One thing is on the minds of Minnesota Timberwolves fans everywhere: the NBA playoffs.
The team hasn’t made the playoffs in 13 years, in case you haven’t heard. Four years ago the Wolves had similar aspirations. They had re-signed Nikola Pekovic and acquired Kevin Martin from Oklahoma City. Chase Budinger was signed in hopes of him being a 3-point specialist to complement Ricky Rubio. All of this was to convince Kevin Love to remain a Timberwolf by putting a playoff team around him. This team would go on to finish 40-42 and on the outside of the playoff picture.
We know how the story has played out since and the Timberwolves have put themselves back in position to make the jump. This time, these expectations have more validity. While there are concerns, there is less talking yourself into this team as a playoff contender. Playoff talks are certainly more legitimate than last season when the team’s best players were 21 years old.
Now, there’s Jimmy Butler– the veteran All-Star. Karl-Anthony Towns proved that he was the exception to the Sophomore Slump. Andrew Wiggins continued to improve as a scorer and now has a hefty contract to play into. There’s also a veteran point guard who has never missed the playoffs in his career. All the pieces appear to be in place for a postseason return. With a new logo, uniforms, and remodeled Target Center, the team is positioned to cleanse the stench of losing entirely.
This is a crossroads season. Another losing season would further dishearten a fanbase that has waited so long for even moderate success. Aside from Kings and Wolves fans, getting to watch playoff games isn’t so rare. Expectations ratcheted up when Tom Thibodeau took the reins, only to win two more games than the previous season. They’re unquestionably higher for the team after their offseason spending spree.
Let’s look at a few factors for the 2018 Timberwolves.
Many of the ills for the 2017 Timberwolves came from the reserves. We’ll use points per 100 possessions to get a better projection for the bench production over a full game. The bench was last in points per 100 possessions, which equates to 81.3 points over a full game. They were also 23rd in rebounding and 15th in assists per 100 possessions. Defensively, they were bottom-10 in every category. Their 26th ranked defensive rating was better than only Sacramento, Phoenix, Denver, and Los Angeles (L).
A lack of a trustworthy bench contributed to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns finishing in the top-5 in minutes played last season. Making this hapless group worse was going to be difficult. The front office shook things up this Summer. Taj Gibson was signed, making Gorgui Dieng one of the best reserve big men in the game. Jamal Crawford was signed to add scoring along with Shabazz Muhammad. Aaron Brooks was added to split back up point guard duties with Tyus Jones.
On paper, these new additions appear to be an improvement. It shouldn’t take much for them to contribute more than the players who were brought in last season did. While it’s difficult to take too much away from preseason, there is a sample. They were 23rd in points, 10th in rebounding, and ninth in assists per 100 possessions. Again, this is just three exhibition games but it shows the direction the team needs to head in.
The area of concern still appears to be bench scoring. Who will score when Butler, Towns, and Wiggins go to the bench? Despite the additions, the bench still couldn’t score much. When they did, it wasn’t particularly efficient. Among NBA teams, the Wolves reserves were 17th and 27th in field goal and 3-point percentage, respectively. That’s in comparison to the other benches of NBA teams in the preseason. It could be just a small sample and a group still developing chemistry. But the team invested in the bench in hopes of making it more reliable. There are some encouraging signs early but more improvement will still be needed.
Saying that Andrew Wiggins is the key to the Timberwolves’ success might sound silly. He’s likely the third best player on the team but the impact the team needs from him is great. We know he can score. He averaged 23.6 points per game on 19 attempts per game. That was about three points more than the previous season but he also took three more shots, converting at the same efficiency. While his 3-point percentage ticked up to 35.9 percent, they’ll need him to continue improving from beyond the arc. On a team with Butler, who is a midrange dynamo, spacing will be crucial. Wiggins doing his part will be essential.
Among the biggest issues critics have with Wiggins are his counting stats. Or lack thereof. Since grabbing 4.6 boards per game as a rookie, they tracked down to 3.6 per game in his second year before settling at four last season. Wiggins has also never averaged more than 2.3 assists per game, albeit on some bad teams. The critical argument of Wiggins is that for his talent and physical gifts that he should be more efficient and productive.
The critical argument of Wiggins is that for his talent and physical gifts that he should be more efficient and productive. Normally, a player who can average nearly 24 points per game wouldn’t be so scrutinized but normal players aren’t first overall picks. There’s always going to be more expected from Wiggins because of his draft slot, fairly or unfairly. Is there a big difference if he grabs one more rebound per game? Probably not. If he grabs two or three more, that might make a greater impact. Same goes for his assists numbers.
There are ways around this. For instance, saying Wiggins doesn’t grab enough rebounds is easier when the Wolves are bottom-10 in team rebounding and winning 30 games. It’s more difficult if the team is top-10 and winning 50. The team did add Gibson and replaced Zach LaVine with Butler, who snagged 6.1 rebounds per game last season. As a whole, team rebounding should be better and so should Wiggins.
We don’t need numbers to talk about Wiggins’ play in the preseason. With a new team, it was going to be a question of how he and Butler would fit on the court. What we saw was Wiggins crashing the glass down low, even chasing putbacks. Wiggins and Butler also seemed to not take up the same space on the floor. These were two of the biggest questions we had about Wiggins coming in.
One big difference is Wiggins himself. He’s noticeably added mass and looks slightly taller. A lot of that has to do with growing into your body. The added size should help Wiggins fight for rebounds down low and help him do more on the floor.
This is tough to admit sometimes. A team can do all the right things in the draft, free agency, coaching, and the salary cap. Yet, that’s not always enough to matter. There are too many factors with injuries, the schedule, and what other teams do to not need a little bit of luck. The 2014 Timberwolves had the greatest point differential of any non-playoff team in history but couldn’t win close games. Luck will once again be a factor this season.
Teams in the Wolves’ division alone improved. The Thunder added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Despite losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Jazz added several solid players that will make them tough every night. Denver replaced Danilo Gallinari with Paul Milsap. And the Blazers still have Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There weren’t many teams who got worse this Summer. What the Timberwolves will have to figure out is whose better is best. Because once they look at Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston or the Warriors out west, life gets tougher.
Playing in the Western Conference means being challenged every single night. A slow start or ill-timed slump could mean losing playoff position. If they do, a team like New Orleans could be waiting to take their place.
Being able to avoid a skid will have a lot to do with health. Fortunately, Wiggins and Towns have missed one game combined in their NBA careers. Butler missed just six games last season, too. They’ll need more of the same if they not only want to get to the playoffs but hope to compete.
Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.