On the cusp of the 2016-17 NBA season, there are many who would urge the victory-starved fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves to be patient and cautious. They are well-meaning and compassionate, and perhaps even wise and accurate in their assessment.
But they miss an important dynamic about rooting for a team. The most exciting time for a longstanding fan of a franchise is not when their ballclub is crowned a champion — that is the most satisfying and vindicating time. But the most exciting time is when a team is burgeoning, when faux apathy and negative hedging are no longer the right gambits, because they prevent you from being fully present at ground zero of a resurgence.
Ask middle-aged Wolves fans what it was like to be pulling for the team from 2000 to 2003, when Kevin Garnett was near his spectacular prime and Minnesota won 47, 50, and 51 games, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth, sixth, and seventh years in a row. The fan base was antsy, concerned that KG’s talents were being wasted. Rumors were rampant that he would move on, because the Wolves — everyone could feel it — were stuck in a rut.
Remember, they won 148 games in those three seasons, six more victories, not counting the playoffs, than the current Timberwolves have won in the past five years. After your team has gained a foothold on a signal achievement, the rooting interest turns toward watching them ascend another rung. Without that ascension, it is apparently human nature to get grumpy over a pretty good status quo.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have not made the playoffs since going all the way to the Western Conference Finals a dozen years ago, culminating the 2003-04 season with the only playoff series triumphs in their 28-year existence. The most recent team that had a legitimate chance of interrupting that long string of ineptitude was the 2013-14 edition, coached by Rick Adelman.
There were no knuckle push-ups or gross ankle sprains that season. Kevin Love missed just five games and set still-existing career highs for points and assists. Ricky Rubio played every game, led the NBA in total steals and finished second in total assists.
The other starters, comprising a quintet that logged over 1,000 minutes together, included Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, all in their chronological primes between the ages of 27 and 30. They were coached by future Hall of Famer Rick Adelman. They finished 9th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency among the 30 NBA teams. And they somehow managed to lose two more games than they won, finishing at 40-42.
Adelman, his wife beset with seizures, retired from basketball. Love, unhappy about his contract and tired of losing, was traded before he could exercise his option and bolt the team. Martin announced at Media Day the next season that he hoped then-incoming coach Flip Saunders wouldn’t let him get away with the lackluster habits he showed under Adelman.
That’s the kind of team that will cut the heart out of a fan base. The 2016-17 edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves feels very much like a team that will fill that void, inspiring the transplant of a new and better heart. Whether or not they make the playoffs this season — and I believe they will — any dysfunction in their season will be nothing more mysterious than either growing pains and/or a slew of injuries.
Last year’s improvement from 16 to 29 wins was laudatory in a rather desultory fashion, encased in the context of abject tanking the season before. And let’s face it, finishing with the fifth-worst record in the NBA is not a signal achievement.
What follows are the reasons it is overwhelmingly likely that 2016-17 is ground zero of a Timberwolves resurgence.
1. TNT: Towns and Thibodeau
Having a foundational superstar and a trustworthy coach who knows best how to exploit him as both performer and leader is a cherished bedrock circumstance for any sports franchise. That is what the Wolves currently possess.
Discuss the upcoming season and watch the opener on Oct. 26 with Britt Robson at Elsie’s. Get tickets today!
It doesn’t take genius to notice that Karl-Anthony Towns is special. Just two games into his NBA career last season, I wrote, “Right now the ceiling on Karl-Anthony Towns is too high for me to see.” The only apparent weaknesses in his game last year were due to his initial exposure to the physical and psychological upgrades confronting him in the pros. Specifically, he had difficulty establishing (on offense) or denying (on defense) low post position in some of his more rugged matchups, and there were times when cagey opponents suckered his rookie exuberance into miscalculations that put him out of position.
In other words, he had the most complete skill set of any teenager who ever set foot on an NBA court.
Towns also seems eminently coachable, with a teacher’s pet personality that Tom Thibodeau will temper with fire and ice — and then more scalding fire. The handiest comp for Towns is usually Tim Duncan (although the outsized passion he’s flashed this preseason conjures his mentor as a rookie, Kevin Garnett), who famously absorbed abuse from coach Gregg Popovich to set a disciplined tenor for his team.
But, as with Pop and TD, the synergy between Thibs and Towns extends far beyond the dutiful tongue-lashings. Thibs wants Towns to make his teammates better, a virtue that Towns, who memorably subverted his collegiate game at Kentucky for the supposed good of the team, will embrace.
