Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Minnesota Timberwolves Season Preview

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WASHINGTON, USA - JANUARY 6: Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins (22) dunks the ball against the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center in Washington, USA on January 6, 2017. The Wizards held their lead over the Wolves for a final score of 112 to 105. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

For 13 consecutive seasons, the Minnesota Timberwolves have failed to reach the playoffs. It would be gracious to say that the Timberwolves have needed a complete franchise overhaul for a few years. Enter Tom Thibodeau. The former Chicago Bulls head coach came to Minnesota prior to the 2016-17 season and began making Karl-Anthony Towns into the star of the offense. This, of course, is not a one-year fix, and the Timberwolves turned in another losing season at 31-51. The team needed more firepower and a supporting cast that could succeed around Towns. The solution to this issue was acquiring Jimmy Butler in a draft night trade that sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick of this year’s draft, Lauri Markkanen, to the Bulls. Take a look at the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves season preview.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Minnesota Timberwolves Season Preview

What Worked Last Season

Nowadays, many NBA franchises nowadays are building super-teams and attempting to sign two or three high-profile stars. That is a great strategy, as demonstrated by the Golden State Warriors, but it can also become risky and/or expensive. For the past few years, the Timberwolves have built a team of young talent and created a future for the organization. They traded for Kevin Love on draft night way back in 2008; when he became unhappy in Minnesota, they dealt him for Andrew Wiggins in 2014. The T-Wolves also drafted Towns, acquired Gorgui Dieng on draft night, and drafted the key players involved in the Butler trade.These moves are showing of a team attempting to rebuild around a perennial all-star, Towns, and an outstanding supporting cast. Last season was more of the same, however, young talent struggling to find a chemistry that allowed competition against better teams.

All these moves indicate a team attempting to rebuild around a (future) perennial All-Star, Towns, and what could become an outstanding supporting cast. Last season was more of the same, however: young talent struggling to find chemistry and win games.

The Importance of Towns

The biggest component of the team that worked was, of course, Towns. His play and basketball IQ is among the top of players his age and older than him. He is a valuable player and has a very bright future ahead of him. However, it is hard to develop into the savior when the team can hardly put together 30 wins. Towns’ ability to be the top offensive option, but also get out of the way to let Wiggins display his scoring skills, makes him simply invaluable.

The supporting cast developed into a bright option for the future. Jeff Teage, Minnesota’s new starting point guard, has always been a solid player and an asset to every team for which he’s played. Wiggins is a great young talent who performed very well as the second option on the team, but he still needs to hone his skills to take the next step. His defense and playmaking are raw, but scoring comes naturally to Wiggins. The team struggled when Towns and Wiggins sat last season, and guard play off the bench must be better.

What Needs Improvement

In addition to the acquisitions of Butler and Teague, the Timberwolves also signed Taj Gibson this past off-season. These three moves have turned this team into a strong contender in the Western Conference. The first and most important aspect of rebuilding a team is team chemistry. Towns and Wiggins have two and three seasons, respectively, under their belts, which makes them the young guys on the team. Butler has played six, while Teague and Gibson have each played eight. A real team leader must emerge. It should be one of the best players in Towns or Butler, but the two veterans, Gibson and Teague, must also have a role in leading with their experience.

Offensive Priorities

Another thing the team must know is who the first and second options are on offense. This seems like something that wouldn’t be openly discussed as a ‘ranking’ of sorts. However, a certain order can be created to create a flow of the offense. The team ran a large portion of plays through Towns last season and Wiggins was the clear second option. However, Wiggins is a developing player who can be the first scoring option in certain scenarios. Butler may become the first option but not take any opportunities away from Towns, who matches up extremely well against big men across the league.

Role definition on offense goes along with chemistry, and players must also not get upset over ball handling or scoring opportunities, or lack thereof. Coach Thibodeau must handle this responsibility first and foremost. In the past, his style has involved two players as the main scorers, while working the others into secondary opportunities.

While the organization of the team is the coach’s responsibility, the on-court decisions must be made by a capable point guard. This is a third potential area of improvement. Teague is a veteran point guard who can be the leader on the court. Last season, he played for the Indiana Pacers with Paul George, averaging his highest single-season assists mark, 7.8. Conversely, Teague was more of a scoring point guard during his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, averaging fewer assists but remaining in the 14-16 points per game range. Regardless of the statistics, Teague’s offensive intelligence is seemingly a perfect fit for this young team.

Off-Season Changes

The Butler trade might go down as the most one-sided deals this off-season. With all the activity happening, this was the first blockbuster trade that left a lot of people scratching their heads. It’s obvious that Butler wanted to leave prior to last season and was nearly dealt, but with a new outlook and him being reunited with Thibodeau, he may be a reinvigorated player this year.

Though Butler is a huge grab for the Timberwolves, the acquisitions after that trade are just as important. Gibson and Teague really complete this team and provide Butler, Towns, and Wiggins with some support to fall back on. Rounding out the rotation, the Timberwolves picked up guards Melo Trimble and Aaron Brooks, and they re-signed Shabazz Muhammad. These players won’t do much damage in crunch time, but they’ll be serviceable enough reserves to allow the starters to get much-needed rest.

2017-18 Predictions

The West is as much a toss-up as it is a sure thing. A few teams made huge moves that could end up in chemistry issues or a championship. Perhaps it changes nothing and the Warriors will just roll through the West again. One thing is for certain: the Timberwolves can become legitimate contenders in a top-heavy conference.

Adding Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague might prove to be the best series of moves this off-season. As teams are signing superstars, the Timberwolves are preparing for the future with young talent. In two or three years, Golden State could be dismantled and many teams won’t be able to afford so many expensive contracts. Minnesota could be the next franchise to compete at the top, but it all depends on how the players can come together.

Final Results: Work in Progress

The Timberwolves will win about 47-49 games this season. That seems to be a fair number based on last year’s performance and the fierce competition teams in the West. Look for a solid season with big wins over notable opponents like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. For a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs in more than a decade, a first-round exit would not be too disappointing. The key word this season is still rebuilding. Although the pieces are set and the foundation is strong, the Timberwolves must now show the ability to play together and more importantly, win together.

 

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