defense, but players can only make so much progress in a single summer.
The race to the playoffs in the West will only be reached by winning a lot of tough games down the stretch, something that just about every player on the roster has not had to deal with, as they are usually out of the playoff race 2/3 of the way through the season, if not earlier. Beside Garnett, there are a total of 0 players on the team who have ever started in a playoff game at any point in their careers. Thus, they have nobody who plays regular minutes who really knows what it takes to be the main players on a team who even reaches the postseason, much less succeed when they get there.
Throughout the piece, the difficulty of the Western Conference has been mentioned plenty, and should not be overlooked in previewing the playoff chances for Minnesota. There are at least 5 teams that are locks for the playoffs: Golden State, San Antonio, the LA Clippers, Portland, and Oklahoma City (assuming they have Russell Westbrook at a healthy level all year). The Other 3 teams that made last year’s Western Conference Playoffs: Dallas, Memphis, and Houston, all made moves that they think will move them forward, rather than digress, so none of them will be bowing out easily, barring injury to their top players. The Utah Jazz also made a real case for themselves last year, and, like the Wolves, have a young solid core that should only improve next season. Also, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans will also have something to say about the eventual standings.
For the Timberwolves, the way it stands now, to make the move into even the 8th spot, 3 of the aforementioned squads would have to drop down. Injuries, trades, and outside issues happen, but on paper it looks like their projection of 10th overall in the West looks about right as of now, as much as their team could improve.
And last of all, let’s not forget that if the Timberwolves do manage to somehow sneak into the 8th spot, their likely opponent would be Golden State, and anything other than a demoralizing sweep would be a shock.
It’s way too early to even be thinking about and discussing the standings of a sport that won’t even begin for a few months, and this upcoming year might not be the best for the Timberwolves. They will, regardless, be one of the more interesting stories in the league, and in the years after should continue to get better each season.
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