Although not quite on Towns’ level, Thibs is also special. Perhaps because he is such a maniacal worker, he has a gift for distilling thoughts into simple profundities that are the morals of his industrious chains of logic. For example: “Lebron James is always in the Finals because he gets his teammates good shots.” This is indisputably true, too often overlooked, and rarely spoken with such concision.
The only other time Thibodeau inherited a team as head coach, he also joined a reigning Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. The first year with Thibs, Rose made the All Star team. The second year he was MVP.
But perhaps a better, and even more hopeful, comparison is the way Thibodeau developed Joakim Noah. Although not nearly as talented or polished as Towns, Noah was similar in being a little on the light side weight-wise, with a passion for the game and a penchant for inspirational leadership. Under Thibs, he blossomed from a decent, middle-of-the-pack center into a quality distributor of the ball on offense and the Defensive Player of the Year for the 2013-14 season. When accepting that DPOY award, he turned to his coach and said, “Without your system, this wouldn’t be possible.”
2. Enhanced defense
The Wolves finished 27th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) last season, a year after compiling one of the worst defensive seasons in NBA history in terms of opponents’ effective field goal percentage. That is about to change in fairly dramatic fashion.
Defense, of course, is Thibodeau’s calling card. He bagged the head coaching position in Chicago by choreographing the stellar defense that brought a title to the Boston Celtics when he an assistant under Doc Rivers during the 2007-08 season. During his three seasons with Rivers, the Celts never fell out of the top five in defensive efficiency (per basketball-reference.com).
When he joined the Bulls, Chicago already had a decent defense, ranked 11th in efficiency. Under Thibs they immediately vaulted to first, despite adding notoriously weak defender Carlos Boozer, who finished among the top three in minutes played. The three succeeding seasons, the Bulls ranked second, sixth and second, respectively, in defensive efficiency, again according to basketball-reference.com. Even in his final season, when he was openly feuding with the front office, the Bulls were 11th among 30 teams in points allowed per possession.
A Thibs defense is coordinated, purposeful, and aggressive. Players are drilled relentlessly on steering opponents to the sidelines and denying them optional angles in the middle of the court, the primary tenet of the so-called “ICE” defense. The coach’s perpetual screaming of “ICE!” became a running joke in Chicago. He’s varied his harangues more since coming to Minnesota, but players still get an earful, and often a seat on the bench, when they don’t rotate and defend as if on a string.
Along with that constant accountability and set philosophy, the key to his methods is brandishing defense as a weapon. This preseason, all the Wolves have defended with a wide stance meant to deny passing lanes and visual comfort. They have also become adept at “closing out” opponents — denying them space with sudden, controlled rushes just about the time they are about to execute a pass or a shot. Thibs’ “close out” drills are notoriously rigorous and well-conceived, and are practiced every day.
Preseason games are essentially meaningless, with different teams executing different priorities and preparations for the real competition ahead. Nevertheless, it is striking that the Wolves finished the 2016-17 preseason ranked second in defensive efficiency. Players who were simply awful, clueless defenders in years past, such as Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad, looked like they had an understanding of a team philosophy and thus were more forthright and self-assured in their duties — and heard from Thibs when they didn’t sustain. The Wolves almost certainly won’t keep that lofty preseason status in the months ahead, but an improvement toward the median level is achievable, and should result in a bevy of extra wins.
When Thibodeau’s gaudy coaching credentials and the sour taste from his relations with the front office in Chicago compelled him to demand, and get, the dual positions of head coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Wolves, I shared the widespread fear that his intense thirst to win immediately would make him shortsighted in his personnel decisions and stunt the long-term potential of the franchise. That’s why the shrewd, measured approach he has taken to assembling the roster has been the most pleasant surprise of his tenure thus far.
I went into more detail on this in my previous column but the gist is that Thibs has upgraded the talent on the roster without interfering with his ability to fully vet the horde of promising youngsters with respect to their foibles and potential synergies this season. He has accomplished this by cherry-picking low-cost journeymen in free agency whose strengths shore up specific vulnerabilities, and whose relatively cheap contracts afford him the chance to be a major player in the next off-season free agent period, when he has a better sense of the capabilities of his current personnel.
The depth dividend becomes more apparent when you contrast the current state of the Wolves to last season. The surprising death of Thibodeau’s predecessor, Flip Saunders, just days before the season started threw the entire organization into a state of shocked limbo. Saunders had assembled an incredibly bifurcated roster almost entirely comprised of either talented but callow athletes or wizened veterans long past their prime.
