Timberwolves 2017-18 Roundup

Now that we’ve had a few weeks to get past the initial disappointment that 29 teams each season need to deal with when their season ends, let’s take a quick look back at the 2017-18 Timberwolves season. For Minnesota fans, the end of the season came with a disappointing early playoff exit, reported dysfunction within the franchise, and blame thrown at everyone from Tom Thibodeau to the stars to the lack of a bench. Should Thibodeau be fired? Do we trade Towns? Will Wiggins ever play up to his potential?

We seem to have already forgotten the Timberwolves broke a 13-year playoff drought! This was a fun season! Be happy! Sure, it didn’t end how we’d hoped, but the Wolves played through the ups and downs and took an important step toward competing for a title. And don’t forget – when Jimmy Butler played, the Timberwolves were a top 5 team in the league. That’s not nothing! There are improvements to be made, criticisms to be delivered, and hard realities to be faced, but as mentioned above, these exist for 29 teams every season.

So before we try to answer the difficult questions surrounding the next steps of the franchise, we should take stock of the prior season, and adequately evaluate how the Timberwolves succeeded, struggled, developed, and regressed.

Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler

Wow this guy can play some ball. He’s an efficient volume scorer who is probably the best non-Kawhi wing defender in the league. When he was on the court, the Wolves outscored opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions (this would have tied the Rockets for 1st in the NBA). When he was off the court, the Wolves were outscored by opponents by 4.6 points per 100 possessions (this would have been 25th in the league, in between the Nets and the Magic). Yeah, Jimmy Butler is that special. Say what you want about the minutes he has on his body, he’s right in the middle of his prime, and the Wolves would be crazy not to give him a max extension after next season.

First Overall Young Pups

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are 2 of only 31 players in NBA history to score 20+ ppg as a 21-year old or younger (per basketball-reference.com). Of the 29 players outside of Towns and Wiggins on that list: 9 are in the Hall of Fame, 3 are locks to make it when eligible (Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant), 3 are borderline (Chris Webber, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony), 5 were all-stars with long careers (John Drew, Terry Cummings, Sharif Abdul-Rahim, Antoine Walker, Elton Brand), and 6 are active players who are or likely will be multiple-time all-stars (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell). That is pretty damn good company to keep.

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Towns is on pace to be one of the best offensive big men this league has ever seen. He has an array of post moves, a light touch, and can finish strong. He also shot over 42% from beyond the arc this season. For reference, Reggie Miller (one of the greatest 3-point shooters of all time) only surpassed 42% from deep twice – and one of those seasons had a shortened three-point line. What I’m saying is Towns is basically great at everything… offensively.

Defense is where the trouble starts for Towns. For someone with such good offensive feel, he sometimes seems like he’s never played defense before. While he does get a decent amount of blocks, he constantly jumps at every fake, leading to foul trouble and easy buckets. Additionally, after he jumps, he often finds himself out of position for rebounds. So even when he alters a shot enough for it to miss, the shooter sometimes just gets an easy rebound and put back. Towns has also been very slow on rotating, often only arriving in time to only give a half-hearted swipe at the ball.

He’s shown flashes of being a very good post defender, and when he’s focused and contained (usually while playing next to Taj Gibson) he’s been solid. Towns has great foot speed and lateral agility for a big man, which means he has the tools to defend the perimeter as well. Ironically, he’s actually been better defending the perimeter than defending bigs. If he improves his consistency, and gains the anticipation that comes with experience, he could mold into a formidable force on both sides of the ball.

Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins, alternatively, had a pretty disappointing season. He’s no longer a historically bad defender, but he is still pretty bad. With his caliber of athleticism, there’s really no excuse for being a bad defender, except coaching and effort. Considering the Timberwolves haven’t implemented a defensive identity since Wiggins arrived, it’s fair to say that coaching is at least a part of his struggles – but effort is too. He often seems aloof and distracted, and gets lost navigating screens. He needs to engage and be a strong point of the defense instead of a weakness. Especially if he’s not going to be the dominant scorer we’d initially hoped for. Which brings us back to our list…

If you were counting earlier, you’d have noticed there were 3 players on that list who I didn’t mention: Clark Kellogg, Rudy Gay, and Tyreke Evans. Each of these players had arguably their best seasons before turning 22. Unfortunately, Wiggins looks like he could join that group. Kellogg’s ppg declined in each of his 5 seasons before retiring early due to injury. While he did end up with an excellent broadcast career, I think Wolves fans hope for more from Wiggins on the basketball court (and if you’ve ever heard a Wiggins interview, you’d know he’s not destined for the studio). Gay and Evans are still in the league, but neither has shown production that warrants the near-max contract Wiggins has.

