Moving right along in Basketball Insiders’ yearly lottery-bound recaps, your talented and perennially disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves are up next. Our ‘Fixing Series’ aims to diagnose team-wide issues and offer future plans of attack heading into the offseason. And for what the Timberwolves lacked in the realm of consistent basketball, they made up for it in the drama department. From Jimmy Butler to Tom Thibodeau and everything in between, it’s been another eventful season for Minnesota — but one that still finds them far away from legitimate contention.
Armed with former lottery picks and a budding All-NBA centerpiece, Minnesota’s inability to put together a full campaign has become annual frustration. Still, there’s always next year and with a building block like Karl-Anthony Towns locked down, that hope will remain both palpable and plausible. The early season trade that brought in Dario Saric and Robert Covington for a disgruntled star will move the needle for seasons to come — but what must come next? First things first, however, the Timberwolves need to lock down their next head coach — whether that’s Ryan Saunders or not — and get ready to reload in June’s draft.
What Is Working?
In short order, the biggest and brightest successes for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19:
1. Karl-Anthony Towns
This paint-roaming menace is a special cat, let’s get the most obvious statement out of the way.
Towns is flat-out good. In fact, the former Wildcat had a near run-in with death last month and then responded by absolutely destroying his opponents over the next eight games — officially making the race for an All-NBA berth far more intriguing. Only two centers make more three-pointers per game than Towns — Brook Lopez and Kevin Love — but neither of them matches the 7-footer’s remarkable 40.1 percent mark. He’s a back-to-back All-Star, beloved by Minnesotans everywhere and continues to shoulder the franchise’s postseason hopes with each successive season.
As far as the unicorn discussion goes, Towns may not get as much hype as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis, but he’s the type of multi-faceted superstar that will run an opposing team over without warning. Towns ranks in the top ten for both blocks and rebounds, loaded the added bonus of shooting above 50 percent in all four seasons of his career thus far — an efficient game-changer from start to finish.
24 games: That’s the amount of 15-plus rebound efforts Towns has pulled down in the 2018-19 campaign, topping it all off with a 27-point, 27-board, four-block masterpiece against New Orleans. If he plays in his final three contests this season, Towns will have missed only three others in the last four years combined — an Ironman-level of reliability. Sooner than later, Minnesota will put the right tools around this flexible, impossible-to-defend big man and this team will flourish, undoubtedly.
And at 23 years old, it’s scary to think the best for Towns is yet to come.
2. Ryan Saunders
Ryan, the son of late coaching legend Flip, took over the reins on an interim basis in early January and although the results have been mixed, he’s earned another shot. First and foremost, he’s gotten the ball to the aforementioned Towns at an even higher rate and helped the famously-inefficient Andrew Wiggins to shoot more efficiently, a gargantuan task in of itself. But as far as shrewd business moves go, leaning harder on your potential Future Hall of Famer is always an easy, reliable first step.
If Towns does end up snagging an All-NBA selection — and a whole yacht’s worth of extra cash — then he’ll know exactly who to thank. The center himself has already thrown himself behind the new coach, recently mentioning that “[Saunders has] done a lot to earn it . . . I think he’s a great candidate for the job.”
In terms of a stamp of approval, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Minnesota originally had eyes for the postseason when they dismissed Thibodeau, but Saunders has done well with his fractured puzzle. Tasked with implementing Dario Saric and Robert Covington into the mix — then losing the latter for the season in January — and dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, plus finding playtime for rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, Saunder has responded optimistically.
It’s hard to tell if Saunders is the long-term answer just yet — the Timberwolves are just 17-22 under him — but if Minnesota isn’t going with a full rebuild (logistically and financially, they cannot), then giving the league’s youngest head coach another whirl seems like the appropriate choice.
If anything, after one of the most nightmarish starts to an NBA campaign in decades, Saunders has righted the ship and re-energized the roster.
