If you believe the bookies in Las Vegas — and they are as reliable as any other source in predicting final NBA results a month before the first game of the 2016-17 season — the Minnesota Timberwolves have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Actually, the Wolves couldn’t be more “on the bubble”: The over/under on their win total in Vegas is 41.5, tied with Houston for eighth best in the ruggedly competitive Western Conference. Eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason.
Of course, hanging on the fringe of the playoff picture is meh territory for the vast majority of NBA franchises. But for the Wolves, the prospect of winning as many games as they lose over the course of an 82-game season sounds revolutionary, and dangerously optimistic. Hitting 41 would be a dozen more victories than last season’s 29, which was 13 better than the gruesome 16-win campaign in 2014-15.
Cynicism is a shrewd gambit for followers of this historically inept outfit, which has won dozens fewer games than any of the 29 other NBA franchises since Kevin Garnett took them to the Western Conference Finals thirteen years ago — the only season in their 28-year history when the Wolves ever won even a single playoff series.
But as someone who has covered the team since 1990, and has frequently hung out in the gloomy but safe harbor of haughty pessimism, thinking up snide new ways to berate the Wolves’ perpetually dysfunctional preparation and performance, I’m here to announce that the Kool-Aid looks especially enticing this time around.
Barring a barrage of bad juju — the “unforeseen circumstances” of freak injuries to key personnel (knuckle push-ups, anyone?), inexplicably toxic chemistry, or other capriciously cruel renderings of tragedy and woe — this season’s Wolves will play better, smarter, more consistently entertaining basketball than the locals have witnessed in well over a decade.
Better yet, it doesn’t feel ridiculous to double-down on the goodwill. This coming season shapes up not only as a breakthrough campaign to respectability, but as a prelude to more exciting performances and auspicious outcomes in the not very distant future. By all reasonable indications, the Minnesota Timberwolves are an organization on the rise, quickening into something you can cheer for and believe in without feeling like a sap.
A strong foundation
Optimism for the Wolves feels secure precisely because of their dreadful recent nadir and their subsequent stirrings to surmount it.
Many previous rebuilding efforts have been laughably incompetent, like castles of cardboard gone shredded and soggy in the inevitable monsoon of competition. But when Kevin Love threatened to opt out of his contract in Minnesota after the 2013-14 season, the Wolves got lucky and got smart for a change.
Then-personnel guru Flip Saunders managed to corral two cornerstone talents in successive off-seasons, trading Love to Lebron James and the win-now Cavaliers of Cleveland in exchange for quicksilver swingman Andrew Wiggins, the top pick of the 2014 draft who went on to become the first Timberwolf ever to win the Rookie of the Year.
Better still, Wiggins accomplished it in a wretched season when blatant tanking plus ping-pong ball lottery alchemy yielded the chance to draft Karl-Anthony Towns, whose own ROY season revealed him to be a generational talent, a quintessential big man for the modern NBA, and a natural leader able to relegate Wiggins to second-banana status in the cornerstone sweepstakes.
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That Saunders was felled by cancer less than a week before Towns would begin to permanently elevate Flip’s roster-building legacy seemed like a vicious gash of fate. And it was, in the sense that the emotional wound of his absence remains. But Flip’s protégé, Sam Mitchell, capably shepherded the team under daunting circumstances as the interim head coach, wringing enough development out of the roster to burnish its credentials as a team on the rise, and thus paving the way for the hiring of Tom Thibodeau.
It is difficult to imagine Thibodeau coming to Minnesota if Saunders was still around as President of Basketball Operations. The acrimonious tenor of Thibs’ exit from the Chicago Bulls ensured that he’d want to eliminate any chance of another meddlesome front office by assuming control, as Flip had done, over both procuring and coaching the team’s personnel.
At the time he was hired last spring, the consensus was that to garner such a superb coach and proven motivator, the Wolves had to accept his inexperience and potentially rash approach to his newfound front office duties.