Wiggins has volume scoring potential, but he still takes too many ill-advised fadeaways and step-back deep 2-pointers. When he attacks the basket, he looks near unstoppable at times. He even has a basically unguardable move – his spin on the block into a dunk – yet he rarely uses it. Seeing that move shouldn’t be a rare occurrence! Additionally, he’s put into a bad spot on the offense. He’s not a knockdown three-point shooter, yet he’s been relegated to the “stand in the corner and shoot if we pass to you” role. This is under-utilizing his skill set, while emphasizing his weakness. When he gets the ball early in the shot clock, his ability to score starts to shine through his issues. If he improves his shot selection and finds a better fit within the offense, I’m confident he’ll start to push 22-23ppg again, even in a smaller offensive role.

Coach Tom Thibodeau

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When the Timberwolves hired Thibodeau, there was overwhelming jubilation about getting the best available coach, and more specifically, a coach that could teach these players how to defend. Not only has Thibodeau failed to improve any of the young players’ defensive prowess, he also hasn’t implemented a recognizable defensive scheme! For someone who is known as a defensive genius, the expectations were higher than 27th ranked defense in the league.

Offensively, not as much was expected. The roster had enough scoring talent that even before Thibodeau was hired (with a rookie Towns, and sophomore Wiggins) they were already 12th in offense. In Thibs’ first season, they nudged up to 10th. This season, the Timberwolves were 4th. That is a significant jump; However, after exchanging Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine, and Jeff Teague for Ricky Rubio, there was almost no scenario in which the Wolves didn’t improve offensively. I hesitate to give credit to the coaching, especially when the Timberwolves shoot the least amount of 3-pointers in a league where the 3-pointer is increasingly important.

My biggest takeaway from Coach Thibs this season is that his basketball philosophy is ancient. In a league that has grown and evolved by leaps and bounds over the past decade, he has been left behind. You can’t ignore the 3-point line and expect to win games. Minnesota was next to last (after only Sacramento – yikes) in net 3-pointers attempted (meaning how many more or less 3s you take on average than your opponent).

This isn’t the only area he’s failed to adjust. He still has no counter to small-ball lineups (which we will see increasingly often) and always plays a traditional center, he doesn’t rest starters (which has been shown to wear out players, limiting durability as well as late season effectiveness), and he doesn’t ever develop his bench or stagger his starters’ minutes. Even when he lost Teague for a few weeks and Tyus Jones filled in, he played a Jones a full workload – in which he was great – until Teague returned and Jones was again relegated to a few minutes a game. If you don’t play more than an 8-man rotation, and never rely on your bench, there won’t be players ready to take a bigger role if needed. And they will be needed more often because more injuries occur when players are less rested.

Overall, Tom Thibodeau took a team with 2 All-NBA players to the 8th seed. While it was nice to finally get back to the playoffs, needing a win on the final game of the season to salvage the 8th seed with this much talent is bad. In the past 15 seasons, 47 teams have had multiple All-NBA players, and this is the first to get such a low seed. In fact, only 7 of those team didn’t have home court advantage! The average regular season wins for those teams is over 57* and the average seed is better than the 3 seed! While the Wolves underachieving on their talent is not entirely on Thibs, he’s definitely a big part of it. There are solutions to his problems, but he seems unable to accommodate even the simplest of ideas that everyone else in the league has adapted to. If he doesn’t change soon, the problems will only get worse.

*adjusted to prorate the 2011-12 season that was shortened to 66 games.

GM Tom Thibodeau

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Over the past 2 years, the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler, signed Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, and Cole Aldrich, and extended Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins. Some of these have worked out better than others.

The Good
Last offseason, Thibodeau traded for an All-NBA superstar in Jimmy Butler, signed Taj Gibson to a great contract, brought in a solid point guard in Jeff Teague, and flipped Ricky Rubio to retain a first round pick. Not bad. As noted above, Butler was otherworldly this season. Gibson was excellent on what turned out to be a bargain deal, and Teague was an improvement over Rubio for the Wolves. I think it’s hard to say whether the Wolves would have been better saving $5 million per year and keeping Rubio instead, but Teague worked out well. If all else is equal, getting an extra first round pick is always the way to go. Plus, based on some of the other contracts, who knows what would have been done with that extra $5 million…

The Bad
GM/Coach combos rarely work. I don’t really understand why. For someone who should be pretty much on the same page as their coach, GM Tom Thibodeau doesn’t seem to know Coach Tom Thibodeau at all. Aldrich was paid $7.3 million this season, but played only 49 total minutes (including 0 in the playoffs). Similarly, Gorgui Dieng was paid $14.1 million this season, but played less than 17 minutes per game (14mpg in the playoffs). This amounts to $21.4 million this season for less than 17 minutes a game. Outside of injuries, that should never happen. If Tom Thibodeau thought those players were worth the money, then he should play them like it. Luckily for Wolves fans, Aldrich only has another $2 million in guaranteed money… Not so lucky – Gorgui has another $48.5 million guaranteed.

