No team entered the 2015-16 NBA season under more somber circumstances than the Minnesota Timberwolves. No team — well, no lottery-bound team, at least — exited the campaign with more hope for a brighter tomorrow.
After the tragic loss of head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders mere days before the season opener, the Wolves were a team in turmoil and transition, moving from one era in franchise history into an uncertain future. Over the course of the year — one that saw the Wolves make a 13-win improvement over 2014-15 — its outlines became clearer: Karl-Anthony Towns is that future, and perhaps the future of the league, a prospect teeming with promise and the very definition of a modern NBA big man.
The first pick in the 2015 NBA draft was Minnesota’s starting center from Day 1, and proved himself equal to virtually every challenge he faced. The 7-foot, 244-pound Kentucky product turned in one of the greatest introductory seasons in league history, joining Hall of Famers David Robinson and Ralph Sampson, future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, and please-don’t-forget-what-a-beast-he-was-before-the-ruptured-Achilles Elton Brand as the only players to average at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks per game as a rookie. The last rook to play serious minutes and post a Player Efficiency Rating as high as Towns’ 22.5 was Duncan, in ’97-’98. Talk about Towns enough, and Duncan’s name starts to come up a lot.
He played all 82 games, finishing in the top 10 in the league in field goals, field-goal percentage, blocks and rebounds. He showed an ability to both deter shots on the interior and handle himself when forced to switch out and defend on smaller guards on the perimeter. He shot 34 percent from 3-point range and 81 percent from the foul line. He doesn’t turn 21 until mid-November.
Towns appears to be everything you could possibly want from a franchise cornerstone — including, it seems, someone willing to take the mantle of leadership from the last everything-you-could-possibly-want-from-a-franchise-cornerstone 7-foot miracle to define the Timberwolves, who mentored KAT for one season before choosing to hang ’em up and hand it over:
Thank you for everything my brother. You know how much I'm gonna miss playing with you and just simply having you around. Congrats on having one of the greatest careers the game has ever seen. We talked. I know what I must do. I'll take it from here.
A photo posted by Karl-Anthony Towns (@karltowns) on Sep 23, 2016 at 7:31pm PDT
“I’ll take it from here.” That’s some goosebump-inducing stuff.
Towns won’t have to take the Wolves into the future by himself. He’s joined by fellow former Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, who last year became just the seventh player ever to average more than 20.5 points per game in his age-20 NBA season. And playmaking savant/tip of the defensive spear Ricky Rubio, fresh off arguably his most productive individual season and still the straw that stirs the drink; the Wolves outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor last year, and got outscored by a whopping 8.2 points-per-100 when he sat down, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.
That trio led the charge for an offense that was somewhat surprisingly lethal at times. Minnesota finished the season 11th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, and scored like a top-five unit with Towns, Wiggins and Rubio sharing the floor. The Wolves even boasted one of the league’s most potent starting fives when showstopping wing Zach LaVine and rock-steady big man Gorgui Dieng joined up; that group lit up opponents to the Warriors-y tune of 113.5 points-per-100 in 648 minutes.
This is a talented group that gets to the basket and to the free-throw line, and that has the size, length and athleticism to go toe-to-toe with even the NBA’s very best teams — just ask Golden State — if only they can get everybody following the same script, especially on defense. So, y’know: good thing they hired Tom Thibodeau, arguably the best defensive coach of his generation, to run the show.
“We’re a work in progress,” Thibodeau told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst this summer. “We’ve got to close the gap.”
If Towns, Wiggins and company continue to grow, and Thibodeau’s teachings take hold quickly, the gaps they face — between 29 wins and the playoffs, between rebuilding and respectable, between an often dreary past and a future of boundless possibilities — might disappear awfully damn fast.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Wiggins 21 years old
Lavine 21 years old
Karl Anthony Towns 20 years old
A 2016 top 5 lottery pick.
The wolves will be scary good very soon.