While it is obviously still very early in the process — less than six months and zero games played into his five-year contract — Thibodeau looks every bit the cherished link and organizing catalyst in the Wolves rise to glory. Within a three-year span, the franchise has added an electric young talent who would be counted as a cornerstone on any team’s rebuilding plan; a charismatic burgeoning superstar; and a demanding but wise and eminently well-prepared head coach whose blueprint for the future as the unquestioned power broker of the Wolves is both progressively contemporary and logically sound.
Depth, prudence and industry
Thibodeau has predictably used the leverage of his dual positions to consolidate his power within the Wolves organization. The pleasant surprise is his apparent willingness to wield that power to patiently build a philosophy and culture, a process that necessarily permeates organically and comes to full fruition over the long haul.
The consolidation is evident in many ways. New general manager Scott Layden, himself the son of former Utah Jazz executive Frank Layden, has an extensive but checkered resume that includes a string of awful personnel decisions when he was running the show with the New York Knicks, but impressive work in less autocratic circumstances with quality organizations like the Jazz and, most recently, the San Antonio Spurs.
Thibs and Layden got to know each other well under coach Jeff Van Gundy in New York and there is obvious affection and loyalty between them. It is likewise obvious that Thibs calls the shots and Layden is more than happy to be his trusted lieutenant.
Together, they logged workaholic time schedules while remolding the organization. (During Media Day on Monday, more than one player claimed the pair work from six in the morning until nine at night.) They handled their first challenge, the June NBA draft, but landing the best player available with the fifth overall pick, physical combo guard Kris Dunn, who provides depth, defensive toughness, and relative maturity.
Not coincidentally, the free agent signing period yielded the same type of upgrades — better depth, sturdier defense, and a veteran’s temperamental ballast. All three free agents — center Cole Aldrich, power forward Jordan Hill and swingman Brandon Rush — are journeymen who must work hard, learn fast and obey readily to secure the kind of quality rotation minutes that extends their careers.
In this off-season of the exploding salary cap, all were signed to relatively modest contracts, securing enormous cap flexibility for Thibs and Layden next off-season, when they will have a much better idea of what they need. They have constructed this year’s roster to get a full and unvarnished look at the stockpile of young talent Saunders left behind. None of the free agents will openly squawk about the pecking order as Thibs and his coaches conduct these season-long auditions; but the presence of those dogged vets will put pressure on the kids to perform.
Meanwhile, two huge potential distractions — iconic Timberwolf Kevin Garnett and popular but perpetually injured veteran Nikola Pekovic — were dealt with before the official beginning of preseason last Tuesday. After extensive discussion with owner Glen Taylor, Garnett announced his retirement, with the Wolves engendering payment of his $8 million salary by waiving him from the team.
Likewise, after two straight seasons of much anticipated but ultimately dispiriting “comebacks” from his chronic lower leg injuries, Pek has been ruled out for the entire 2016-17 campaign, a prelude to having insurance pick up a large share of the tab on his $12 million annual salary this year and next.
Thibs and Layden have filled out the rest of the coaching staff and front office with an emphasis on pedigree and specialization. Layden’s assistant general manager, Noah Croom, has worked both sides of salary negotiations as a former player agent and an assistant GM for the Grizzlies when they were in Vancouver. He has been interviewed by numerous NBA teams for open general manager positions and is expected to be invaluable in parsing the finances of trades and free agency.
The coaching staff is loaded with successful Thibs loyalists, especially Andy Greer, who was with Thibs in Chicago and then helped turn around the defense in Toronto under Dwane Casey last season after Thibs was let go by the Bulls. Rick Brunson and (reportedly) Ed Pinckney are two other respected assistants under Thibs in Chicago (Pinckney also previously logged time with the Wolves). The team also hired a full-time shooting coach, Peter Patton, a protégé of the NBA’s most successful and respected shooting coach, Chip Engelland in San Antonio.
