After a whirlwind month of action, the basketball-watching world has approached the most boring month of the year in the NBA — so looking over each and every team’s offseason is more imperative than ever. In this edition of “Grading the Offseason”, we’re taking a peek at the suddenly-erratic Minnesota Timberwolves.
Remember when the Timberwolves had the most exciting future in the league? Boy, a lot can change in just two years.
Minnesota, of course, was supposed to be the next big thing, all thanks to one of the most promising young duos in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Back then, they had an accomplished head coach calling the shots in Tom Thibodeau. Plus, adding an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler meant the future was here in the midwest.
Looking at where this team is at today, 2017 seems so very long ago. Butler and Thibodeau are gone, while Wiggins isn’t panning out as well as he had once projected. Towns has come into his own, but the Wolves need more than just him. Suddenly, more questions than answers regarding Minnesota’s future have arisen.
How exactly did the franchise get here after everything appeared to be going so well? Let’s examine.
It goes without saying, but things could not have started out worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19. It’s one thing when your star player wants out — but when he demands a trade just as training camp is about to begin, that puts everything out of whack with very little time to put it all back in order.
Despite making the playoffs, it only took one year for the Jimmy Butler situation to turn sour, holding absolutely nothing back when he made his trade request. So much drama went on during the Timberwolves’ training camp that, if filmed, it could have made for a very entertaining episode of Hard Knocks.
In any situation like that, obliging a trade request should be done ASAP. Instead, Thibodeau, for some reason, decided to drag it out 13 games into the season, a move that undoubtedly affected the team’s psyche. The Timberwolves went 4-9 before Butler was sold off to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
Technically, Minnesota improved from there by going 32-37 the rest of the way — but their 36-46 season overall was unremarkable.
As a whole, the roster didn’t leave any lasting impressions, but Towns — now a budding superstar — played the best basketball of his career. At first glance, Towns’ traditional statistics seem typical, but his per-36 averages tell a more in-depth story.
Per-36 statistics are flimsy numbers, especially so when used for players whose teams wouldn’t dare give that many minutes on a nightly basis. In Towns’ case, it’s different.
Since being coached by Thibodeau, Towns ranked fifth in minutes played on average with 37 — naturally, second behind Wiggins — in 2016-17, then 13th the following year with 35.6. Both Thibodeau and his replacement, Ryan Saunders, decreased Towns’ minutes to 33.1 this past season. When you factor in his numbers from that into per-36, Towns averaged career-bests in points (26.6), rebounds (13.5), and assists (3.7).
He also averaged a career-high in turnovers (3.4), but that probably had to do with the higher usage rate he had — almost 29 percent — in fewer minutes. With Butler gone, Towns took the bigger role in the Wolves’ offense and ran with it. With a higher number of shots, Towns still maintained his usual field goal percentage, almost 52 percent, and his solid three-point percentage of 40 percent.
With the fifth year of the KAT era swiftly approaching, Minnesota knows by now that he’ll be worth every penny of that contract extension that will take effect next season. Unfortunately, they can’t say the same for their other former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins continues to boggle fans everywhere on how far his value has fallen as a player. Just two years ago, the guy was averaging over 23 points on 45/35/76 splits. His stats were bound to decline when the team acquired Butler but, since that departure, Wiggins has failed to regain his old form.
18.1 points on 41/34/70 splits is just an odd regression for someone who is only 24 years old and possesses the physical advantages that Wiggins does. Still, he hasn’t been a total net negative for Minnesota — in fact, the Timberwolves are plus-1.1 with Wiggins on the floor. But when you’re paying somebody almost $25.5 million, that person needs to make a bigger impact. “Maple Jordan” has shown he has talent, but the less progress he makes, the more accurate the Jeff Green comparisons become.
Besides them, the next significant storyline was the play of Derrick Rose. Though he only played 51 games, Rose had his most efficient season as a shooter, sporting a true shooting percentage of 55.7. Rose has never been hailed as a three-point shooter, but on almost three attempts a game, the long-time veteran hit on 37 percent from distance.
