Minnesota Timberwolves – 29-53
Key additions: Tom Thibodeau (signed five-year deal as head coach and president of basketball operations), Scott Layden (general manager), Jordan Hill – C (FA – 2 years, $8.18M), Cole Aldrich – C (FA – 3 years, $21.9M), Brandon Rush – G/F (FA – 1 year, $3.5M), Kris Dunn – G (Draft – 1st round, #5 overall)
Departures: Tayshaun Prince, Damjan Rudez, Greg Smith
Barely a year ago, the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves were reeling following the passing of their head coach and team president, Flip Saunders. Under the unexpected – and sometimes frustrating – leadership of Sam Mitchell, the Wolves’ young core of second-year wings Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, along with rookie first-overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, would all improve offensively as the season progressed, while somehow finishing 11th as a team in offensive rating, despite attempting the league’s second-fewest amount of three-pointers per game. The stable of locker room veterans, including Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Martin, and (Professor) Andre Miller, would all play significant roles early in the season before giving way to the developing younger players, such as Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones, and the team’s confluence of styles would result in a bottom-five defense and a pace of play that ranked consistently below average.
Point guard Ricky Rubio’s return from a high-ankle sprain would help to stabilize the team’s ball movement as he worked to regain the lateral quickness that had previously made him a dominant perimeter defender, however, center Nikola Pekovic would ultimately be unable to return to the court outside of just a 12-game stretch in January, before being shut down for the remainder of the 2015-16 campaign due to an additional surgery to his right Achilles tendon.
Starting in place of the injured Pekovic all season, Towns wrapped up the Rookie of the Year award early, capping off his season with averages of 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists, and 1.7 blocks in 32 minutes per game, and shooting 55.9% on two-point field goals, 34.1% from three, and 81.1% at the free-throw line. The team finished with the West’s third-worst record, underperforming their expected won/loss record by two games.
The Timberwolves struck before the highly-touted summer of 2016 even officially began, solidifying a multi-year deal with former-Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to command not only the bench but the front office, as head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Thibodeau, along with his new General Manager, longtime New York Knicks executive Scott Layden, went about supplementing Minnesota’s core of high-upside young talent by dabbling on the periphery of an inflated free agency class, and adding solid rotation pieces in Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich, and Jordan Hill for just under $14-million combined (or, about the average-annual value of a Timofey Mozgov or Tyler Johnson).
Thibodeau’s first duties as decision maker came in June’s NBA Draft, where perhaps his newfound sense of patience immediately paid off in avoiding the pre-draft trade rumors from Boston and instead landing his ideal target with the fifth pick, Providence College point guard Kris Dunn. Dunn will be perhaps the most NBA-ready prospect in this draft class, after staying at PC for four years, and features a 6’4”-frame that will endear him well to the rugged defensive schemes of his new head coach. He’ll struggle with high turnovers, and in finding consistency with his jumper during his rookie season, but should challenge Rubio for starting point guard duties throughout the season and offer Thibs another plus-defender and ball handler during late-game stretches.
As Thibodeau looks to transition the team from the rebuilding Timberpups to a legitimate threat in an always tough Western Conference, his impact should immediately be felt on the defensive front and in improving the team’s discipline, which was in short supply last season under Mitchell’s tutelage, having ranked 27th in defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions, and 23rd in turnover ratio. The unforced errors and defensive lapses will almost assuredly dry up, after a solid training camp of Thibs’s screeching from the sidelines, but patience will still be necessary until the front office can add some necessary shooting and spacing elements into the offense.
Expecting a defensive bump, given the head coaching upgrade and the development of the incumbent talent, should be reasonable, and could set the team’s floor as a potential .500-or-better team (a feat the TWolves haven’t reached since the KG administration), but if the team can continue their surprising offensive competence from last season and still achieve that presumed-Thibs bump on D, then the ceiling of the Minnesota Timberwolves will rise exponentially (like, to Zach LaVine-at-All-Star-weekend heights).
Expect the offense to normalize a bit, even as the defense tightens under Thibodeau, but a double-digit improvement in wins from last season is entirely realistic, and should set Minnesota solidly into the conversation for the West’s final playoff spot.