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Nobody should be surprised by the way Tom Thibodeau has remade the Timberwolves

After a series of moves — including trading Ricky Rubio to Utah — the 2017-18 Timberwolves will be older, blunter, bruising, expensive and better.

There isn’t enough space or time to properly eulogize Ricky Rubio’s tenure with the Wolves.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

There are significant things yet to be determined about the 2017-18 edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves. For one thing, after the blizzard of personnel changes that have taken place during this frenetic offseason, the Wolves currently have six “bigs” (centers and power forwards) and only two “wings” (shooting guards and small forwards), a roster imbalance that necessarily will be addressed over the rest of the summer and early autumn.

But what can safely be surmised is that over the past two weeks, the Wolves have entered a new era in their history and planned trajectory.

Ever since Lebron James decided that he needed Kevin Love to help him win an NBA championship as he came back home to Cleveland, the franchise has been sacrificing immediate gratification for the tantalizing but always nebulous prospect of future glory.

This three-year sales pitch was heralded by the “Eyes on the Rise” campaign the franchise unveiled shortly after Love — the team’s lone legitimate star at the time — was traded away for the prior two overall #1 draft picks, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, and a package that also included silky power forward Thaddeus Young. Toss in the Wolves own top draft pick that season, raw combo guard Zach LaVine, and you had a collection of pogo sticks that the Wolves could mold into a dunktastic public relations campaign.

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But “Rises” can be fitful, and hard on the eyes of the faithful. Bennett and Young crapped out and are long gone. Franchise architect Flip Saunders died from a secretive-and-thus-shocking degeneration of his supposedly manageable cancer. Center Karl-Anthony Towns and Saunders’ eventual successor Tom Thibodeau emerged as potential saviors for a new Rise. Wiggins, who is still around, and point guard Ricky Rubio, who now suddenly isn’t, became polarizing topics of debate as to their true value on the team.

Through it all, the Wolves won just 76 of 246 games, and extended their playoff drought to an NBA-worst 13 consecutive seasons.

If that streak goes to 14 years, there will now be hell to pay. And heads rolling. After hoarding his resources and immersing his young core of players to intense scrutiny via heavy minutes played together under his regimen of withering detail and unyielding demands, Thibs is not delaying gratification any longer. Over a pair of whirlwind weeks, he has remade the team’s personality and expectation level according to his own standards. The 2017-18 Timberwolves will be older, blunter, bruising, expensive and better.

Victories over aesthetics

By far the biggest change engineered by Thibs is a brand new backcourt. Last year’s starters, Rubio at the point and LaVine at shooting guard, were shipped to Utah and Chicago, respectively. For those who savor the sheer beauty of basketball, these are near-mortal wounds.

Relative to the local fan base, I was a fairly persistent detractor of LaVine, a charmingly guileless and engaging gym rat who began to make genuine strides in his once-dunderheaded shot selection but still seemed light-years away from untangling the vagaries and vexations that must be parsed and coped with in the course of playing effective team defense.

LaVine’s offensive virtues provided a potent counterweight to these flaws, however. As a two-time dunk champion, his aerial acrobatics around the rim garnered the most audible oohs and aahs. But I always found the mechanics of his jump shot — from the impressive skyward propulsion to the exquisite flick and follow-through of his wrist and arm at the apex of his ascendance —to be his most pleasurable artwork.

There isn’t enough space or time to properly eulogize Rubio’s tenure with the Wolves. Rubio embodies the quote from another former Wolves point guard, Stephon Marbury, who said, “Point guards are born, not made. God delivers point guards.” Unfortunately, those divinity-model point guards have become an anachronism in the modern NBA, where accurate shooting is now as important to the position as precise and visionary ball distribution.

I’ll treasure my trunkful of Rubio memories. Even his gaudy assists were motivated by checkmating the degree of difficulty more than a craving to add mustard and relish for the reality TV show. What could happen “off the dribble” was a magic bag of dimes that included court-length chest passes in transition that tear-dropped to his streaking teammate in perfect stride for a layup; half-court bounce passes at crazy diagonals that seemed to put the entire floor on tilt and tack on a fourth dimension; and quite possibly the best no-look passes in the history of the NBA, performed with such unexpected subterfuge it was if he had jeweler’s eyes in the back of his head.

I jumped for joy when LaVine was packaged with Kris Dunn and the number-seven overall pick in the recent draft in exchange for Chicago’s small forward Jimmy Butler and the number-sixteen overall pick. But I morosely stared into space when Rubio was dealt to Utah in exchange for a lottery-protected draft pick next season, and, more importantly, the loosening of resources that allowed the Wolves to sign free agent Jeff Teague to a three-year, $57-million contract as Rubio’s replacement.

