If you’d have to pick the next team to beat the Warriors and make it to the NBA Finals through the Western Conference, there’s a good chance that team is the Minnesota Timberwolves. And that’s a strange thing considering the Wolves won just 29 games last year and finished 13th in the conference.
The first reason is that the Warriors are currently insanely good, and barring injury it’s tough to picture a team with two of three best players in the NBA, smack-dab in the middle of their primes, being defeated for the foreseeable future – even though “foreseeable future” is a fleetingly short time period in the NBA.
Pau Gasol replacing Tim Duncan is about to lead to a pretty sizable hit in defense and rebounding for the Spurs. While Gasol gets a ton of rebounds, his teams have recently rebounded poorly with him on the court. Also, Tony Parker has been a below-average starting point guard for some time now.
The Clippers are running it back for the millionth time and their backcourt of JJ Redick and Chris Paul has to start showing the first signs of aging relatively soon. Blake Griffin, a player who relies on athleticism, has gone through various injuries over the past two seasons and is a risk to suffer a drop-off quickly. Think Amare Stoudemire, but not as dramatic. The bench is still terrible, though signing Brandon Bass for the veteran minimum was a coup.
The Grizzlies have relied on vastly outperforming their point differential for about four years now, and who knows what Marc Gasol will look like after recovering from a broken foot. The Mavericks will start rebuilding soon as Dirk Nowitzki retires and the Blazers are capped out until around 2020 with a team that doesn’t quite have the upside to compete for a championship. Anthony Davis is surrounded by a team that will struggle to make the playoffs, and the Jazz – likely the most promising rising squad in the conference – have no one close to a superstar like Karl-Anthony Towns and, potentially, Andrew Wiggins.
Towns is the reason why NBA teams shamelessly tank, and go on multi-season losing binges. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player’s destiny for the first nine seasons in the league is controlled by the team who drafted said player. Even after the rookie maximum rookie extension, players are financially heavily incentivised to stay with their current team. Draft a Top 7 player and the rest of the decade is basically planned out for you, even longer if you’re smart and fortunate.
Every year, there are only 3-5 clubs with a realistic chance of winning the championship, and there are about eight players in the NBA at any given time who can make their team good enough to be in that category. Winning a title without an undisputed superstar is a rare feat. For a 20-year-old, Towns is about as lock of a prospect to becoming that franchise-changing player as there’s ever going to be outside of LeBron James, and that puts the Wolves way ahead of the game compared to most franchises in their hopes of eventually hoisting a Larry O’Brien trophy.
Only 14 players in the three-point era have averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds in their rookie season, and among those rookies Towns ranked as the second most efficient player with a 59.0 True Shooting Percentage (which takes into account the added value of free throws and three-pointers) only behind David Robinson, who was 24 years old in his rookie year, a full four years older than Towns.
Towns is the perfect big for the modern NBA. He’s a great shooter from mid-range already, making 50.6 percent on his attempts between 16-feet and the three-point line last season, a Nowitzki in his prime (and in a good year) type of number. In all likelihood, Towns will start extending that shot to the three-point line as well. Towns is light on his feet and has the potential to be great on perimeter switches. Over the past few years, the NBA has gotten used to defending stretch power forwards, but a knockdown shooter at center is something defenses just can’t deal with. There should be absolutely no doubt the Wolves lucked out with an absolute home run with Towns.
In any imaginable case, Minnesota is going to be very good quite soon, and the only questions remaining are how soon does that happen, and how high can they push their ceiling? Unlike the Pelicans around Davis, the Wolves already have enough good young players that their floor is rather high.
The main reason to be optimistic about the 2016-17 season is their new head coach Tom Thibodeau. Last year, the Wolves ranked 11th in offensive efficiency and just 27th in defensive efficiency, and getting both those numbers to near Top 10 is already a borderline 50-win season. It’s hard to see Thibodeau coaching a below-average defense, and all the offense has to do is stay the same, which shouldn’t be a tough task considering Sam Mitchell’s offense wasn’t overflowing with creativity. The path for a jump from wins in the 20s to the middle of the playoff picture is a real possibility for this team right now and not unprecedented. From Kevin Durant’s second to third, and Russell Westbrook’s first to second season, the Thunder jumped from 23 wins to 50. Thibodeau is a great coach, and under his tutelage the Wolves have the potential for the same kind of immediate bounce into the top of the NBA.
Perhaps the most interesting player, and the biggest question mark both short- and long-term, is the productivity of Wiggins. The 6-foot-8 swingman has all the tools to be a Paul George-type of player. He’s a great athlete with the quickest second-jump you’ll ever see, and has shown flashes of being a well-rounded two-way superstar – a lockdown defender who can handle the toughest wing assignment, a shot creator and playmaker on the offensive end, and a dangerous jump shooter. Wiggins is about as tantalizing a wing prospect as you’ll find, and players with the tools and versatility to excel at every skill important to basketball are super valuable. Even Wiggins’ raw box score numbers look the part, as he scored 20.7 points per game last season on above-average efficiency with jumps in both categories from his rookie season.