His prime may be behind him, but this new version of D-Rose could hopefully make him a more vital player for his next team, even if it’s not with the Timberwolves. With all that he’s gone through, seeing him being in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award tugs at the heartstrings.
As for the rest of the team, Covington put up some of the best numbers in his career in Minnesota — but most of his season was cut short because of an ongoing knee injury. Dario Saric performed adequately in his role, but his minutes took a hit after being traded from Philadelphia. Jeff Teague spent half the season on the shelf and Tyus Jones continued to be under-utilized.
Even still, lots of turnover and injuries went on in Minnesota. This time around, regardless of results, the Timberwolves won’t need to endure the same amount of drama this coming season than they did in this last one — and that, ultimately, is a good start.
The Timberwolves wasted no time getting to work this offseason. On draft night, they traded Saric as well as the No. 11 overall pick to Phoenix for the sixth selection. With it, Minnesota took Jarrett Culver, whose high draft position stemmed from his all-around game.
Rumor had it that the real target they had in mind when they made the trade was Darius Garland. Whether that’s true or not, Culver has the potential to be a good fit next to Towns. His three-point shot definitely needs work, but his defense, versatility and playmaking abilities should make him a productive player from the start for the Timberwolves.
Since Culver sat out of Summer League, we won’t know for sure what he can do until the season starts. This trade also signified that the Timberwolves weren’t interested in committing to Saric, who was going to fetch some change and then some next offseason.
Next came free agency. Minnesota’s plans started and ended with D’Angelo Russell. The fit seemed flawless. Russell was coming off of a remarkable season, he would be a phenomenal second-in-command next to their center and, even better, he and Towns are best friends. What’s not to like?
With Brooklyn wrapped up in Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant rumors, Minnesota seemed poised to swoop in with a big-time offer sheet. So, until it wasn’t, Russell to the Timberwolves seemed not only feasible but nearly inevitable. And yet, as things currently stand, Russell won’t be donning a Timberwolves uniform this coming season. Golden State kiboshed Minnesota’s plans by getting a Russell in a sign-and-trade, a fine replacement for the injured Klay Thompson too.
The heartbreak over Minnesota’s failure to obtain Russell overshadowed a summer that was full of savvy moves. On the cheap, they signed and traded for Jake Layman, added Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell and traded for Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham as the third party in the aforementioned Russel deal, all of whom can be solid rotation players that cost $3.6 million or less each.
If the Timberwolves had just reeled in the big fish, their offseason would have been a wild success. Since they didn’t, their roster still has questions as far as how high the ceiling actually is.
PLAYERS IN: Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Jaylen Nowell, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin (Two-Way)
PLAYERS OUT: Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Mitchell Creek, C.J. Williams, Jared Terrell
Over the past few years, Minnesota has had the luxury of waiting for their two young starlets to blossom. In that time, one has come along nicely while the other hasn’t. With Towns’ extension kicking in this season, the Timberwolves are now on the clock for the next five years to build a better team around him before any potential trade request.
Towns has pledged his loyalty to the franchise and that shouldn’t be questioned. For now at least. Something that Glen Taylor and co. should keep in mind: Anthony Davis and LeBron James shared a similar sentiment with their first teams. Both wound up leaving because neither of those teams succeeded in building a playoff contender around them. It’s on management to do its best to avoid the same fate.
With the moves they made, the Timberwolves didn’t get worse per se, but they didn’t get better either. Where they finish depends on how they compare to their competition in their conference. What would tip the scale in their favor would be if they somehow managed to get their hands on Russell, but he’s ineligible to be moved until later on next season.
Even though they may have missed out on acquiring D-Lo, many are skeptical that Russell lasts the season with the Warriors. If the doubters are correct, expect Minnesota to bid like crazy for his services.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, if Minnesota wants to avoid a repeat of Kevin Love, they have to do everything in their power to remove the un from the uncertainty they have engulfed themselves with.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C