The Timberwolves have a past-his-prime veteran battling a before-his-time fledgling for minutes at every position, which should make for an interesting basketball season in Minnesota.
There’s 24-year-old Ricky Rubio and Final Four MVP Tyus Jones sandwiched around old man Andre Miller at point guard; slam dunk champ Zach LaVine and seasoned Kevin Martin at off guard; Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and recent top prep recruit Shabazz Muhammad squeezing 2004 NBA champ Tayshaun Prince at small forward; No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and living legend Kevin Garnett at big forward; and rapidly developing Gorgui Dieng alongside soon-to-be 30-year-old Nikola Pekovic at center.
That’s one weird depth chart.
The mentoring program in Minnesota may pay dividends down the line, but adding 39-year-olds Garnett and Miller with 35-year-old Prince to a team that won 16 games last season probably won’t translate to a worst-to-first season in the Western Conference. And who cares? This is Year 2 of the post-Kevin Love era, and the Timberwolves already seem better positioned for the long haul than they ever were with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ tertiary star.
Heck, with the last two top picks headlining a talented young core that remains under their control through at least 2018, these Wolves might one day be better than the team Garnett led to a conference finals the last time he was in a Minnesota uniform. By then, Garnett will have his feet up on a desk in his front office, and for now Timberwolves fans get to enjoy both at the same time.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Is it Karl-Anthony Towns or Karl Anthony-Towns? Get those jerseys stitched ASAP and see if you can find the old KG apparel in storage.
Did the summer help at all?
If this were 2007, then most definitely.
We’ll throw Garnett into the mix here, since he only appeared in five games after the trade deadline and signed a two-year, $16.5 million extension this summer. Miller and Prince joined him as free agents on veteran minimum contracts, and that trio’s biggest contribution will be establishing the work ethic and winning culture they’ve developed during 33 combined trips to the playoffs.
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Even in 2015, the Timberwolves didn’t do so badly for themselves in June and July. All three veterans can still play — and Garnett might even start — but the real prize from the 16-66 campaign was Towns, a progressive hybrid big man and the best player in a top-heavy draft. Add another first-round pick — Minnesota native and highly skilled (albeit undersized) point guard Tyus Jones — and Minnesota did well to complement its incoming leaders with talented protégés.
The difficulty will come for Sam Mitchell, Garnett’s own former mentor turned acting head coach in an ailing Flip Saunders’ absence. He's tasked with finding the delicate divide between trying to win games with experienced players and managing minutes for up-and-comers who need experience to win games.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
DraftExpress describes Towns as a 7-footer with the size to score around the basket, rebound and protect the rim, coupled with the skill to extend his range, pass, handle the ball and defend multiple positions. Sound familiar? If DraftExpress existed in 1995, the same would’ve been said of KG.
Again, the guy in the Vine video dribbling through his legs like they were cones at a skills challenge and knocking down a 3-pointer like Lionel Richie on a Sunday morning is a 19-year-old 7-footer.
Granted, Towns may not have Garnett’s raw athleticism and rawer craziness to pair with his size and skill — although, exactly zero players in history ever will — but the Timberwolves will take a dude who averaged 19.5 points, 12.7 boards, 4.3 blocks and 2.1 assists per 40 minutes for a 39-1 college team.
Let’s see … well, opponents shot 65.2 percent from inside of 5 feet and 43.5 percent from 5-9 feet while grabbing almost 30 percent of available offensive rebounds, scoring 14.9 second-chance points and netting a total of 48 points in the paint per game against the Timberwolves in 2014-15 — all of which ranked as the worst marks in the league. So, yeah, interior defense was an issue.
Once one of the game’s greatest defensive players, Garnett should help, even if his foes’ field goal percentage wasn’t much better individually last season. KG’s athleticism may fade with age, but his communication won’t, and he’ll at least ensure the Wolves are in better position to protect the rim. Dieng (2.1 blocks per 36 minutes) and Towns should both benefit from Garnett’s guidance, leaving fewer minutes for Pekovic, who ranked among the league’s worst interior defenders in 2014-15.
