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Around the League: The rise of the Timberwolves

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Under Head Coach and General Manager Tom Thibodeau, and featuring an exciting core of Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ future is bright.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One of the youngest teams in the league last year, many expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to take a considerable leap in the 2016-17 season with Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns leading the way. Tom Thibodeau was trusted to toughen up the team’s shoddy defense, and the Wolves hoped that the younger talent surrounding Towns would grow as well.

The Wolves disappointed a little last season, by missing the playoffs. Towns was as good as ever (one of the best centers in the league). But Andrew Wiggins didn’t really add anything new to his game, Zach LaVine tore his ACL, and Kris Dunn was a complete negative.

Perhaps the youth movement would take a little longer than initially thought.

While they were decent on the offensive end, especially thanks to Wiggins and
Towns’ offensive input, Minnesota’s defense was one of the worst in the league despite Thibodeau’s reputation for detail on that end.

What did they do this offseason?

Few expected the Timberwolves to snag Jimmy Butler during draft night, especially for such a cheap price. By giving up Dunn and LaVine and trading down in the draft, the Wolves reunited Butler, a legitimate superstar, with his old coach, Thibodeau.

Butler has been an elite defensive force for a while now. But in the last couple of years he’s become a well-rounded offensive weapon as well. He’s on an amazing contract for at least the next two years.

With a core of Wiggins, Butler and Towns, Thibodeau sought to add supporting pieces to replicate the toughness and size of his old Bulls’ teams. But the core’s most pressing problem, that Wiggins and Butler are both ball-dominant wings that don’t space the floor very well, wasn’t addressed as well as I’d hoped.

The Wolves did realize that incumbent point guard Ricky Rubio wasn’t a good enough shooter to play alongside both Butler and Wiggins. The team effectively swapped him for Jeff Teague, a better outside shooter, but likely a worse overall player, and used the first-round pick in the Butler trade on center Justin Patton.

The other two major moves the Wolves made were the signings of savvy veterans off the bench. Taj Gibson is a solid big, especially on the defensive end, and Jamal Crawford can hit shots. But neither addition will help stretch the floor or move the ball around on offense.

How will they look this season?

Tom Thibodeau is famous for using a short rotation, so expect Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns to play most of the minutes.

Although Teague and potentially Crawford can help spread the floor for Wiggins and Butler, the Timberwolves will still have a cramped offense, likely reliant on isolation for scoring. There are few knockdown shooters on this team, which will hurt them — especially in a playoffs’ setting.

Additionally, Thibodeau and the Wolves seem tied to playing two bigs at all times, and the Wolves have a glutton of bigs! Setting Towns, Gibson and Dieng aside — who all play best at the center position — the team has Cole Aldrich, Justin Patton and Nemanja Bjelica as well. This is likely due to Thibodeau’s “old-school” approach to basketball that prizes grinding out slow games with suffocating defense.

But the NBA isn’t going in that direction. It’s becoming faster and more versatile, with an increasing emphasis on shooting and passing. The Timberwolves may be stuck in a bygone era. Both Wiggins and Butler have the athleticism and size to play some minutes at the four position, which would help their spacing significantly. But because the Wolves have so many bigs and so few wings, such lineups are almost impossible.

Especially come playoff time, when teams need a variety of looks to show their opponents, the Timberwolves might not have the versatility that other teams have.

As a side note, the Wolves should trade Wiggins for Kyrie Irving if they have the chance. Irving’s shooting will open up the offense, while Butler’s play-making ability and defense will make up for Irving’s deficiencies in those areas. Wiggins, despite his athleticism, is one of the worst defenders in the league, and not an efficient scorer. He has the potential to become much better in these respects, but right now he’s not a truly great player.

Despite the weaknesses of the supporting cast, the core of Wiggins, Butler and Towns is strong, and will get better as Wiggins and Towns age. Butler is one of the few wings who can go toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant in the West, while Towns offers even Draymond Green trouble on offense. I expect Minnesota to make the playoffs, as maybe a fifth or sixth seed. But their antiquated style of play might be too slow for today’s league in the playoffs. They’re still a few years, and a small overhaul of their supporting cast, away from being contenders.