Eventually, the priority was to play the kids. Of the top five in minutes-played, three were 20, one 25 (Ricky Rubio) and one 26 (Gorgui Dieng). That immersion wasn’t a terrible strategy, except that behind the greening of that quintet was wreckage.
Among the graybeards, Garnett didn’t play a minute after January 23rd. Tayshaun Prince logged just 331 minutes in 24 games after the All Star break. Andre Miller was waived on February 25 and Kevin Martin followed him out the door on waivers less than a week later. Pekovic lasted 12 games and 156 minutes in the middle of the season before succumbing to his chronic injuries.
Their replacements were frequently pathetic, especially on defense. It wasn’t unusual for the Wolves to trot out a backcourt of overmatched and undersized rookie Tyus Jones with fellow defensive matador Zach LaVine — and Bazzy Muhammad, a third sieve, on the wing. Perpetually confused Nemanja Bjelica got minutes along with NBA bust Adreian Payne and Greg Smith, an undersized center plucked off the waiver wire.
By contrast, while Thibodeau has chosen to reprise last season’s starters, the second unit is a complementary group afforded the time to benefit from familiarity and establish an identity.
Center Cole Aldrich and swingman Brandon Rush are savvy veterans coming over from successful stints on winning teams. Both can step in with the starters and actually boost production under certain matchups; but neither one will leverage that value by clamoring for more playing time or otherwise disrupting chemistry.
Top draft pick Kris Dunn is a four-year collegian whose rugged physicality and mature personality makes him a solid combo guard capable of filling in for either Rubio or LaVine while he inevitably develops and adjusts to the NBA. And returning forwards Bjelica and Muhammad are now surrounded by more complementary teammates in a stable unit that enable them to focus on what they do best — linear scoring for Bazzy, ball movement and floor spacing for Bjelly —while getting their asses chewed in the service of better defense.
The team is deep enough that Jordan Hill, a forward who has started 100 games for the Lakers and the Pacers over the past three seasons, can’t even crack the 10-man rotation.
How many games did the Wolves fork over with shoddy bench play last year? The current reserves should retain a handful of them this coming season.
4. Unfettered desire
Every professional athlete and coach has a competitive jones to win, or they wouldn’t have risen to the NBA level in the first place. But myriad factors can fetter the desire, undermine willpower and decay attitudes.
In that respect, for the past two seasons, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been a wretched team to play for, especially if the joy of winning contributes a potent elixir to the lifeblood of your performance.
The flagrant tanking of the 2014-15 campaign was an execrable, soul-sapping exercise for all concerned, even as it yielded the right to draft Towns. The death of Saunders cast a pall upon the 2015-16 season, a morbid sadness made worse by the fact that there was no clear indication how, and by whom, Saunders’ vision would be extended.
Enter Thibodeau, already a rabid competitor, who took an uncharacteristically reflective sabbatical after his snarling divorce from the Bulls, and arrived refreshed and ever-ready to re-impose his will on the NBA, by taking the most promising lumps of clay in the league and molding them into a unified reckoning force via his indelible template.
Consider the players. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are now playing for their fifth coach in five years since their senior season in high school. In previous seasons there were distractions about where they would attend college, where they would be drafted into the pros, how much abuse they could absorb while tanking, and who would be running the show going forward. No longer. There is an alpha in charge with a glorious track record for instant renewal and he brooks no compromise.
The journeymen like Aldrich, Rush, and Hill know why they are here. The superstar Towns and Wiggins, the league’s best young second-banana, understand how they are supposed to grow. LaVine and Muhammad know there is a seat on the bench if their defense doesn’t rise to mediocrity. Rubio knows he is being pushed by Dunn. Bjelica has found somebody who knows he knows the right way to play the game, and will turn him loose in the second unit.
The organization wants to win every game. If they lose their draft pick from the Payne trade by making the playoffs, fine and dandy.
Yes, of course there are questions. Does Thibs have enough faith in Rubio to keep this promising status quo intact, this season and next season? Can the remarkably good health of the core the past two seasons continue? Will Wiggins learn how to fold his enormous skills into a team context more effectively, to the point where he can dish on the fly? How much of this spectacularly successful preseason was a meaningless mirage?
The questions are legitimate, but I’ll take the bandwagon. Thibodeau lands like a boulder on the pond — the impact is immediate. His first season in Chicago, he took a perfectly respectable 41-41 team and improved it by 21 games to 62-20. That is much harder to do than take an underachieving, deliberately lackluster 29-53 team and transform it into a team capable of winning anywhere from 40-50 games, depending on the vagaries. I’ll settle on 46, and the 7th seed in the West.