30 Teams in 30 Days: Minnesota Timberwolves enter season at a crossroads
Team must determine if Towns, Wiggins and Butler can reach next level
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
Who’s new: Josh Okogie (Draft); Keita Bates-Diop (Draft); Anthony Tolliver (free agency), Luol Deng (free agency)
Who’s gone: Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich
The lowdown: There was a collective sigh within the franchise, led by coach Tom Thibodeau, when the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs on the final night of the regular season. To sit out the postseason would have been an embarrassing setback for Thibodeau and a young up-and-coming team that acquired Jimmy Butler the previous offseason to bring toughness and experience. Despite missing 21 games, Butler was an All-Star and a solid two-way player for Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns made strides in his third season and pushed himself among the elite centers at age 22. But the production from the rest of the rotation was annoyingly inconsistent, none more than Andrew Wiggins, who was fresh off a massive contract extension.
Butler came to Minnesota to bring leadership and teach the finer points of defense. But reports circulated last season that he was discouraged by the work ethic of the younger Wolves, a similar complaint leveled by Butler when he was with the Bulls. Butler’s a no-nonsense guy and perhaps to the extreme, and maybe he’ll never be satisfied next to young and mistake-prone players. Still, this is alarming, given Butler’s status on the club — he averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals — and after his perhaps best-ever NBA season. Is he a unifying leader who’s just showing tough love, or a pain in the rear?
Towns is said to be rubbed the wrong way by Butler and other issues with the Wolves. Again, Towns has not gone on a public rant, but actions speak louder than words. And, unlike Andrew Wiggins, Towns has not signed a contract extension. Could he be leveraging his way out of town at some point, or is he just showing some business savvy?
His situation bears watching as Towns is a gifted big man with vast skills and is an above-average defender. If he’s not a max-money player, then he’s close enough. There’s still the chance Towns signs before the season starts and if he doesn’t, then it raises legitimate questions.
(For that matter, Butler hasn’t signed an extension, either, but it’s not clear whether an offer was even made this summer.)
And then there’s Wiggins, the club’s highest paid player at $26 million annually, who took a minor step backward last season. Sure, the scoring decline (from 23.6 ppg to 17.7 ppg) probably had something to do with Butler’s arrival. Yet Wiggins faltered in other areas, too, mainly shooting accuracy and defense. Mostly, the Wolves are still waiting for him to take a step toward stardom, and for the first time in his four-year career, there’s some question whether he’ll ever be a game-changer.
Minnesota’s summer was heavy on innuendo and light on player movement, the latter being understandable as the Wolves try to devlop their core players. Jamal Crawford, 38, seems set to leave town after he curiously declined a player option that would’ve paid roughly $5 million. Maybe Crawford was fed up with the atmosphere, too?
In the first round of the Draft, the Wolves took Okogie, a raw prospect from Nigeria who played two seasons at Georgia Tech. His athletic and defensive ability are off the charts, which is what sold him on Thibodeau. In that sense, Okogie is a younger version of Butler — at least as a defender. He just turned 20 and will be an interesting pet project in the Wolves’ player-development system.
In the second round they found Bates-Diop, who was considered a late first-round prospect prior to the Draft. He averaged almost 20 points for Ohio State, was Big Ten Player of the Year and had a solid showing in NBA Summer League play. However, he might find playing time tough to get, initially, in Minnesota.
The Wolves didn’t make any major trades, which makes sense. Although they didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the final game, and their overall results in the Thibodeau era are somewhat disappointing, the Wolves want this core to grow together. Question is, will they grow fondly of each other?
The West is suddenly teeming with up-and-comers, with the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz arguably better than Minnesota. Plus, the Los Angeles Lakers are trending north with LeBron James. If the Wolves aren’t careful, they could lose their place in line.
Coming Next: San Antonio Spurs
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