2017-18 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

By Bryan Crawford #26

There may not be a more intriguing team in the NBA than the Minnesota Timberwolves. No other squad in the League has an elite level of young and veteran talent, as well as a head coach who in his first five years on the sidelines, earned himself a seat at the table with some of the elites in his profession. In other words, it’s a good time to be a Timberwolves fan. And even if you aren’t and you just enjoy watching good basketball, looking past the hideous new uniforms, Minnesota is definitely one of those squads to add to your League Pass package.

Timberwolves 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Tyus Jones Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad Karl Anthony-Towns, Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich, Nemanja Bjelica
Newcomers Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks Jimmy Butler Taj Gibson
Gone Kris Dunn Zach LaVine
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Offense: Everything runs through Karl Anthony-Towns. Period. It’s almost scary how good KAT is at just 21 years old. The numbers Towns has put up in his first two years in the NBA eclipse that of Kevin Garnett’s by a mile, and it doesn’t seem like he’s even close to reaching his peak. It’s not very often you see five-tool player, let alone one who is 7-1 and still hasn’t fully figured out the NBA game yet. However, behind KAT, it gets tricky to say who Minnesota’s second option is. Last year it was Andrew Wiggins, who entered the League three years ago as a No. 1 pick and high flyer with a unique knack for scoring the ball. He hasn’t disappointed either after averaging 23.6 PPG last season, second to Towns who put up 25.1. Ordinarily, who the No. 2 scorer for the Timberwolves wouldn’t be a debate, but Tom Thibodeau plucked one of his former players—who he turned into an All-Star and legitimate two-way player—from his former team when he was able to swap Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Jimmy Butler on draft night. Butler had an identical scoring average as Wiggins as the top guy in Chicago at 23.9 PPG, so it’ll be interesting to see which player will defer to whom this season. Also new in Minnesota is Jeff Teague, who after playing one season for his hometown Indiana Pacers, signed a three-year deal to play point guard in Minnesota the same day Thibodeau traded Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz. Teague, who averaged a career-high in assists last season—7.8 per game—on a Pacers team that had far less offensive firepower than his new squad, will certainly be called upon by Thibodeau to keep everybody happy distributing the ball, while still having the offensive freedom to do what he does, which is to attack the basket and get to the rim. Minnesota’s starting unit will certainly be fun to watch, but how well and fast they jell will be in the hands of the newly brought in veterans who have been through the battles as members of elite Eastern Conference teams. In addition to Butler and Teague, two more vets Minnesota will lean on for scoring will be two of the Seattle area’s finest, Jamal Crawford and Aaron Brooks. Crawford, a three-time 6MOY winner, will be Minnesota’s offensive spark off the bench and lead the second unit, a role he’s thrived in over the back half of his career. Brooks, who never met a shot he didn’t like, will likely be used sparingly, but should have plenty of opportunities to come in and do what he does best. While Thibodeau isn’t known for running a high-powered offense, he is known for giving his scorers the freedom to do just that, which should make for a lot of fun nights in Minnesota this winter.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Defense: Last year, Minnesota ranked 27 out of 30 in defensive rating, and were middle of the pack in points given up to their opponents. This is precisely the reason Thibodeau’s former Bulls in Butler and Taj Gibson were brought in. Their job will be to teach the young guys on the wings and in the paint,what it means to compete hard every night on the defensive end of the floor. Gibson, is as tough and hard-nosed as they come on defense. He still has a penchant for picking up silly fouls, but he also makes it tough on opposing bigs to get to their comfort zone because he never gives up or stops working on defense. Butler’s reputation as a defender doesn’t need to be discussed, but it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll be able to transfer some of his mojo to Wiggins, who has the physical frame and athletic ability to be an elite defender, but the question for him on that end has always been is he willing to commit to competing hard on the defensive side of the ball? If anyone can bring that fire out of him—if it’s there, of course—it’ll be Jimmy Butler. Towns isn’t the most elite defender yet, but he is a capable rim protector who should improve on his shot blocking numbers this season if Thibodeau uses is perimeter guys to funnel everything in the middle towards Towns and Dieng, another capable shotblocker and rim protector. This is the side of the ball Thibodeau will want to see the most improvement on and you can count on him to coach this squad on defense as hard as he did his team in Chicago.

Upside: This is the story of the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves. Given the talent and the coaching, you wouldn’t be crazy to think this team could finish as one of the four-best teams in the West. Mathematically speaking, we’re talking about a +20 at least in the win column. On the surface that might sound a little ambitious, but there is a precedent here. Tom Thibodeau turned a 41-41 Bulls squad into a 62-20 Eastern Conference Finals team in his first year. The Timberwolves have the perfect mix of veteran experience and youthful talent and ambition to be a formidable Western Conference squad. If Butler can coax defense out of Wiggins, the Timberwolves will be terrifying with the two-headed Butler-Wiggins combo snuffing out opponents on the wings. It just all depends on how quickly they can jell and put it all together.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Durability: Aside from Nemanja Bjelica who suffered a broken navicular bone in his left foot and the now departed Zach LaVine who tore his ACL, injuries haven’t been much of a problem for the Timberwolves players who’ve been with the team. However, for new guys like Butler and Gibson, coming from Chicago, they’ve both dealt with missed games due to injury. Thibodeau is still fighting a reputation of grinding his key players to dust, something that has been carried over from his Chicago days, so this is something to pay attention to (Wiggins and Towns were No 1 and 2 in minutes played in 2016-17). Health is never a thing that can be ensured, but if Minnesota can make it through the season relatively healthy, they can put themselves in position to make the playoffs and potentially be a top team in the West.

Synergy: Thibodeau runs a tight ship. When you play for him, the first thing you’ll need to learn to do is check your ego at the door and buy into what he’s selling. Getting this group to get on the same page and play together shouldn’t be too difficult. Still, there are some questions that still remain to be answered. Who will step up and be the leader and who will defer? Who will be the heart and soul of this team in the locker room and on the floor. Minnesota’s young guys are mostly laid back, but they’ll need to raise their intensity level to match that if the veterans if they’re going to take the next step in their development of being a perennial playoff team and eventually, a legitimate contender.

Experience: Only Butler, Gibson, Teague and Crawford have any legitimate experience where it matters most, the playoffs. But collectively, these four have a wealth of knowledge to share with their younger counterparts that they can impart on them and ultimately help the team succeed. Of course, no one is more experienced than Thibodeau, who has seen it all in his decades long experience as an NBA coach. Minnesota is in a good place. They have pieces that seem to complement each other on paper, mixed with veteran players and coaches—the sky really is the limit for this squad.

Win Frame: 45-48 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

Eastern Conference Western Conference
Atlantic  Central Southeast Pacific Southwest Northwest
Boston Celtics Chicago Bulls Atlanta Hawks Golden State Warriors Dallas Mavericks Denver Nuggets
Brooklyn Nets Cleveland Cavaliers Charlotte Hornets Los Angeles Clippers Houston Rockets Minnesota Timberwolves
New York Knicks Detroit Pistons Miami Heat Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies Oklahoma City Thunder
Philadelphia 76ers Indiana Pacers Orlando Magic Phoenix Suns New Orleans Pelicans Portland Trail Blazers
Toronto Raptors Milwaukee Bucks Washington Wizards Sacramento Kings San Antonio Spurs

 

Utah Jazz