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(As an aside, don’t be surprised if the three years and $35.8 million remaining on Pekovic’s contract are shopped around the league. After all, his career production isn’t so different from Enes Kanter, who received a four-year, $70 million deal this summer that makes Pek’s price seem like a bargain.)
Protect the paint, and the team’s overall defense — also the league’s worst last season at 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions — should make strides. Rubio is an underrated defender at the point of attack, while LaVine, Wiggins and Muhammad all have the athleticism to close out on the wings. But even a Manute Bol-sized stride would only make the Wolves a middling defense.
Contributor with something to prove:
Minnesota has a handful of candidates — Martin and Muhammad among them — but Rubio holds onto this distinction for the fifth straight year. An ankle injury limited him to a career-low 22 games in 2014-15, and that’s saying something, since he missed 66 games with an ACL tear in March 2012. Considering this season marks the start of the four-year, $55 million extension he signed last summer, there’s pressure to perform.
Between injuries, Rubio started all 82 games at less than 100 percent in 2013-14, averaging a double-double per 36 minutes (10.7 points and 9.6 assists). His slightly improved shooting stroke regressed last season, when he made only a quarter of his 2.3 attempts from 3-point range per game. Any improvement in that regard would complement a playmaking skillset that has him ranked among the league’s leaders in every statistical passing category, advanced or otherwise.
Because of his success as a teenager abroad, we think of Rubio in the same vein as Rajon Rondo, who will turn 30 this season, but the Spaniard is still just 24 — the same age as Rondo when he was making the second of four straight All-Star appearances. Garnett served as a “big brother” to Rondo during their years together in Boston, and he could do the same for Rubio. Although, it would help if LaVine and Wiggins started making 3’s with the same efficiency as Ray Allen and Paul Pierce on the wings.
Potential breakout stud:
Likewise, the Wolves feature a number of players who fit this bill (i.e., Rubio, LaVine, Towns and Dieng). In some respects, Wiggins already broke out, although he’s on the short list of contenders for a leap to superstardom this season. But Muhammad is the biggest possible surprise in waiting.
The former first-round pick seemed destined for bust status after a rookie campaign spent bouncing between Minnesota and its D-League affiliate in Iowa. Something clicked in his sophomore season, and he was arguably the Wolves’ best player for a six-week stretch before oblique and finger injuries derailed his development, averaging 17.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range over 21 games from Nov. 30 to Jan. 9 this past winter.
He’s not without his faults, as the Timberwolves were somehow even worse with him on the floor defensively and finished 1-20 during his productive 21-game stint. But Muhammad has the size (6-foot-6, 225 pounds), skill and athleticism to improve in that regard, especially if he ever wants Garnett to stop barking in his ear. If the Timberwolves make any noise this season, it will be with Muhammad improving alongside Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins and Dieng under veteran instruction.
Even if everyone makes a leap in unison, it still won’t be enough to launch the Wolves into playoff contention. Not in the West, where the Pelicans, Jazz, Mavericks, Suns and Kings will battle for the final two seeds. (Sorry Blazers, Nuggets and Lakers.) Besides, they’re better off missing the playoffs, since the lottery protected first-round pick they owe the Celtics in 2016 becomes two second-round selections if they fall short of the postseason. Really, the fine folks of Minnesota should be content with steady improvement from an exciting young roster, hoping all the while Saunders gets healthy and Garnett rides into the sunset in his own wild style. Not a bad way to spend the season.
If everything falls apart:
The last time everything fell apart, they traded for the Rookie of the Year and played so poorly they ended up with another No. 1 overall pick. Maybe they should hope it all goes to hell again this year, so they can start printing Ben Simmons jerseys come June.
Kelly Dwyer’s notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
20-62, last in the West.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
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