However, Wiggins’ upside and nice scoring numbers have yet to translate over to team success. By Player Tracking Plus-Minus (an alternative to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and currently the best number metric available), Wiggins ranked just 189th in the NBA, and while he was quite good on offense with a +1.1 Offensive PT-PM, his defense ranked among the bottom quartile in the NBA at -1.8 Defensive PT-PM (impact in points per 100 possessions).
Being a good defender isn’t that much about athleticism, but being smart on rotations and knowing what to do in team schemes. JJ Redick is small, gets posted up a ton and can’t contest shots well or pick up bigger players, but he knows what to do and was clearly a better defender than Wiggins by a mile last season. Then again, becoming an elite defender happens when a player can combine athleticism with being tremendously smart – Kawhi Leonard being the best example. Wiggins has the tools to become great, and hopefully we’ll see the first steps of that happening under the coaching of Thibodeau next season.
Worst-case scenario, Wiggins becomes a better version of players like Rudy Gay and Jeff Green. Players who can be great on offense, look really good… but who ultimately don’t impact the game in a net positive fashion. NBA teams are increasingly favoring 3-and-D wings compared to players like Green and Gay, and the smart teams understand why a Danny Green or even Al-Farouq Aminu can provide more value. Wiggins will likely escape that fate but coming into his third season it’s about time some of his potential starts transferring over to the plus-minus numbers as well.
By the end of last season, Zach LaVine had taken a huge step forward on offense. The Wolves largely ended their well-meaning but probably ill-conceived experiment with LaVine at point guard, and after the All-Star break he was a monster on offense, shooting 43.7 percent on three-pointers while taking over five per game and averaging 16.7 points per contest. LaVine has also been a disaster defensively, and the difference between being a gunner off the bench and a starter will be his improvement on that end. Looking ahead to a playoffs-filled future for Minnesota, having defensive liabilities on the court is death since teams start to go after one-sided players relentlessly in the postseason.
How Ricky Rubio fits into the Wolves’ equation is unclear. Rubio has been a longtime favorite of the advanced stats crowd, and every year he ranks high in adjusted plus-minus systems, particularly on defense. Rubio is a fantastically smart defender, he’s big and able to contest shots, navigates screens well and gets a ton of steals to disrupt to opposing offense. Last season, the Spanish guard had the best on/off-court differential on the team, and he’s been that player for the Wolves for most of his career – even during the peak Kevin Love years.
Rubio is also older than the Wolves’ young trio of promising players, and the team just drafted Kris Dunn (also worth noting he’s also older than LaVine, Wiggins and Towns, being a four-year college guy) at the same position. As in the case of LaVine’s defense, we have yet to see what happens to Rubio’s offensive impact once teams employ increasingly aggressively passive strategies to exploit his poor jump shot. In 2015-16, Rubio ranked 237th among 312 players with over 50 catch-and-shoot attempts with an Effective Field Goal Percentage (which takes into account added value of three-pointers) of 46.3 percent. Rubio still has two more years after next season on his contract on a pretty fair deal, and if Dunn starts to look promising the Wolves may start looking for a trade partner who values what Rubio brings to the table.
Outside their most important core players, the Timberwolves have some minor issues they will be faced with from day one of this season. Thibodeau has religiously stuck to playing two bigs at the same time and Gorgui Dieng expects to play big minutes. Minnesota signed Cole Aldrich on a multi-year deal this summer under the assumption he would contribute as well. Advocating for small-ball lineups by an analytics guy sounds like a broken record by now, but it would be a shame to see Towns play almost exclusively with another big.
The Timberwolves’ offense instantly becomes more guardable, and despite Dieng looking the part, he probably isn’t such a huge plus in rim protection and defense that Thibodeau absolutely needs to play him with Towns. To a lesser degree, this also applies to Jordan Hill, who was signed on a $4 million deal with the second year non-guaranteed. Nemanja Bjelica was kicked out of the rotation for parts of the year last season, but he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter and it would be fun to see what the offense looks like with Bjelica and Towns spreading the floor – though where the minutes come from is a mystery.
Minnesota will not pick at the top of the draft in 2017, so in all likelihood the core they have now will be with them for a long time with an added possibility of snatching maybe one more guy somewhere later in the draft if they get lucky. In 2018, the Timberwolves owe a lottery-protected pick to the Hawks, which is likely to convey.
The Wolves have a couple of offseasons to add talent via free agency before extensions for Wiggins, LaVine and Towns start kicking in. The team will be capped out and limited to smaller salary cap extensions after that, so adding a contributing piece either next summer or the year after would be a nice bonus. Minnesota is unlikely to attract any of the big names, but valuable players like Shaun Livingston and Patrick Patterson could be on their radar.
Next season may be the turning point for the Wolves, and after years of having the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, Clippers and whatever club LeBron James happens to play on at the top, it’s about time a new team vaults itself to the conversation.
The equation may be as simple as: Talented players make a good offense, and Thibodeau with young, high-character and motivated guys makes a good defense. Just being “good” on both ends is pretty rare company, and it’s the reason why the Wolves have a chance of being a dangerous playoff team faster than anyone expects.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.