30 Teams in 30 Days: Wolves try to make up for lost time
Plethora of youth, new coach could get Minnesota winning again
Since the Cavaliers won their first NBA title back on June 19, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason. NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2015-16 to the team with the best regular-season record — during the month of September as we look at 30 Teams in 30 Days. | Complete schedule
Today’s team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2015-16 record: 29-53
Who’s gone: F Damjan Rudez, F Greg Smith, F Kevin Garnett, Coach Sam Mitchell,
Who’s new: Coach & GM Tom Thibodeau; PG Kris Dunn (via Draft); C Cole Aldrich, C Jordan Hill, G/F Brandon Rush (via free agency)
The lowdown: The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2003-04, back when Kevin Garnett wasn’t geriatric.
It’s known to some in Minnesota as “The Lost Decade”, when the Timberwolves were the distant No. 3 winter sport in town behind the Minnesota Vikings and ice fishing. It’s when the Wolves have had only one winning season in that span (a 44-38 finish in 2004-05) and also when the Wolves passed not once but twice on drafting Stephen Curry in the 2009 draft.
Lost in the wilderness.
Troubled by bad luck and crummy management since the mid-2000s, the Wolves began to turn the corner when coach Flip Saunders returned and began to right the ship. Then tragedy struck last season as Saunders died from cancer.
Saunders put the Wolves in position to thrive, starting with trading Kevin Loveto the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins. He also selected Karl-Anthony Towns with the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, thus creating the twin centerpiece (who were also back-to-back Kia Rookie of the Year winners) of a team that was so enticing that Thibodeau chose Minnesota over other suitors.
Thibs was the best available coach on the market this spring, and when owner Glen Taylor also tossed in GM duties, it was a lock.
His coaching ability has never been questioned — OK, maybe only by the Chicago Bulls’ front office — but Thibs had never run a team before, so his first decisions would be closely examined. First, he wisely hired veteran NBA front-office executive Scott Layden away from the San Antonio Spurs to do the legwork. Then, Thibodeau got fortunate when Dunn fell to the Wolves in the Draft.
Dunn brings precisely the type of DNA that Thibs wants in a player: bulldog mentality, hard-nosed competitor and relentless defense. Dunn wowed during the Las Vegas Summer League with his offense before he suffered a concussion, and very quickly raised the issue of Ricky Rubio and whether the reigning starting point guard was suddenly on the trading block.
That debate gathered even more steam when — get this — Tyus Jones, last season’s backup, was named MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. Suddenly, the Wolves find themselves with three young players at the position when they only need two. Which means, Thibs’ ability to pull off a trade could be put to the test, and relatively quickly.
On the free agent front, Thibs played it fairly safe. He loaded up on front-court players with Aldrich, who was impressive at times with the LA Clippers last season, and Jordan Hill, a former starter for the Los Angeles Lakers and a solid role player for the Indiana Pacers last season. Neither player is a long-term solution, but they can fill time and be a complement to Towns, who might already be a top-five center in the NBA.
All told, the Wolves’ core is comprised of several players (Towns, Wiggins, Dunn,Zach LaVine, Jones) in their early 20s or younger. That’s enough to give the kind of optimism that hasn’t been felt in the Twin Cities in at least a decade.
Minnesota is hardly a finished product, and even with Thibs on the bench, this team might struggle at times. Don’t tell that to Thibs; he wants the Wolves to think big right away. And that’s fine, they should. The reality is that young players are inconsistent, make their share of mistakes and struggle at times defensively. Therefore, it wouldn’t come as a shock if the Wolves miss the playoffs and go fishing in the lottery at least one more time before they earn the right to think big.
The challenge for Thibs is to get his young players to buy into his system, which is geared to defense, and make sacrifices offensively in order to get others involved. He also must settle the Rubio situation and manage the salary cap.
Today, the Wolves have the luxury of having so many players on their rookie contracts. Over the next few years, however, they’ll be due big raises, and Thibs must decide who’s worth keeping and who’ll be more valuable elsewhere.
Until then, the Wolves will enjoy a promising situation that was created for them by Saunders. They had a very uplifting summer and enter the fall with some sizzle. They have talent and assets, and suddenly, that lost decade seems, well, lost.
Coming Next: New Orleans Pelicans
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.
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