From Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury, through Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, finding foundational talent has never been a problem for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s been finding pieces to build atop of it that has proven elusive.
Over the past decade, the Timberwolves have been mired in a constant strain of mediocrity, which is probably a kind label given that the team hasn’t finished with a .500 record since the 2004-05 season—where they finished 44-39.
Garnett was able to maintain his elite status even as the team faltered around him, with Minnesota eventually—mercifully—granting Garnett a trade to the Boston Celtics (landing Jefferson) and starting a long rebuilding process.
In a stroke of brilliance, then-general manager Kevin McHale traded third overall pick O.J. Mayo for the fifth pick, Kevin Love (one of the 20 best players in the NBA today), and veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller.
Despite the imperfect defensive fit of Love and Jefferson, the pairing should have been enough to portend a rise from the cellar. Instead, owner Glen Taylor turned the reigns of the franchise over to David Kahn, who promptly wasted a handful of top 10 picks in drafts with franchise changing talent still on board.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder remain the model for building through the draft, the Timberwolves are the reminder how it can all go so wrong.
With opportunities to grab the likes of Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Klay Thompson, or Kawhi Leonard, the Timberwolves instead drafted Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, and Derrick Williams.
No matter the value of hindsight, a team simply can’t miss on that many opportunities that high in the draft.
Fortunately for Minnesota, fate has seen fit to grant them another reprieve.
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The return of LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers expedited their rebuilding process, making raw-but-talent-laden no. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins available at the same time the failings of Taylor and Kahn (Love, who wanted a five-year deal to remain with the franchise, was spurned by Kahn in one of his last failures as the team general manager) made the Timberwolves’ relationship with Love untenable.
Flip Saunders, reinstated as general manager in 2013 and head coach in 2014, slow-played Love’s departure, netting Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, and Thaddeus Young in a three-team trade between the Timberwolves, Cavaliers, and Philadelphia 76ers. With their own pick in that same Wiggins draft, Saunders selected the high-flying Zach LaVine out of UCLA.
Among the group, Wiggins was the biggest prize as an extremely athletic, defensive-minded wing that was looked at as a potential cornerstone in the NBA. LaVine, taken with the 13th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, was looked at as an appealing prospect who combined incredible athleticism with an ability to shoot effectively from beyond the arc (37.5 percent on 3.5 attempts per game). Bennett and Young would prove to be expendable.
The path towards returning to success will be a long, arduous journey, and the team stumbled mightily on its first step, finishing the 2014-15 season with a league-worst 16-66 record. Despite another awful, injury-plagued season, there were a few positive aspects for the Timberwolves to take from it.
Undoubtedly the biggest source of hope was the solid Rookie of the Year debut season from Andrew Wiggins—averaging 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game on 46 percent shooting. Offensively, Wiggins displayed an ability to score in a variety of ways, from post-ups to off-ball cuts and drives. Those combinations of skills allowed Wiggins to shoot an efficient 63 percent from inside the paint while he rounded out edges to his offensive repertoire.
Of course, Wiggins did something that most rookies struggle to: show promise on the defensive end of the court. Wiggins’ biggest potential strength comes on defense, where the 6’8” forward is able to use his elite size, length and athleticism to harass opponents and cut off driving and passing lanes. Despite rough advanced metrics (Wiggins was 67th among the 77 small forwards with a DRPM of -2.13 per ESPN), there were moments of fruition, as I pointed out in my Wiggins’ profile in BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Top 50 Player Rankings:
His promise came to fruition on a February night against the Houston Rockets. James Harden would finish with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, but shot just 2-12 with Wiggins defending him. Over the course of the game, Wiggins continually frustrated Harden, cutting off lanes to the pain and mirroring Harden’s jerky dribble—one of the most difficult tasks for any NBA defender.
According to Synergy Sports, Wiggins held opponents to .79 Points Per Possession, which put him in the 61st percentile. Among the 15 players that defended at least 100 isolation possessions, Wiggins finished eighth behind Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Boris Diaw.
The refinement of Wiggins’ game continued this summer, where he starred for Canada in FIBA Americas 2015, putting up 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and 51 percent from FIBA’s shorter three-point line. Throughout the tournament, Wiggins showcased an ability to knock down perimeter jumpers both in catch-and-shoot situations and off-the-dribble. There’s no assurances those performances will translate to the upcoming NBA season, but Wiggins possesses a nearly limitless reservoir of athleticism—all he needs are avenues through which to channel it.
Of course, success in the NBA these days often hinges on accumulating two or three superstars, and Wiggins alone would’ve left the Timberwolves where they’ve been through three different iterations—had they not received another break in the draft.