— Justin Sobczyk (@JSob22) April 6, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
With all due respect to the ousted Sam Mitchell — who stepped in as interim coach amid organization-shaking grief, and whose contributions to the Wolves’ development, though debated in some corners, appear to have been real, even if we didn’t always see them — Thibodeau represents a significant upgrade.
You know the resume. Thibodeau comes to the Twin Cities with a 255-139 career regular-season record, having authored three 50-win seasons in Chicago, including the best record in the NBA in each of his first two campaigns. He led the Bulls to five consecutive playoff berths, largely on the strength of a defense that finished first, first, fifth and second in points allowed per possession in his first four years on the bench.
The Timberwolves have elite athletic talent at multiple positions, but need plenty of schooling, drilling and schematic help to generate consistent enough stops to improve on last year’s 27th-place finish in defensive efficiency. Thibodeau profiles as the central-casting solution to Minnesota’s point-prevention woes, the perfect answer to get the Wolves barking throughout half-court possessions, organized in transition, and within hailing distance of their first top-10 defensive finish in 11 years.
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You also know the reason he was available: a years-in-the-making firing following the 2014-15 season after countless contentious battles between Thibodeau and a Bulls front office led by general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. This time around, “invasion of turf” won’t be an issue; the Wolves gave Thibodeau $40 million to coach and run basketball operations, with former New York Knicks, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs personnel executive Scott Layden on hand to help as Minnesota’s general manager. Whether the other issues that dotted Thibodeau’s time in Chicago — namely, the insistence on heaping gobs and gobs of minutes on his top players, even when their health started to fail — will rear their heads is a matter that merits close attention.
In their first summer on the job, Thibodeau and Layden declined to splash cash. They made several relatively small free-agent signings — veteran centers Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill, veteran swingmen Brandon Rush and Rasual Butler, veteran point guard John Lucas III — to add age and experience to a youngster-laden Wolves roster. Ex-Bulls Butler and Lucas bring specific experience in Thibs’ system; Aldrich and Hill should be more dependably available frontcourt options than the departed Kevin Garnett and the oft-injured Nikola Pekovic.
They also continued to build through the draft, using 2016’s No. 5 pick on Providence’s Kris Dunn, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound point guard who twice won the Big East’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. It remains to be seen whether the 22-year-old can curb his turnover issues, make enough perimeter shots to force defenses to respect him, and lock into the Wolves’ defensive scheme well enough to push Rubio and Summer League star Tyus Jones for minutes. But Dunn’s an electric playmaker adept at making an impact in the pick-and-roll and as an on-ball defender. With time, reps and seasoning, he could be a hand-in-glove fit for Thibs’ aggressive two-way style.
The great longtime Wolves reporter Britt Robson recently cited Thibs’ arrival as the primary reason to be giddy about this year’s squad, praising the club for landing “an extraordinary head coach at exactly the right down in their developmental learning curve.” If the famously hard-charging coach really did learn to take his foot off the gas a bit during his yearlong sabbatical, and approaches his first season on the job as something other than 82 consecutive single-elimination death-matches, we might look back at this summer as the start of something very, very special.
Potential breakout stud:
It’s possible, and in fact expected, that Minny’s top dogs will reach new heights under Thibodeau, with Towns vaulting toward an All-NBA spot and Wiggins following the flight path of past Thibs success stories Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler to become one of the game’s best two-way performers on the wing.
If we take it as read that the NBA’s last two Rookies of the Year are already on the game-breaker radar, though, we arrive at the third-youngest Wolf, who might be the league’s most breathtaking athlete.
To most fans, LaVine is the skywalking artist behind two of the most jaw-dropping performances in Slam Dunk Contest history. Those who paid attention late last season, though, saw a 21-year-old shooting guard capable of much more than highlight dunks — a smooth volume scorer with a wet jumper, a lightning-quick first step and a nose for the rim. A legit offensive threat poised to pop.