Even with a glaring lack of Jimmy G. Buckets, that hasn’t stopped his former squad from piling up the baskets — for years, it’s been their greatest strength. Despite their sub-.500 record, Minnesota currently holds the 13th-best scoring (112.7) and 11th-highest rated offense (110.7) in the NBA. At season’s end, the Timberwolves will have seven players averaging double-digits in points and most of the roster is hitting at 40 percent or better. Unfortunately, point-getting factor hasn’t been a major issue for Minnesota since Towns was drafted in 2015, but that’s just resulted in a less-than-sterling resume of one postseason appearance and a single, lonely win.
What Isn’t Working?
1. Andrew Wiggins
The Timberwolves’ franchise cornerstone has been on the hot seat for what feels like years now as a matter of not meeting his innate potential. Wiggins’ inefficiencies have been well-documented at this point and, unfortunately, at $25.4 million in 2018-19, people are going to notice. If he’s not within 0-3 feet (61.9 percent), Wiggins is a below-average marksman: 34.3 percent from 3-10; 32.6 from 10-16 and a downright disappointing 32.1 from three-point range. It’d be one thing if Wiggins’ struggles led him to rely on his strengths and get to the rim more often — instead, that’s hardly the case.
An unexplainable 73.5 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts are from 3-16 feet and beyond, fully exacerbating the issue by ignoring his one bankable reliability in lieu of tougher shots that he doesn’t have a history of making.
If Wiggins was a 24-year-old averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 40.7 percent from the field — despite those harder-to-swallow numbers — that’d be one thing. However, he’s the 21st highest-paid player in the NBA this season and Wiggins will only earn much more from here on out. Wiggins has $146.6 million left in guaranteed money, an amount only bested by Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Towns — sadly, of the bunch, he’s the clear outlier.
There will always be lingering hope for Wiggins given his athletic skill set — but, by now, potential or not, the 6-foot-8 small forward has moved into a nearly untradable territory.
2. Gorgui Dieng
Speeeeeeeeaking of bad contracts, Gorgui Dieng absolutely makes a strong impression himself.
An old-school center in every sense, Dieng will be paid $17.3 million in 2020-21, the final year of a big extension he signed almost three years ago. The only problem is that the center is averaging just six points and four rebounds over 13 minutes per game these days, numbers that are more akin to a bench-warming role than a featured contributor. Relegated behind the likes of behind Taj Gibson, a former Thibodeau favorite, Dieng has plateaued on an already-thin skill set.
His career-high in rebounds (8.3) happened way back in 2014-15, but it came at a rich 30 minutes per game to boot. Beyond that, Dieng doesn’t shoot three-pointers and isn’t an influence on the defensive end — so he’s not exactly knocking down the door to the rotation either at 29 years-old. While this is not as debilitating as Wiggins’ situation — both in usage and salary cap figures — it’s still a sizeable chunk of mostly dead space.
Perhaps Saunders can get the best out of Dieng — but unless the Timberwolves are willing to part with a pick or a young player just to move his contract, they’ll certainly have to try.
3. Everything Defensively
While the Timberwolves’ offense is among the league’s best, the defense continues to be outright atrocious. Even under the defensive-minded Thibodeau, Minnesota struggled to find a ball-stopping identity as they held a 110.9 (27th) rating in 2016-17 and chucked up a 110.1 (25th) mark in 2017-18. Somehow, that rating managed to get even worse this season and dropped to a miserable 112.0 rating, only outpaced by teams that had given up on the season in December.
And in the Western Conference, that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster, no matter how many times you manage to drop 120-plus points on the opposition. Search no further than the 11 — eleven — times Minnesota has allowed 130 or more points in a contest, including a traumatizing 149-107 loss to the Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers in mid-January.
The promising potential of Josh Okogie can help in that regard and so will perimeter stalwart Robert Covington once he’s back to full health this offseason — but the rest? Well, they’re not exactly great on that side of the ball. With a filter of at least 20 games played at 20 or more minutes per contest, the 63rd-ranked Covington was Minnesota’s best defender by defensive rating this year at 105.6 — and he only played 22 games for them. Perhaps worse, the next Timberwolves player doesn’t check-in on the list until No. 104, Tyus Jones’ 107.
