In 2015-16, the Western Conference was loaded at the top. The Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, and even the Clippers were the cream of the crop. The rest of the West was mediocre.
The “other” teams from last season, the Blazers, Mavs, Grizzlies, and Rockets, all face questions heading into 2016-17. The uncertainty has left the door open for young, talented teams to crash the playoff party.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a terrific young team featuring Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine. They have a proven head coach, Tom Thibodeau, to lead them. Even though the Wolves have so many terrific pieces in place, they have to accomplish a few objectives if they want to make noise out west.
First, the Wolves must establish a defensive identity, something Tom Thibodeau will definitely help instill.
Second, the Wolves have to go out in free agency or potentially via trades and acquire some impactful veterans who add shooting and size to fill out the rotation.
And third: they must forget their history.
After their last playoff berth in 2005, and until the end of the Kevin Love era in 2014, the Wolves were an absolutely brutal team.
The assets were certainly in place to rebuild: the seventh pick in 2007, the fifth pick in 2008, the fifth and sixth pick in 2009, the fourth pick in 2010, and the second pick in 2011.
Corey Brewer, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Johnny Flynn, Wes Johnson, and Derrick Williams were the lottery haul. Besides Love, none of the players the Wolves selected have been franchising-altering players, merely solid role players. Swinging for the fences and striking out on so many high draft picks beset the Wolves and left them languishing in futility.
The picks that really stung were Ricky Rubio (fifth overall) and Johnny Flynn (sixth overall), particularly when you consider they passed on Steph Curry in the 2009 draft.
The Wolves passed on Curry, not once but twice, at #5 and at #6. Curry was selected seventh by the Warriors.
Just imagine how much faster the Wolves would have risen from the abyss of darkness and back to the surface of contention if they had Steph Curry to lead their team.
The Wolves 2009 draft debacle is a microcosm of their futility during the last several years: attempting to restock the team through the draft, but ultimately misevaluating talent year after year, leaving the team in ruins for the future.
Although the Wolves flopped on multiple draft picks, they did strike gold with Kevin Love.
Selected fifth overall in 2008 by the Grizzlies and then traded to the Wolves, Love made an instant impact with his scoring and rebounding ability. By the end of the 2014 season, Love was one of the premier big men in the game.
Had the Wolves finally found their savior? Sadly no.
After the 2014 season, Love became incensed with all the losing and quietly demanded a trade. Even though Love was a burgeoning star, he wanted to go somewhere to win. And the Wolves were ready to trade him, but at the right price.
First there was a potential deal with the Warriors, centered around Klay Thompson. After that deal never materialized, the Cavs, fresh off of re-signing LeBron James and drafting Andrew Wiggins, came calling. The Cavs were ready to win, and the Wolves were still trying to get their rebuild on track. It seemed like the perfect match for a trade. But to make the finances work, a third team had to get involved. Ultimately, the 76ers helped facilitate this trade as the Wolves shipped Love to Cleveland. In return, they got Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and Thad Young from the 76ers.
If all goes according to plan, this trade will be marked as a turning point for the franchise.
Heading into the 2015 season, there was a sense of optimism around the Wolves. They finally had an infusion of young talent, headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, a freakish athlete and 2014 pick, Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio, and Anthony Bennett. They had some other interesting young players, Adrien Payne out of Michigan State, Shabazz Muhammad, a one and done UCLA talent. Surrounding this group of young players were veterans Mo Williams, Kevin Martin, Thaddeus Young, and Corey Brewer. Lastly, leading this group was respected NBA veteran Flip Saunders.
For the first time in years, the Wolves were pointed in the right direction.
The 2015 season was never about winning. Instead, the Wolves wanted to see if Andrew Wiggins was truly a franchise cornerstone, and if the other young players could be nice complimentary pieces.
Wiggins’ 2015 season certainly proved the Wolves right, as he took home Rookie Of The Year honors by averaging 16.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, and 2.1 APG. The Wolves other young stud, Zach LaVine, had his moment in the sun when he put on a breathtaking display of athleticism in winning the 2015 dunk contest.
Despite the best efforts of Wiggins and company, the Wolves finished the 2015 season 16-66. With this pitiful record, the Wolves traded Williams, Brewer and Young. In the Young deal, they re-acquired franchise icon Kevin Garnett to help mentor some of the younger players.
Overall, the 2015 season wasn’t a complete failure: the Wolves found a franchise cornerstone in Andrew Wiggins, saw development from their other young players, and best of all they secured the number one pick in the 2015 draft, which they used on Karl-Anthony Towns.
