What Constitutes Success for the Timberwolves?

The expectations are mounting for the Timberwolves. But it's not playoffs or bust just yet.

The expectations are mounting for the Minnesota Timberwolves with back to back Rookie of The Year winners Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Draft day steal, Zach LaVine. Elite passer and defender, Ricky Rubio. Top 5 pick in the 2016 draft and Summer League show out, Kris Dunn. Along with defensive-sage, Tom Thibodeau, not only laying out the x’s and o’s but making competent basketball decisions for the Timberwolves.

It’s only a matter of time before this franchise is catapulted into contendership, and eclipses the last decade that was spent wallowing in mediocrity. 

But with all the looming premonition, the Timberwolves are still a young, unproven team, with considerable questions about their scoring and defense. So before you begin planning your trip to Target Center for the 2021 NBA Finals, or arranging your lawn chairs along Washington Avenue for the seemingly inevitable championship parade, it’s critical that this team is held to measurable and realistic goals.

After a decade of finishing under .500 every season, some more than questionable draft picks and trades, how do we constitute success for the 2016-2017 Minnesota Timberwolves?

There are some out there that would just be happy with signs of improvement. This includes the team playing better defense, scoring more consistently, and ultimately just improving in wins, hopefully breaking the 40 win mark; something they’ve done only once since the 05-06 season (40-42 in 2013-14).  

Another famous narrative is that it’s playoffs or bust for the Wolves this year. Most notably, Ricky Rubio has notioned that he may be looking for a trade after next season if the Timberwolves miss the playoffs. But with the Western conference so tightly competitive, it’s possible that they still miss out on the playoffs this season.

Looking at the Western conference, the 1 and 2 seeds are essentially reserved by the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers are also a safe bet to lock up the 3rd seed.

This leaves 5 spots where the Timberwolves can squeeze into the playoffs.

The Rockets, despite losing Dwight Howard, still have James Harden and if the 2015 Western semi-finals taught us anything, don’t count out James Harden. Along with new coach, Mike D’Antoni, they are probably going to be the fastest paced offense in the league which should net them one of those 5 spots.

Anthony Davis will be returning in good health for the Pelicans this season. Although it remains to be seen if Alvin Gentry is the right coach for them, and with losing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to the aforementioned Rockets, the pieces around Davis aren’t exactly playoff pieces, you have to admit they’ll put up a fight for one of the remaining playoff seeds.

Everyone was quick to count out Oklahoma City as well after the departure of Kevin Durant but the emergence of Steven Adams as a legitimate rim protector who plays as nasty as my mother says he looks is going to be huge for them. The additions of Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova will also be great help for the Thunder. Oh, and they still have Russell Westbrook. The walking triple-double machine that averaged 28, 7, and 8 in 2014-15 when Durant only played a quarter of the season. Yeah. The Thunder are no longer a serious contender, but they’re definitely still a playoff team.

The Grizzlies limped into the playoffs last year, but will have Mike Conley returning to start the season and hopefully, Marc Gasol as well. The addition of Chandler Parsons is another key for them. Although the Grizz are led by rookie head coach David Fizdale, there’s no reason to count them out of the playoffs this season.

Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of Portland’s off season moves, it seems inevitable that they’ll be back in the playoffs again. The Evan Turner contract was awful but they nabbed Festus Ezeli which gives them much needed muscle up front and they didn’t lose any major pieces, just a lot of cap space, so barring any significant injuries, the Trailblazers should be back in postseason.

That leaves just 1 open seed in the Western Conference.

Sorry to say, Kings and Lakers, but once again, playoff basketball will elude you.

I know that halfway through the season I’m probably going to eat my words on this, but I don’t see the Mavericks getting in either.

So we have, the Pelicans, Jazz, Suns, Nuggets, and Timberwolves fighting for a playoff spot.

The Suns and Nuggets, I suspect, might threaten the other 3 teams but I don’t see either one of them staying strong enough through the season to make the playoffs.

The Jazz are heavily improved with great veteran additions and the return of Dante Exum. Let’s not forget they went 40-42 and just barely were left out of the playoff picture last season. They are a huge threat to the Timberwolves making the postseason.

Those are 8 teams that could conceivably reach the playoffs over an inexperienced, unproven Timberwolves team. None of this is to say that the Wolves are doomed to an early offseason yet again, just that it’s going to be an uphill battle and they are definitely on the outside looking in for now.

But it’s only fair that we look at what the Wolves have done and why it’s, maybe not a lock, but totally plausible that they are in the playoffs.