LaVine joined a pretty cool 20/20 club last season, becoming just the 20th player in NBA history to average at least 14 points, three assists and 2.5 rebounds per game before the end of his age-20 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Fifteen of the other 19 players to turn in such a season before age 21 went on to make multiple All-Star appearances.
It’s a list stocked with all-timers (Garnett, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Tony Parker) and game-changers who, for one reason or another, might not have quite lived up to their hoped-for potential (Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Lamar Odom, Antoine Walker, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings). It’s a list of players who make or made a major impact on the game by putting pressure on defenses. It’s a nice neighborhood for LaVine to live in, an indication of the sort of intriguing offensive talent into which he could develop.
LaVine showed flashes of that development late last season, averaging 16.4 points per game after the 2016 All-Star break while shooting 48 percent from the floor and a blistering 43.7 percent from 3-point range on more than five attempts per game. LaVine’s second-half surge came in large part due to Mitchell finally shifting the UCLA product from point guard — an experiment in skill-set expansion first undertaken by Saunders, a job LaVine assumed out of necessity as a rookie, and one he received as a demotion last season, when Mitchell busted him down to Ricky’s backup — to shooting guard. It’s a much more natural spot for the 6-foot-5 high-flyer … and one that allowed him to share the floor with Rubio, which has tended to be a very positive thing for many Wolves since he arrived from Spain.
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Before the All-Star break, LaVine played 77.2 percent of his minutes without Rubio. The Wolves were outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, with Minnesota scoring like the woeful Los Angeles Lakers on a per-possession basis and LaVine’s own production underwhelming (14.7 points per 36 minutes, 42.8 percent field-goal shooting, an assist-to-turnover ratio under 2-to-1). After the break, though, he played 76.5 percent of his minutes with Rubio, and the Wolves’ offense overall clicked into gear, averaging a scintillating 110.2 points per 100 possessions with Rubio and LaVine working together — a mark that would’ve been the NBA’s second-best over the full season.
With Rubio setting the table, LaVine’s game soared at the two. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted, the post-All-Star, with-Rubio LaVine turned in an effective field goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than shots inside the arc) that would’ve trailed only certified marksmen Stephen Curry and J.J. Redick over the full season.
To take the leap from highlight-reel curiosity to real-deal contributor on a serious team, LaVine will have to carry over his strong finish to 2015-16 while making massive strides on defense, where ESPN’s Real Plus Minus statistic has graded him as one of the NBA’s worst defenders at his position in each of his two pro seasons. If he shows improved awareness on that end while continuing to scorch the nets on catch-and-shoot opportunities and knifing to the rim past off-balance closeouts, LaVine could cement himself as one of the league’s most explosive young players in games that actually count.
Towns and Wiggins take to Thibodeau’s teachings instantly and eagerly, making the first of many All-Star appearances. Rubio keeps everyone organized on both ends of the floor, and the Wolves find enough long-range shooting — from LaVine, Rush, Nemanja Bjelica and/or elsewhere — to create enough interior space and driving lanes, keeping Minnesota a top-10-caliber offense.
Thibs leverages all that length, youth and athleticism into a meteoric rise up the defensive charts, as Minnesota goes from one of the league’s five most permissive units to one of its 10 stingiest. Led by Towns — who joins LeBron, KD and AD as the only 21-year-olds in the last decade to finish in the top-five in MVP voting — the Wolves return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, putting the fear of God into the West’s elite and announcing loudly that the future is now.
If everything falls apart:
Not yet ready for a leadership role and all that comes with it, Towns stagnates in Year 2. Wiggins, already one of the hardest-worked players his age in league history, starts to break down under the weight of what Thibodeau asks his ace wings to do. Thibs slides back into the bad old habits of riding his young charges into the ground.
Rubio’s shooting remains a liability, but neither Dunn nor Jones acquit themselves well enough to take the reins. There’s not enough shooting to lift up the offense or depth to support the top prospects, and too much youth to lift the defense. Minnesota’s playoff drought hits 13 years, introducing uncertainty into an assumed ascent.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
35-47, 12th in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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