The X’s and O’s that connect the dots
The culture that Thibs is ingraining into the organization was evident during the player interviews during Media Day and in the comments the coach and his players have made after the first few official practices this week. While this remains one of the younger rosters in the NBA, there is a lot of poise too, led by the cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins, extending down to Ricky Rubio and including newcomers like Dunn and Brandon Rush, who gave thoughtful answers that occasionally went against the grain of stereotypes, without bucking the conformity Thibs is establishing. (For example, Dunn says he doesn’t ask a lot of questions of his coaches — an implication that he is no apple-polisher — but assumes the coaches will let him know when mistakes are made.)
Above all else, however, the reason for optimism this season lies in the fact that the Wolves have an extraordinary head coach at exactly the right down in their developmental learning curve.
It has been a pleasure hearing Thibs dissolve the borders of stereotype via terse yet still extended analysis in his meetings with the media. He is not some gruff, gravelly grump who demands immediate excellence and is dismissive of those who cannot play defense; nor is he strictly a defensive oriented mentor.
For example, one might peruse the roster and imagine that Zach LaVine and Nemana Bjelica would be anathema to a tough, no-nonsense guy like Thibs. LaVine has been a terrible defender his two seasons in the NBA, and Bjelica was notoriously soft and tentative in his sole NBA season last year.
But Thibs has been exceptionally laudatory about both players. Contemplating his impact during the off-season, one of the more hopeful scenarios was that he would go out and get the kind of gritty defenders he wanted and then set about instilling a defensive spine and presence that would round out the talents of offensive-oriented players like LaVine. That seems like a real possibility now.
Thibs routinely includes LaVine in his list of the Wolves best players. One of the big stories of preseason is that the Wolves are working with Wiggins to change the fundamentals of his jump shot. Asked how that was going the other day at practice, Thibs replied, “Andrew has put in the work, this fall in particular, he has shown a lot of progress in a lot of different areas. The commitment to improve starts with your best players, so what Andrew is doing, Karl is doing and Zach is doing, that’s important for us to make progress.”
As for Bjelica, Thibs said Wednesday after practice, “The thing I like is it gives you another skilled guy on the floor. He can shoot, he can pass and he can dribble. I think that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. And there are some unique things you can do with him. You can run a 4-5 pick and roll. You can run a pin-down for him. I knew from when he played for the Serbia national team, just the way he played there; very confident, very aggressive and I want him to get back to playing like that.”
Thus far the most impressive thing about Thibs’ communication is his ability to organically put specifics into an organic philosophy and approach to the game.
For example, an abiding priority for him this season is reducing the gap in three point scoring — he frequently notes that the Wolves yielded an average of more than nine made treys last season while scoring just five and a half themselves.
“We have got to take the right shots,” he emphasized. “We’ve got to make the extra pass and we’ve got to put pressure on the rim to force the defense to collapse. If we do that, we’ll get good rhythm threes.”
Compare that to Saunders discouraging against too many threes because it leads to fast-break points the other way (which is itself debatable) and Mitchell last year claiming that you couldn’t design specific sets to generate open three-pointers.
Thibodeau’s process is relatively simple and orderly, but it unlocks a comprehensive understanding for players needing justification to commit to his methods. The most succinct recitation of his catechism occurred the other day after practice.
“Start with individual technique. The individual fundamentals are usually the same both offensively and defensively. Then the things that you do will be tailored more toward the personnel that you have. I think we want to get a basic understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. We want our opponents to take certain types of shots, we want to challenge shots well, we want to be able to finish our defense well with our rebounding and then offensively to play as fast as we can but to sustain our spacing through the second and third options. Share the ball, make quick decisions. I don’t think you can beat good teams dancing with the ball.
“So ball movement, player movement are critical getting pressure on the rim, penetrating the defense, forcing the defense to collapse; those are the things we have to understand and get better at.
“You want to think about what wins and also ultimately what loses. For us it is always going to come back to our defense, our rebounding, taking care of the ball, playing inside-out and sharing the ball. We know if we do those things we’ll be in position to win.”
Vegas is right. The playoffs are attainable for this franchise this season. Anyone who watched the later rounds of the postseason last spring — saw the Cavs, the Warriors, the Thunder and the Spurs — understands how far away the Wolves are to that type of excellence.
But this fundamental first step to respectability is already in motion.
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