Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves


Projected Record: 50-32 (5th in West)

Over/Under: 48.5

2016: 31-51 (13th in West)


Key Additions:

  • G Jimmy Butler
  • G Jeff Teague
  • F Taj Gibson
  • C Justin Patton
  • G Jamal Crawford

Key Subtractions:

  • G Zach LaVine
  • G Kris Dunn
  • G Ricky Rubio
  • F Omri Cassipi
  • F Jordan Hill
  • F Adreian Payne
  • G Brandon Rush

Summary

Strengths:

  • Star power
  • Offensive and defensive potential

Weaknesses:

  • Questionable depth
  • Lack of perimeter shooting
  • Heavy burden on Wiggins and Butler
  • Young players need to lock in defensively

This feels like the most combustible prediction of all the ones I’ve made here, because it’s the team we’ve seen the least tangible results from. This is nearly a 20-win swing from last year, after all. The Nuggets were nearly a playoff team last year, and I feel pretty confident about what they’ll be will be with Paul Millsap in the mix, but I have so much less insight into this funky Minnesota roster, even with Jimmy Butler around. They could win 50+ games or they could win 40 and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised either way.

The Jimmy Butler trade was a no-brainer for the Timberwolves. Zach LaVine is still recovering from an injury that may permanently alter his career, Kris Dunn wasn’t playing, and they only dropped a few spots in the draft (and might have gotten a more intriguing player in Justin Patton than the Bulls did in Lauri Markkanen). Butler is a legitimate star that I believe is every bit on the level of Paul George, and if the Timberwolves do break out like I’m projecting, people will start to see it.

We know Butler will be great, but the season is going to swing on the pair of first overall picks, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Towns is a transcendent talent on the rise, and he’s already a masterpiece on the offensive end; perhaps the best offensive center since Dirk Nowitzki’s prime. Joel Embiid might be the only player capable of matching his diverse offensive repertoire, and even he hasn’t done it as efficiently yet. We know he’s going to be great on the offensive end, and Butler will only help there, but this is the year he needs to start locking in defensively. Towns has all the physical tools to be a great defender, but like most young players, he hasn’t shown the necessary focus yet. One addition I think could help: Taj Gibson, a defensive specialist who might help Towns learn how to dial it up.

The rest of the roster around those three guys feels perilously thin. I liked the move to bring in Jeff Teague over Ricky Rubio; Minnesota’s spacing is already going to be tricky, and Rubio’s inconsistent jumper would have complicated the issue even more. Teague’s not a flawless fit, but considering what was available, I think he’s a step in the right direction. I like Taj Gibson quite a bit as a glue guy and defensive specialist, and while I’ve never been a Jamal Crawford fan, the bench is starving for his kind of shot creation. Gorgui Dieng is a little underrated, and hanging onto Tyus Jones was a win. That’s kind of all they have though.

This is a weird team with a lot of visible flaws, but in a strange way, I still feel they’re going to have success anyways. This is a Thibodeau team in a lot of ways: they’re tough and they’re gonna overwhelm teams with sheer physicality. Butler, Towns, and Wiggins are all fairly durable, which is good because they’re going to have to be, and we all know Thibs won’t hesitate to throw them out there for a lot of minutes. I don’t know if it’s a recipe for playoff success – fatigue could be a real issue – but I think the Wolves will bludgeon their way to quite a few wins in the regular season.


Most Valuable Player: Jimmy Butler

Butler remains a little underrated, in my opinion, as I view him as a wing player on par with Paul George. He doesn’t operate the same way as George – he needs the ball in his hands more, and he’s not the same level of jump shooter – but he provides a different route to the same value. It’s no surprise he came up under Thibodeau, as he’s a gritty, physical player who applies himself defensively. The Wolves will need him to shoot from range with more consistency – the last four years, he’s shot 37%, 31%, 38%, and 28% from three – to help with their awkward spacing.

X Factor: Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins is a complicated discussion. Right now, Wiggins is a ball-dominant, one-dimensional volume scorer, and he’s not having an impact on the game if he’s not taking a lot of shots. There was certainly a lot of room for it last season; Zach LaVine’s injury left plenty of shots for the taking for Wiggins and Towns. Jimmy Butler, though, is a ball-dominant volume scorer who does it much better than Wiggins has, and Wiggins will have to be the one to adapt.

Wiggins is a supremely talented player with all the physical tools to be great, but he’s still working out how to put them together. He’s still only 22 years old, after all. I want to see him begin to work off the ball more, playing off Butler, and I want to see more defensive engagement. A guy with his measurables should be capable of dialing in defensively. If the Timberwolves want to make a run this year, effort can’t be a question mark.


Conclusion

This year’s Minnesota Timberwolves are a boom-or-bust proposition with a high ceiling and a low floor. This projection sits on the higher end of those outcomes; I think the sheer amount of talent in the Wolves starting lineup will drive them to wins despite their general lack of depth. The margin for error is razor-thin, though: while Wiggins and Towns have missed a total of one game in their combined five seasons, Butler quietly has only played more than 70 games in a season twice in his six NBA seasons. If any of the three miss significant time, it could be a death sentence.

Injuries aren’t the only thing that could derail this train. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will both need to make additional steps in their development as basketball players – especially on the defensive end, where neither has really asserted themselves yet. The ceiling is undeniable, but they’re both exceptionally young to be carrying such a heavy burden towards the team’s success.

There are so many ways this team can flame out that I’ve second-guessed myself almost every single time I’ve sat down to work on this preview. I believe in the talent, though, and I (perhaps irrationally) think they’ll break through this season anyways. Feel free to mock me for this one later if needed.

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