Wolves Taking Shape

The word “potential” tends to get thrown around a lot with young teams, but it rarely fits a team as well as it does the current Minnesota Timberwolves. They spent the last few seasons mostly losing games and amassing top draft picks. All of that suffering has finally paid off, however, as the Wolves have fielded what is perhaps the most talented young roster core in the NBA around wing Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. With the hiring of head coach Tom Thibodeau and the drafting of point guard Kris Dunn, something defined and concrete has begun to emerge from this young Minnesota team this off-season. This is probably the most exciting the Timberwolves have been since Kevin Garnett’s 2007 departure, and it’s fascinating to think about what might come next.

A lot of ink has already been spilt on the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as head coach and president of basketball operations, so we won’t spend much time on it here. Thibs is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history by percentage, and his reputation precedes him. He's a defensive genius whose schemes revolutionized the way NBA defense is played and, a lot of the pass-happy ball-reversing offenses that have taken the league by storm were born in reaction to his defensive innovations. He was fired by Chicago after the 2014-15 playoffs and spent the majority of last season floating around the league watching practices and, presumably, taking notes. There are definitely questions surrounding Thibs (Has he changed his philosophy on resting players? How will he operate as a front office figure?), but they're not really that important. Don't over-think this: Tom Thibodeau will be an immediate positive for this young franchise, both in terms of on-court production and the development of a strong, disciplined culture.

In the first major roster move of his tenure, Thibs used the fifth pick in this summer's draft to take Providence College point guard Kris Dunn. No matter how you cut it, Dunn is a great pick for this Minnesota team. A big point guard at 6-foot-4, he is a phenomenal talent, as well as a quick and active defender who likes to force turnovers and get out on the break. He has a solid outside shot and rebounds pretty well for his position. At his size, he should be able to effectively defend both guard positions in the NBA, as well as switches onto 3s and, eventually, even smaller 4s for short periods of time. His shooting touch makes him a project to be, an improvement over incumbent guard Ricky Rubio, an impressive passer and defender who can’t shoot to save his life. (Dunn’s presence seems to make Rubio something of a redundancy, and already there have been rumors about the Wolves shopping the veteran point guard in trade talks). There are some concerns with Dunn, notably around his habit of turning the ball over and his tendency to fall asleep when playing off-ball defense. These are relatively minor concerns, and Thibs, with his focus on defense and his good track record with point guards, is an ideal coach to help Dunn work through both of them.

If all works out for Dunn, he’ll be a great fit with an outstanding core of Towns and Wiggins. And, of course, they’re still really the focus here. Truly, they are the point from which all of the Wolves’ rich potential flows. We can talk as much as we want about the importance of the coaching change or the addition of Dunn, but the fact is, as it always has been, that wherever this team goes next is contingent upon the development of their core duo. To really talk about the future of the Wolves, you have to talk about the future of their foundational one-two punch.

The easiest way to evaluate Karl Anthony-Towns going into next season is the following: Take all the things people say about Anthony Davis and assume they are actually true about Towns. If the skill, polish, and athleticism he showed in his first year is just a glimpse of what he will one day become (and it almost certainly is), he's going to be transcendent. Last season, the 20-year-old center demonstrated the ability to do all of the following very well: handle the ball, shoot from distance, bang inside, rebound, pass, block shots, and run the break like a guard. It’s safe to assume that he’ll do all of that again next season, only with the added benefit of having of a full year of NBA play and an off-season’s worth of work under his belt. He’ll be great working in Thibs’s aggressive defensive schemes, and his shot-blocking and switch-ability will help the Wolves to wreak all kinds of havoc on that end. It’s tempting to say the sky is the limit for Towns, but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. The truth is, for this rising star, there is no sky. He’s ascending, fast, and sooner or later he’ll probably take this Wolves team up with him. In his rookie season, he posted a stat-line of 18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.7 blocks. Other teams should shudder to imagine what he’ll do in the next.

Wiggins, a future star in his own right, showed a lot of growth in his first two seasons in the NBA. Heading into 2016-17, he should only continue to improve. Post-All Star break least season, Wiggins averaged 20.5 points per game, 2.4 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals on 48.4% shooting from the field and 41.3% from behind the arc. He’s shown a knack for getting to the basket with deft Euro-steps and hesitation dribbles. His defense, predicated on his length, strength, and quickness, took some steps forward as well, and he should be an incredible tool on the wing in whatever defensive schemes Thibodeau devises.

On the periphery of the Towns-Wiggins core is one Zach LaVine. A 21-year-old guard with no real position, LaVine is controversial around the league. He’s raw in most aspects of his game, but it’s not hard to see why, even after two seasons in the NBA, he remains an intriguing prospect. He has breathtaking athleticism and shows flashes as a cutter, shooter, and passer. Watching LaVine, it often feels like he’s on the verge of breaking out into something truly great. And it’s true that he did show some real growth last season, as he averaged 14 points, 3.1 assists and 2.8 rebounds on 45.2% shooting from the field and 38.9% from the 3 (on roughly 4 attempts per game), mostly improvements from his rookie year stats. The Wolves attempts to turn him into a point guard last year resulted in abject failure, but he looked better later in the season playing the 2 spot. If rumors that the Wolves refused to make a trade for Jimmy Butler involving the fifth pick and LaVine because they didn’t want to part with LaVine are true, it means that Thibodeau still believes in his potential. Could this be the year he finally figures it out?

With all of this in mind, the Wolves certainly have a shot at competing for the playoffs next season. Wiggins and LaVine should continue to improve entering their respective third years and Towns is just that good. The returns on a potential Rubio trade mean they could be heading into next season with a handful of solid veterans to surround their young core. Dunn looks like he could contribute off the bat. Thibodeau’s defensive schemes will have a pretty immediate impact shoring up their deficiencies on that side of the ball, and, even if he hasn’t radically changed his offensive philosophy since his time in Chicago, whatever he runs will likely take more advantage of the roster’s more modern skill-sets than Sam Mitchell’s throwback schemes.

The Western Conference is still deep, though, and the competition for the last couple playoff spots will be stiff. Chances are the Timberwolves won’t make the playoffs, and that’s OK. They will be better than they’ve been recently, and whether or not they make the playoffs this year has no bearing on their future trajectory. It’s just not what this year is about for them. Instead, this year is about re-centering around Tom Thibodeau’s culture of hard-nosed defense and deliberate offense and then staying the course, allowing their young core to gel and grow together. It’s about piece-by-piece laying the foundation for what looks poised to be a powerhouse that will be tearing through the league before we know it.