Unsurprisingly, that’s not exactly the look of a postseason-ready franchise.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of today, the Timberwolves own the 11th-highest lottery odds, a 9.4 percent chance of jumping into the draft’s top three slots. Over their final three games, Minnesota must face the Oklahoma City, Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets — so an 0-for to the end the season definitely remains on the table. If they manage to pass the Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column (36-44, currently), the Timberwolves’ chances of leaping up toward the elite mix go to slightly-more probable 13.9 percent — a notable cause indeed.
But in the likely reality that Minnesota stays put at their present position, there are plenty of worthy prospects that could make a noticeable difference almost immediately. Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, a perimeter-minded pest — and not dissimilar to Covington’s 3-and-D skill set — should be in franchise’s draft day crosshairs. Or, if they’d like to develop an extra rim-protecting presence across from Towns, Texas’ Jaxson Hayes offers plenty of high-flying potential at 7-foot-1. Minnesota’s middling place in opponent points in the paint (15th) and blocks (16th) per game would both benefit from anchoring Hayes in a budding second unit.
The Timberwolves also own the No. 43 overall pick, where a bevy on intriguing prospects will likely await them. If they have the patience to take on Missouri’s Jontay Porter, who re-injured his formerly torn ACL last month, then that’s a project worth taking on. Versatile collegiate standouts like Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield and Carsen Edwards all make sense here as a flier, while steals guru Matisse Thybulle of Washington would be a terrifying duo alongside Covington.
Focus Area: Free Agency
For Minnesota, free agency will a tough sell for just about anybody right now.
Once July hits, the Timberwolves will be down to just eight players, plus Jeff Teague and his player option worth $19 million. Derrick Rose, Jerryd Bayless and Taj Gibson’s expiring deals will combine to free up about $31 million in cap space but the rest of the roster could use some major re-tooling.
In the past, Minnesota has tried to move Gorgui Dieng’s mammoth contract — again $17.3 million in 2020-21 — however, that’s been a total bust. That pesky Andrew Wiggins will make $33.6 million in 2022-23 — and, yes, there are no opt-outs there along the way either.
Tyus Jones has played well in spot minutes behind veteran guards since he was drafted four years ago, but his trip to restricted free agency might end up costing them. With both Teague and Rose done for the year, Jones has started the last 12 games for Minnesota and thrived. Even if Teague, 30, doesn’t decide to move onto a contender, Jones is a growing piece that they cannot allow to get away.
Frankly, the Timberwolves may just be stuck between a rock and a hard place — not good enough to attract true talent and not bad enough to ever fully tank out. Naturally, they’ll likely look for ways to move Wiggins or Dieng without attaching a heavy asset — but should they miss out there again, they’ll need to be careful to not compound their issues.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (RFA) could be the type of low-risk, high-reward asset that the franchise can afford to take a swing on this summer. Hollis-Jefferson’s bullish defense often allows him to guard across multiple positions, both at the three-point line and on the block. Pair him with Covington, the growing Okogie and another lottery pick and that’ll get the Timerbwolves one step closer to employing a respectable defense.
Other veteran options like Thaddeus Young (12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds), Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3, 7.4) and Trevor Ariza (14.5, 5.3) would all represent sturdy rotation contributors that wouldn’t capsize their books moving forward. If reaching the postseason again is their ultimate goal, there are plenty of small wins that the Timberwolves can find in free agency.
Instead of trying to hit a home run, Minnesota must simply focus on plugging that leaky defense — they’ve got more than enough offense.
Ultimately, the Timberwolves’ path to relevancy remains foggy. The roster seems to enjoy Saunders at the helm, but signing him to a real contract won’t solve their half-decade of problems overnight. Some of Minnesota’s brightest positives also double as their greatest weaknesses, so whoever takes over will have their work cut out for them. Teams can no longer just try to outgun others and manage to stay afloat in the ruthless Western Conference.
Worse, after all these years, Minnesota still hasn’t learned that lesson.
Maybe, finally, this summer — through trades, free agency and the draft — the Timberwolves can finally break from their lackluster mold.