Last Season: 29-53, 13th in the West
Off-Season Gains: PG Kris Dunn (draft), C Jordan Hill (free agent), C Cole Aldrich (free agent), SG Brandon Rush (free agent)
Off-Season Losses: PF Kevin Garnett (retired), SF Tayshaun Prince (free agent), SF Damjan Rudez (free agent/Orlando)
Off-Season Stock: It'd be easier for you to find harvested organs online.
League Pass Team?: I want to be the one rebel that says no, but (sigh) of course.
It seems so easy for the Timberwolves. Predestined, even. They've got the unquestionable young talent, by virtue of back-to-back number one overall draft picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns plus another potential stud in Kris Dunn, the fifth pick of this past draft, who literally comes to them from Providence if you're looking for omens. There are useful pieces with upside like Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng, a possible trade chip in Ricky Rubio and now a coach to hold them all accountable in Tom Thibodeau. This seems like the Thunder blueprint all over again if you squint enough, with Rubio in the Jeff Green seat, I guess, and we're all nudging one another in the ribs and breathless in anticipation, so eager for a front row seat on what's sure to be the NBA's next great young dynasty, the Thunder to the Warriors' Spurs.
Except, you know, the Thunder never quite reached the mountaintop.
But enough about the Thunder for now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if I could snatch up anyone in the league for the Spurs, I'd pick Towns. He's a bit sturdier than Anthony Davis, a bit stockier, he can shoot threes already, and I like his temperament more. Davis is a wondrous talent, don't get me wrong, but he seems to get frazzled when things are going against him. I didn't see that happen to Towns, though to be fair to Davis, he's played in more high-stakes situations. But Towns was unquestionably the best player on the floor in that late regular season overtime win against the Warriors, and he just blew me away every time I watched him. Athletes typically progress the most between year one and two, so I'm really looking forward to see his progress.
Wiggins on the other hand I still have reservations about. There's no question he's got potential to be a bona fide second-banana, and he's got this electrifying spin move on the drive I'm not sure any other wing in the league has in his bag, but I don't know if he'll ever be more than one of these 80's style low-efficiency one-tool scorers who puts up numbers for bad teams and brings nothing else to the table. Really I think Thibodeau will benefit him more than anyone else on the roster. Towns is going to be a two-way stud no matter who coaches him. He'll have that personal accountability. Thibs will demand that Wiggins rebounds and plays defense or he'll bench him. Offensively Wiggins is too loose with his handle, doesn't shoot threes well enough and doesn't create for others. He's got miles to go to be a player you can win with.
It's time to move on from Rubio. It was cool to see him come back from an ACL tear and have a healthy season, but he shot 37.4 percent and 32.6 from downtown. The rest of his game was good enough to make him an asset overall, barely, but a point guard who guards well and can't score is like a striker in soccer who tracks back well on defense but can't knock in goals. (Nope, Jesus, can't think of any Spaniards who fit that description.) Dunn blossomed his last two years at Providence and destroyed the Las Vegas Summer League for a couple games. I'm sure he'll play a ton as a rookie and I wonder if Thibodeau will ever use him and Rubio together. Tyus Jones is too good to not have in the rotation at all.
LaVine looked like the kind of dude who'd play for eight teams as an end-of-the-bench novelty for most of his rookie season but once the T-Pups figured out that he has no business playing point guard, he wound up being a pleasant surprise in year two. Not only did his three-point shot develop nicely but he had a better sense of how to finish around the basket. As with Wiggins it remains to be seen if his defense will ever come around, and there's still a question of whether he'll fit better as a starter or sixth man, but there's no longer a question about him belonging. Shabazz Muhammad was another pleasant surprise. He was finally healthy enough to play the whole season last year and while his jumper is unwieldy, he rebounds fairly well for a wing and knows how to get to the line, kind of like Rodney Stuckey. He's a starting option if they want to use LaVine off the bench.
Dieng is another guy whose role under Thibodeau I'm wondering about. He's improved incrementally the past couple of years and the Wolves have been better with him on the floor than not. That the team chased bigs so aggressively in the off-season, signing both Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill, doesn't portend well for him necessarily, but perhaps they anticipated Kevin Garnett's retirement and Nikola Pekovic's chronic injury issues. Dieng is not an elite stopper by any means, but he's got more of a complete game than Aldrich and Hill. Hill's got a decent jumper but his post game is junk and he can't guard anybody. Aldrich can score inside and can be an obstacle defensively as long as he doesn't have to work in space, but he can't score outside of five feet. Dieng by contrast has a surprisingly okay jumper and can knock down his freebies too. Nemanja Bjelica had a decent first year in the league before hitting the rookie wall. He gives them a stretch four option and lord knows they're lacking shooters. Brandon Rush signed over from the Warriors. He has championship experience and is a versatile guy who knocked down 41 percent of his threes last year. He's not much of a player, but he started for the Warriors when Harrison Barnes was injured and they didn't miss a beat. I'm sure Mark Cuban knew what he was doing giving Barnes a max deal though.
What's clear is that with Thibs on board that the organization is ready to accelerate their growth curve here. They may not be totally sure about Wiggins' ceiling just yet, but everyone seems to be absolutely convinced that Towns will be the league's next great big-man, the no-doubt franchise superduperstar, so there's no point screwing around with anything less than a top-flight coach. In that context even the pick of Dunn makes sense. If all goes according to plan, he'll be the last top-10 pick the T-Pups have for the next decade. They simply couldn't get this wrong. So it wasn't simply about drafting the best player available, regardless of position. It was about getting a point guard on the same age cycle with Towns, Wiggins and LaVine (Dunn is actually a year-and-a-half older than Towns). Not only is Rubio five years older, but by now we know what he is and what he isn't, and while I like Rubio a lot, I believe it's fair to say that his shooting will put a cap on what they can be.
We'll see what happens with Rubio. What I do know is for the first time in their professional careers the T-Pups will be dealing with real expectations and pressure. They will be everybody's League Pass darlings for anytime the Warriors aren't on, and unlike the Dubs, and why shouldn't they be? They're fun to watch. Unlike the Warriors though, people will actually be rooting for these guys to win, everyone's second-favorite team du jour. But people will cheer on lovable losers but for so long. And you can't be a darkhorse if everyone expects you to start winning. The Thunder jumped from 23-59 in 2008-09 to 50-32 the next season. Is it fair for us to attach those same hopes to the Wolves? Will they be a disappointment if they go 39-43 --a 10-win improvement from the year before-- and miss the playoffs?
Well, yeah. That's how this works. And even if you nail every pick and you could still not come away with a 'chip. Like the Thunder. That's what makes winning it all so satisfying for the players, coaches and fans. The best teams make it look easy, but it's one of the hardest things to do.