We are currently only a matter of hours away from the Timberwolves tipping-off the season against the San Antonio Spurs. For the Spurs and a lot of other teams around the league, it’s just one game out of 82.
For the rebranded and restocked Timberwolves, this game is going to be the first chance for us fans to finally see it all come together, as well as the Timberwolves’ first chance to prove that they’ve got what it takes to get to that next level.
Going back to last year, the very first game of the season against the Memphis Grizzlies basically set the tone for what this team was going to be. Minnesota came out blazing for 32 points but defensive miscues paved the way for the Grizzlies to stick right with them at 29. The Wolves managed to widen the margin before the end of the first half. But the second half saw the Grizz claw away at that lead on their way to a 102-98 win. For many Wolves fans, that October 26th loss still comes as a bit of a sting. A sour taste that lingered over the next 7 months. It’s the epitome of getting off on the wrong foot. And despite great performances individually from KAT, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and Ricky Rubio, poor defense in the paint, lack of scoring off the bench, and the youth of the roster, led the narrative for the team this year.
But the offseason additions have washed away the stain of last season and once again, the pendulum of excitement swings back around, as Wolves fans, and NBA fans in general, collectively hold their breath as we usher in a new era for the Timberwolves.
For the second consecutive year, this team has their sights set on the playoffs, and anything below that is a bust.
But unlike last year, those post-season aspirations are less hasty than they were before.
We were all riding high on the two consecutive rookie of the year winners, a new defensive-minded head coach, that high-flying dark horse draft steal, Lavine, top 5 pick and Kris Dunn who was advertised as the perfect point guard for Thib’s system, and that was definitely the year Ricky Rubio was finally going to break out (for the record, he did. And then they shipped him off like nothing. I’m not crying, you’re crying.)
This year, those hopes of finally seeing this 14-year playoff drought come to an end, actually have some roots to them; there’s something to latch onto now.
We probably aren’t going to see this team rolling right out the gate. It’s going to take some time for the new additions Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague to all figure out how they fit in on this team. Then they’re going to have to bring along the young guys. Can Wiggins buckle down and focus on defense this year? Will he find a way to become more of a threat from the outside, and finally crack 80% from the line? Is Towns going to become that transcendent two-way player that we know he’s capable of? Can Tyus Jones actually be a serviceable backup to run the offense off the bench?
On paper, this roster can definitely hang in the West with other teams predicted to fight for playoff position like the Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Clippers. But just putting the pieces together and rolling the ball out on the floor doesn’t guarantee the Wolves will be competing in April or May.
Last season, Karl-Anthony Towns, gave an outstanding stat line of 25 and 12; an amazing feat for just his second season. But we all know he struggled on defense, with only 1.3 blocks per game and a defensive rating of 110 (per 100 poss.), dropping him out of the top 20. So far, this preseason, Towns has an even worse defensive rating at 118. He’s going to have to swing that the other way once the season tips off, as every lapse in defense down low against Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and every other skilled big man in the league is going to pull the Timberwolves further away from that coveted playoff spot. Another area I’d like to see Towns improve on is his passing. In the past, he hasn’t had many options to kick out to. But as Wiggins continues to improve, Towns now also has Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson who can stretch the floor from time to time. KAT bringing his assist numbers up from 2.7 to over 3 per game, would be a huge plus for this team.
Everyone is well aware of the defensive plagues of Andrew Wiggins, so there’s really no more use to dive into them. It’s well recorded and at this point, any sign of improvement is a significant step forward. As I mentioned before, he still has some spots to improve upon on the offensive side. Shooting just 76% from the three throw line last year, definitely hurt this team in close games. For someone who has the footwork and cunning moves of Wiggins, you would like to see him be more consistent from the stripe. The same goes for his 3 point percentage which rested at 35% last year. Although a vast improvement from his .300 the year before and .310 in his rookie year, Wiggins should fill it in at closer to 40% this year. There’s no reason why this can’t be. With the added focus of Butler, Teague, and KAT on offense, opposing defenses are going to be looking for any reason to sag off Wiggins when he’s behind the arc. If he’s getting those wide open looks, they should be falling. And as the ink has dried on his new $146 million dollar contract, there’s still a lot for him left to prove on both ends.
Jimmy Butler is the final key piece to making sure this team reaches their potential. But believe it or not, his biggest contribution won’t necessarily be on the court. His experience, defensive presence, and ability to score 20+ points per game are surely going to be helpful but there’s more to it than that for Butler. He’s going to have to be the guy that makes sure everyone is on task defensively and making the right plays. Not only that, but he’s going from being the number one option to possibly being the number 2 option behind KAT. For a 3 time all-star fresh off an All-NBA selection, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the transition. Not to mention he’s transitioning to the West, where the rosters are stacked and things aren’t as wide open as they are in the East. Can he deal with possibly not being an All-Star? Can he deal with sacrificing a few touches here and there each game? We know he doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record of dealing with teammates when things get tough, either. He’ll have to manage his role on the floor and off the floor, now with two other all-star caliber teammates.
If everything goes according to play for the Wolves, I think their best case scenario could land them in anywhere from a 5-7 in the playoffs and around 45 wins under their belt. But things move fast in the West. The Nuggets, Pelicans, Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies, and Trail Blazers are all going to be in contention for those final spots and this year, the Wolves can’t afford the time to figure out who they are. With Wiggins signing his new contract, Towns coming into his own and one of the best big men in the league, and one remaining year on Jimmy Butler’s contract, the urgency has never been higher; the Timberwolves need to come focused and prepared every single night.