Heading into the 2016 season, the Wolves had one goal: build on 2015 and see improvement from the young players. Now anchored by two number one overall picks, the Wolves were primed to accomplish this goal. Sadly, though, on the eve of the season, team president and head coach Flip Saunders suddenly passed away from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The Wolves were able to negotiate this roadblock, and their young stars turned in terrific seasons. KAT took home the second consecutive rookie of the year for a Wolves player, averaging a double-double with 18.3 PPG and 10.5 RPG. Andrew Wiggins turned in a stellar sophomore campaign, improving in nearly every offensive statistical category. Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad were very nice offensive surprises for the Wolves. LaVine saw a great improvement in his shot as his eFG% percentage rose from 46.5% to 51.6%. As a result, LaVine increased his PPG from 10.1 to 14.0.
Perhaps the bigger picture surprise for the Wolves was Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad’s eFG% and PPG took a little bit of a dip, but for the first time in his career, he was able to finish an entire season after playing a combined 75 games in his first two.
Despite the improvement of so many young players, the Wolves had another lackluster season, finishing 29-53. However, they did secure the fifth pick in this year’s draft, and with a weaker Western Conference, the Wolves are closer to contention than ever before.
With the door ajar for the Wolves to climb into the playoff picture, this offseason is absolutely crucial.
The Wolves started this offseason with a bang, hiring Tom Thibodeau to be the team’s president and head coach. Thibodeau’s hiring brings instantly credibility, toughness, and a defensive identity to a team that desperately needs one.
Last season, the Wolves ranked 28th in the league in defensive rating at 110.1. For a team that has its sights on the postseason, this is unacceptable. But the Wolves have the personnel and coach to be an elite defensive team.
Karl-Anthony Towns has tremendous defensive versatility as he can hang with the bigs down low, switch on the pick-n-roll, and step out on the arc and guard perimeter players. Andrew Wiggins has tremendous length and has the making of an exceptional perimeter defender. Zach LaVine has incredible athleticism that can serve as his calling card in becoming a great defender. Even Gorgui Dieng is a solid rim protector.
Unlike his predecessors, Tom Thibodeau’s calling card is defense, and he will make the Wolves defend at a high level. With the athletes and raw skill coupled with Thibodeau’s brilliant defensive mind, there is no reason why the Wolves can’t take the next step and become one of the better defensive teams in the league.
Besides coaching, Thibodeau will have a critical role as the team’s GM this offseason. Thibodeau is off to a great start with the Wolves as Kris Dunn, arguably the best point guard in this year’s draft, fell into his lap with the fifth pick. Dunn adds shooting, quickness, and supreme decision making to this already loaded young team. Dunn’s addition does put the future of embattled point guard Ricky Rubio into question. Dunn is a definite offensive upgrade over Rubio as Dunn has demonstrated a propensity to score at will, while also acting as a facilitator.
However, in order to completely transform this team into a playoff threat come next April, Thibodeau will have to find some useful veterans who can round out the rotation. Kevin Garnett has been invaluable, particularly with his leadership and mentoring of Karl-Anthony Towns. But at this stage of his career, Garnett’s impact on the court is minimal. The Wolves are in great shape cap-wise, but being in Minnesota and not fully established as a perennial contender will probably deter the top tier free agents from taking their talents to Minnesota. Thibodeau instead should turn his sights on experienced veteran players, particularly those who can shoot well. Last season, only one Wolves player topped 100 threes and that was Zach LaVine.
An intriguing option for the Wolves would be Jamal Crawford. Crawford has an uncanny ability to score the basketball off the bench, and can shoot the three ball at a pretty good clip. Crawford though is looking to win now, and it might be difficult for the Wolves to lure him to Minnesota even if they offer top-notch dollars. More realistic options who can add scoring punch and shooting off the pine are Jeremy Lin and Arron Afflalo.
In addition to shooting off the bench, the Wolves could use a backup center. Currently, the Wolves have Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Garnett as the primary backups, neither of which are reliable. An interesting option for them could be Timofey Mozgov.
Mozgov, who fell out of favor with the Cavs, could provide excellent rim protection off the bench, and give the Wolves some much needed frontcourt depth.
Lead by Tom Thibodeau, this pack of Wolves is ready to charge into next season and have a say out west. It remains to be seen if the Wolves will take the next step, or like so many other young teams of the past, flounder amidst immature mental errors. They have shown flashes of brilliance, none more so than their overtime victory last season over the Warriors at Oracle.
It is safe to say that the dark days of this franchise are finally behind them and the Wolves look poised to take the next step into contention.
photo via llananba