The Ugly
Andrew Wiggins. He has an absolute albatross of a contract. If the Wolves want to compete for a title, they either need a hell of a lot more from Wiggins, or they need to trade him and use the money elsewhere. I personally think he can be a hell of a lot more. I’ve seen a lot of criticism directed at Wiggins, but rarely does this come with an alternate solution. Fans who don’t understand the salary cap have a nice talking point in “he’s not worth the max!” yet have no idea where to spend the money or the restrictions that make it harder to sign players you don’t draft.

Wiggins is better than any available player the Timberwolves could have used that money for. Anyone who is a guaranteed max guy gets to choose where they want to go. And based on free agent history – it isn’t Minnesota. The best bet is to keep young players with potential, even if it means overpaying them. So this contract will likely be ugly until completion, but the Timberwolves had to give it or lose Wiggins for nothing; believe it or not, someone else would have offered the max. As Zach Lowe recently said, “He just turned 23. You could definitely deal Andrew Wiggins for (I’m going to say) slightly positive value. You could definitely find a deal. He’s 23. There are six teams who will talk themselves into Andrew Wiggins, for sure.” Exactly.

Role Players

Taj Gibson

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What a pleasant surprise Taj Gibson was this season. I was initially happy with his signing, and thought $14 million per season was about fair. He outplayed that contract by a mile. He brought in much-needed veteran leadership, set the defensive tone, and was surprisingly productive and efficient on offense. It was the first time in his career he’s recorded a positive OBPM (offensive box plus/minus), he shot a career high FG% with a career low turnover %, and the Wolves were killed when he subbed out. He was the brightest spot of any of the role players, and I’m glad we get another of year of Gibson.

Jeff Teague

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When the Timberwolves signed Jeff Teague, I was unhappy. I thought $19 million per season was a steep overpay – especially giving him the player option in year 3. Two of guys higher on my list (of available point guards for their price) were George Hill and Darren Collison. Collison signed for about half of what Teague got, and Hill signed a more team-friendly deal (same amount of money, but decreasing cap hold, with a team option for year 3). After watching Teague play for a season, I’m much less unhappy. Even though the other two still ended up being better deals, it wasn’t so significant as to keep me upset, and Teague played much better down the stretch than he started. He plays within his skill set and rarely tries to do too much. It may not be flashy, but a calming influence can be more important than what shows up in the box score. If he plays the way he did this season for the next two, he’ll have lived up to the contract.

Nemanja Bjelica

Bjelica

Considering how unknown Bjelica is, he’s really one of the better role players in the league. Like most of the Wolves, defensive woes can plague him, but he’s actually better on that end that people expect. He struggles defending on the perimeter as faster guards and forwards can blow past him, but he has quick hands that tend to deflect balls and can hold his own in the post. On offense, he’s a solid 41.5% 3-point shooter and actually has some playmaking chops. I’m interested to see if the Wolves keep him this offseason, and what price he demands. He will never be great in this league, but he’s solid and that helps – he’s worth a rotation spot.

Jamal Crawford

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I still don’t understand how Crawford does what he does at 37. He only played 20.7 minutes per game (more than 5 minutes less than his lowest average in the past 15 seasons), but much of that is Thibs rotations. Crawford is still basically the same player he’s always been. His ‘Per 36 Minutes’ stats were essentially identical to his career average – it’s wild. That being said, his negatives are more glaring than ever. He can’t move on defense and despite his ability to get hot, he gives up a lot more points than he scores. Crawford has been one of the most fun players in the NBA to watch, but his time is coming to an end. I’m glad he spent a year with my favorite team, but I’m also glad that he won’t be returning.

Gorgui Dieng

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What a disappoint Dieng has been. Over the past 2 seasons, he has regressed in nearly every way possible. He’s played less minutes, been worse on defense, shot worse from the field, and hasn’t developed any new skills. He’s reportedly one of the hardest workers on the team, but he has some of the slowest feet in the entire NBA, and doesn’t seem to have the potential to significantly improve any facet of his game. I’ve heard some people suggest he “extended his range” to the 3-point line, but that’s not exactly true. Sure, he took 61 threes this season (up from 20 in 2015-16), but he only made 31.1% (up from 30%). This is still well below league average – just like everything else Gorgui does.

