The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
The NBA has experienced a rash of rebuilding processes over the last few seasons, many of which have failed. As ever, collecting high draft picks is no shortcut to contention. Yet the few franchises who have had success have proven fascinating, particularly as they begin to turn potential into something more tangible. There’s nothing quite like a team discovering that it could be a future contender.
That’s the biggest reason why the Minnesota Timberwolves figure to be one of fans’ League Pass favorites this season. Winners of only 29 games in 2015-16, the Wolves nevertheless gained great attention for their wealth of young talent, including the league’s previous two Rookies of the Year. Yet the excitement for this season goes well beyond the presence of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Minnesota has a new coach who has experienced plenty of success, many other young players capable of becoming high-quality contributors, and perhaps their third straight Rookie of the Year. Expectations for this group are high, and success could come as early as this season if the Wolves can nab a low-seed playoff berth.
That’s not an outlandish prospect for a team that was so firmly in the lottery just a few months ago, in large part because new head coach Tom Thibodeau has such a sterling reputation for wringing wins out of his teams. The hyper-intense Thibs might not seem like the best fit for a young, exciting squad like this one, but similar groups have faltered before due to a lack of discipline. The Wolves have not had such a stern coach in some time, and it’s easy to imagine his intensity having a positive effect very quickly.
Plus, this roster isn’t exactly full of brooding malcontents. Towns and Wiggins are not only talented — they welcome defensive responsibilities and have the potential to improve considerably at that end. The same goes for rookie point guard Kris Dunn, a multiple Big East Defensive Player of the Year winner who looks something like Thibodeau’s ideal point guard. Now-veteran starter Ricky Rubio is pretty strong at that end, as well, and several role players figure to do just fine.
In fact, the Wolves’ biggest source of concern could be that Thibodeau succeeds too much early on. His intensity and pursuit of regular-season wins had its drawbacks with the Chicago Bulls, as players like Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah began to break down under the pressure of playing close to 40 minutes per night. It’s impossible to say how much their injuries were a result of their coach’s methods, but he almost certainly didn’t help matters.
Minnesota’s potential requires a long view of things, not an insistence on getting the No. 7 seed rather than the No. 8. They’re hyped not because of what they might do in 2016-17, but because this season could be the start of something amazing at Target Center. Towns could single-handedly bring the center back into vogue as an offensive centerpiece and Wiggins seems destined to become a 20-point scorer and All-Defensive selection, to say nothing of the team’s other players. The team’s first playoff berth since 2004 would be a major accomplishment, but the opportunity here goes well beyond one trip to the postseason.
It was obviously a coup to hire Thibodeau this summer — he was the best candidate on the market and the Wolves should absolutely value any short-term success they can get. Yet he’s not without risks, and the organization needs to be aware of them. It should be fascinating to see if Thibs has learned anything from the way things ended in Chicago, because he will have to balance his desire for immediate wins with the chance to create a legitimate contender.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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