If trial, error, and injuries conspired to wreck the Timberwolves season last year, it also brought them closer to their ultimate rebuild, granting them the first overall pick and Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns was looked at as the best prospect in his class due to his ability to produce offensively and defensively, granting the Timberwolves another two-way player to build from. Per 40 minutes at the NCAA level, Towns averaged 4.4 blocks, putting him third among NBA Draft prospects Myles Turner and Robert Upshaw.
His ability to wall off the paint at the point of attack, protect the rim, and clean the glass is extremely important for a Timberwolves team that struggled to defend the paint—allowing 65 percent at the rim according to NBA.com’s stats database, the worst in the NBA.
Towns is still learning the nuances of post play offensively, but can lean on viable range on his jumper and good mobility to work in pick and roll and pick and pop. And he displays good court vision that will only improve as he develops enough to draw increased attention.
The presence of two franchise-level talents should help to move other young, intriguing pieces into comfortable developmental lanes; or make them expendable via trades for more established pieces as the rebuild progresses.
Last year, Ricky Rubio was limited to 22 games due to injuries, and his return should solidify the Timberwolves defense. Known for his pinpoint passing and wayward shot, Rubio is quietly one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, averaging 2.3 steals per game and cutting off penetration. According to Basketball-Reference’s On/Off numbers, opponents were eight points better when Rubio was on the sidelines, their OffRtg dropping from 113.7 to 105.5 when he was on the floor.
Health will always be a question, but given the plethora of scorers and finishers the Timberwolves can surround Rubio with, his scoring struggles should be mitigated some in the same way that Rajon Rondo’s once were for the Celtics.
The Timberwolves are committed to starting LaVine, at least early on, and Rubio’s presence should simplify LaVine’s decision-making—which he notoriously struggled with last season.
LaVine was stretched beyond his limits as a point guard when injuries decimated the Timberwolves’ backcourt. During All-Star Saturday night, LaVine showed his wares in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, and quickly built a reputation for being little else. But LaVine rode that momentum and increased minutes after the All-Star break to average 14.2 points and 4.2 assists on 43 percent shooting (38 percent on three-pointers).
The additions of 6’1” Duke point guard Tyus Jones—38 percent shooting from the college three-point line and a 2.87 assist-to-turnover ratio—and 39-year old Andre Miller should keep LaVine comfortably out of playmaking situations; and additions at other positions should offset the lack thereof coming from the shooting guard position.
This summer, the Timberwolves added reigning Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, after the 6’10” forward averaged 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 49 percent shooting (37 percent from three) for Fenerbahce Ulker.
Timberwolves fans were able to get an up-close look at Bjelica this summer in the 2015 Eurobasket tournament, averaging 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds after a big 24-point, 10-rebound game against Spain. A quick assessment of his game from our own Joshua Riddell shows a skillset that should blend well with the younger pieces on the Timberwolves:
Fortunately Bjelica is more than just a shooter, showcasing the ability to put the ball on the floor and create offense. While not a perfect comparison, someone with a similar skill set would be Boris Diaw, showing the skills of a guard in the body of a big man. Bjelica will likely stay paired with Nikola Pekovic or Towns, opening up the offense.
In 13 games as a starter last season, a slimmed-down Shabazz Muhammad averaged 13.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game on 44 percent shooting, hitting 43 percent from deep (on limited attempts)—which should translate well as a scorer off the bench. Big man Gorgui Dieng has potential as a solid two-way player, averaging 9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds (3.7 offensive)—with most of his opportunities coming from off-ball cuts, offensive boards, and a surprising mid-range jumper (56 percent between 10-16 feet from the rim)—and 1.7 blocks.
Veterans Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic should provide spacing and inside punch to the bench units, where their defensive deficiencies might be better masked.
The last time the Timberwolves possessed this much young talent, with Garnett and Stephon Marbury, it imploded amidst immaturity and jealousy. Saunders was tapped to bring stability to the franchise, giving the team a solid foundation moving forward. Sadly, the architect won’t be with the team this season after being diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma this summer, handing the reigns over to Sam Mitchell, who played with the franchise from 1995-2002.
Saunders’ absence likely makes the return of Kevin Garnett—acquired at the trade deadline for Thaddeus Young—all the more important. As the Minnesota Timberwolves look for their first winning season since 2004-05, they appear to have a young core that Garnett would have been envious of in his first stint with the team.
Garnett knows what it takes to win, and how to build a successful culture. He also knows how quickly it can all unravel, and as much as this team isn’t about him, it’s on him to lead them through these early roadblocks.
Finding foundational pieces have never been an issue for the Timberwolves, and at last they have a core of young players whose games hypothetically fit. Now, as his own game falters, Garnett has returned to keep the team together in a way it never has.
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