The cornerstone to all of this is Karl-Anthony Towns.

He’s just a behemoth of a generational talent, with a skill set that mirrors the likes of Tim Duncan and he’s had first hand experience with Kevin Garnett. He’s quicker than he should be at his size. He shoots better than he should with his body. His footwork and post moves in just his first season were almost always so beautifully executed.

There’s no reason to believe he doesn’t continue to grow and branch off of his first year success of 18 points and 10 rebounds. He is athletic, versatile, and is one of the most coachable players I’ve ever seen.

If Karl-Anthony Towns is to be the new age Shaquille O’neal, I suppose that makes Andrew Wiggins his Kobe. Wiggins is a proven inside scorer already. He can create his own way to the basket with precise footwork and extraordinary athleticism that provide flashes of Tracy McGrady. He’s got all the tools to become another great athletic wing.

But the Timberwolves playoff hopes could live or die depending on how he improves his shooting. Shooting 30% from 3 is not something you want to see out of your wing guy when he’s able to get great looks on feeds from the likes of Ricky Rubio and now Kris Dunn. Even KAT is a serviceable passing big man out of the post. It’s critical that Wiggins expand his range and become a more reliable 3 point threat.

Zach LaVine had a promising second half of last season where he got more playing time, raised his points per game, and all-around showed that he’s more than just a two-time dunk contest champion. If he can at least uphold what he did after the all-star break, it will help widen the margin between the Wolves and other teams fighting to get into the playoffs.

I touched on Ricky Rubio in my article here, but essentially, there’s reason to believe we will see improvement from him under Thibodeau and with a more talented and experienced roster around him.

As far as Kris Dunn, he looks incredibly promising but I’ll have to hold my judgments on him until we see him in action.

Whether it be player or personnel, Tom Thibodeau is by far the best acquisition of any team this offseason. He brings experience, toughness, a great basketball mind, and a track record of having a great relationship with his players. He’s unlike anyone that the Wolves had had in the past decade. No matter how the players improve, Thibodeau alone makes all the difference.

Aside from Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves head coaches for the past 10 years have been: Kevin McHale, Dwayne Casey, Randy Wittman, Rick Adelman, and Sam Mitchell. Out this bunch, only Dwayne Casey has found real success after the Timberwolves, and even in Toronto his job has been in question numerous times before last season.

Granted these coaches didn’t have the best line-ups around them in Minnesota, but in the cases such as Wittman in Washington or McHale in Houston,  where those guys had some of the best players in the league at their disposal, it’s plain to see that these men aren’t in the ranks that Thibs is in.

The Timberwolves finally have a competent coach that isn’t afraid to coach them. Where Sam Mitchell might have held them back or babied them last season, Thibodeau will dig in and get the best out of his players.

Additionally with Thibs, long gone are the days of trading Al Jefferson for practically nothing or signing Darko Milicic to a $20 million dollar deal. Seriously, though. Sometimes I want to believe there was a CMO leak in David Kahn’s office or something because, why?

Thibs is now in charge of those decisions and if there is any truth to the Rubio and LaVine trade rumors, he’s already doing a great job. He didn’t budge on giving up Rubio or LaVine for less than what he believes they should get back.

The signings of Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush, which bring in rebounding and shooting, two things the Timberwolves were severely vacant of, are also great indicators that Thibs knows what he’s doing in the front office position.

If all of these things add up, it’s possible that the Wolves will be back in the playoffs next April. But sometimes things don’t always add up the way they’re planned out. The truth is, only 8 teams can come out of the West, so it’s important that we don’t use the playoffs as the only measurement of constituting success for the Timberwolves.

For this upcoming 2016-2017 season, the main focus for this team should be just continuing to grow as players and as a team. Learning each other’s game and adapting their play to mold into a cohesive bunch. Chemistry and camaraderie is arguably the most important aspect of building a successful team. We’ve seen great teams crumble under pressure because they just weren’t mentally secured enough to trust each other.

Right now, the playoffs are in the corner of the eye for the Timberwolves, but it shouldn’t be the make or break goal for this team. Based on the trajectory of their young players and the staff additions, you could assume that the Wolves will have their best statistical season in the last 10 years, and are likely to break that 40-win mark.

But this season can be considered a success just as long as we see improvement from them on both ends of the court, they learn to grow and play together, and expand on the seemingly endless potential they already have.

It’s clear that the distant future holds great success for the Timberwolves. But they should focus on taking it year-by-year; and this year is about proving that they deserve to be in the conversation of contenders.

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