Tyus Jones

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Jones is destined to be one of the best backup point guards in the NBA for years. He’s a solid shooter and slasher, moves the ball well, and is flexible enough to play with any combination of players. He reminds me of a young Cory Joseph. Defense is where he really shines, and he doesn’t rely on athleticism to be effective. Jones has great anticipation and instincts, and forces a lot of steals. He technically didn’t qualify for the leaders of advanced statistics (he only played 1467 minutes – the requirement is 1500 minutes), but if he did qualify, he’d be 3rd in the NBA in steal %. Combine that with making the smart play on offense, and rarely turning the ball over, and you have the recipe for a successful career. Joseph got a 4 year/$30 million contract after his rookie deal expired, and I think that’s the neighborhood Jones should look for. I doubt Thibodeau is willing to pay that for his backup point guard, but it would be a mistake to let Tyus walk in free agency after next season.

Looking Ahead

Salary Cap
The Timberwolves have about $110 million in salaries for next season already. The cap for next season is projected at around $102 million. The cap could change by a few million up or down before the season, but not enough to truly affect the Timberwolves. Yes – Minnesota is already over the cap with only 9 roster spots filled. That means any acquisitions will be limited to draft picks, trades, minimum contracts, and the mid-level exception (MLE). The MLE is a once per season contract that can be given to a player up to a certain salary, even if that team is already over the salary cap.

NBA Draft
The Wolves have the 20th pick in the first round this season. I’m no draft expert, but reports suggest this is a deep draft. The Wolves should hope to get at least some value with the 20th pick. Additionally, one of the aforementioned roster spots belongs to Justin Patton, the 17th pick in the 2017 NBA draft. After breaking his foot early into Summer League, he returned to show real skill in the G League. He only ended up getting 2 minutes on the court in the NBA, but a lot of that can be chalked up to Thibodeau notoriously not playing rookies. He should see some tick on the court this season.

Trades
I hate trade speculation, but it’s especially fruitless for this Timberwolves team. Nobody wants Dieng’s contract, and getting rid of it doesn’t really free up the cap situation for the Timberwolves this season anyway. However, if the Wolves were to trade Dieng and Wiggins, that would open up cap room for a notable contract. Unfortunately, there are no realistic star free agent options for Minnesota this summer, so outside of preparing for the 2019-20 season (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but it doesn’t make much sense for this team currently) there is no reason to make a trade.

Minimum Contracts
This one is a difficult guessing game. Most of the best minimum contract players tend to sign with contenders for obvious reasons. If you are going to get paid the same (or similar) amount either way, you might as well compete for a title. Some will still take a chance on a middling team to prove their worth and earn their next contract, but with Thibodeau’s reputation for not using his bench much, Minnesota is an unlikely destination. The Timberwolves will probably end up getting the bottom of the barrel again, and based on this season (looking at you Aaron Brooks, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Shabazz Muhammad) they probably won’t play much.

Mid-Level Exception
Finally, this is where the fun starts. The salary for the MLE changes every season, but it will likely be somewhere around $9 million for the 2018-19 season. There are a number of notable free agents that will demand about that much. This is where the Timberwolves have the best shot to add an important piece to the roster. My top 3 choices would be Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Will Barton. None of these three are guaranteed to be available for the MLE, but since few teams have significant cap space, I’d guess only one at most gets a higher offer than that (Barton if I had to bet). All three have shown promise of being solid 3-and-D wings with additional upside. Bradley had a rough go of it this season (which is the only reason he’s probably going to be available for the MLE), but he was excellent the season before with Boston. Caldwell-Pope is the youngest and offers the most upside of the trio, but he’s also the least proven. Barton is the best offensive player of the group, and has shown flashes of elite scoring ability. Any of the three would be a huge boost to the 2018-19 roster.

Roundup

The Timberwolves finally made it back to the playoffs! Minnesota is still a few years away from truly competing for a title, but if Thibodeau can adapt to the modern NBA, the pieces are in place to make a real contender in the West. With Butler and Towns, the Wolves have two of the best 15 players in the league. Another year of continuity will help the defensive cohesiveness, and hopefully we’ll see more development from the young Wolves. If Wiggins returns to form offensively and gives full effort on defense, he’ll be huge in pushing the Wolves to the next level. With the additions of the 2018 draft pick, any player added via the MLE, and Justin Patton providing depth, the Wolves have a bright future.

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