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But my feelings, like everyone’s feelings who follow the Wolves right now, are moot.

For years this organization was criticized for running a “country club” characterized by nepotism and excessive loyalty to those with past connections to the franchise. Another appropriate source of criticism has been the ongoing slew of dashed promises for improvement, a litany of “back to the drawing board” gambits greased by poor judgment and excessive caution.

Tom Thibodeau was hired to change the culture of the Timberwolves. After getting his bearings and taking the time to confirm or rebut his first impressions of the franchise, that is exactly what he is doing. There will inevitably be successes and failures during the overhaul, but, given the past 13 years of ineptitude, nobody should be surprised, or alarmed, that the status quo is being razed.

The bottom line is that Thibs was never comfortable with Rubio. He drafted Dunn to take Rubio’s place, installed Wiggins as the primary ball handler on many sets early last season specifically to diminish Rubio’s role, and always damned Rubio with faint praise when an honest appraisal of the team’s big-picture outlook was required. Ironically, Rubio thrived under the adversity and Thibs had no real choice other than to utilize him more than any coach had since Rubio’s rookie year.  

But you can’t get the keys of the franchise flipped to you on a lucrative five-year contract and not boldly follow your instincts, your preparation and your basketball DNA to the hilt. Amid much fanfare, Thibs was hired specifically to transform the Wolves. The guy with the track record successful enough to garner the enthusiastic participation of Butler — his former player and one of the top two-way performers in the entire NBA — is also the guy who doesn’t value Rubio’s magic enough to countenance his clanking jump shot.

A year ago, the consensus was that the Wolves needed an overlord to transform the promise of Towns and Wiggins into concrete, meaningful victories. They hired the best candidate on the market. Now comes the consequences. LaVine’s buckets and Rubio’s dishes may indeed be beautiful keepsakes for the mind’s eye, but as the saying goes, beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. And Thibodeau’s vision necessarily holds sway.

Toward a better balance

Whether you agree or disagree with the plethora of roster moves executed by Thibs over the past couple of weeks, it is hard to argue that any of this is a surprise or a major departure from the successful priorities and methods that made him such an attractive hire in the first place.

Thibs believes in suffocating defense as a top priority of team identity. Thibs believes in a durable starting five that makes important contributions off the bench more of a luxury than a necessity. Thibs believes in maximizing resources in a manner that gives more weight to short-term success than any Wolves executive since “Trader Jack” McCloskey.

The acquisition of Butler was a home run for Thibs all the way around. None of the three assets sacrificed to get him was devoid of question marks, or figures to match the height and breadth of Butler’s skill set. His age, defensive tenacity, history with Thibs and natural personality stamps him as a team leader and extension of his coach on the floor and in the locker room. And his ability to play small forward and become the Wolves’ “wing stopper” on defense shifts Wiggins to his more natural position of shooting guard and loosens his load at both ends of the court. As Thibs sees it, having a playmaker like Butler able to run the half-court offense on a semi-regular basis also reduces the value of Rubio’s virtues and requires a point guard who can score more reliably.

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That said, paying Teague $19 million a year seems exorbitant. Yes, he is more compatible with Butler — his jumper is more accurate and his drives to the basket are quicker and more successful. But he is at best a mediocre long-range shooter (albeit better than Rubio) and is not Rubio’s equal on defense. He also adds $5 million to the payroll over what Rubio was earning for the next two seasons.

The third major acquisition besides Butler and Teague is power forward Taj Gibson, signed for two years at $14 million per season. Like Butler, Gibson is an ex-Bull who blossomed under Thibodeau and totes a calling card of defensive discipline and intensity. For Butler, the cultural dividend is gravy on the substantial meat of his overall skill set. Gibson is less talented, but sets the tone as a glue guy rather than a star doing the yeoman work required throughout the roster. Gibson can start or come off the bench. Either way, expect him to play plenty alongside Towns, and to mentor him by example the way Butler will mentor Wiggins on defense out on the wing.

At the beginning of the offseason, Thibs listed four interlocking priorities for the team moving forward: Defense, toughness, outside shooting and an ability to close out games effectively. Thus far, three of those boxes have been checked. Butler and Gibson are experienced bruisers in the Thibodeau method of rubber-hose defense. They are also barbed-wire tough. Butler is a closer comfortable with the ball in his hands late in the fourth quarter. Teague is a more effectively option on offense, both late in games and in the playoffs, when opponents are more apt to put a laser focus on matchup deficiencies.

The remaining weakness is outside shooting, which in the modern NBA is kind of a big deal. Those criticizing Thibs are on relatively firm ground noting that essentially getting Teague and Gibson for Rubio and $18 million of salary cap space leaves a roster that has a woeful lack of depth, few if any outside marksmen, and precious little space under the salary cap to address these needs effectively.

Because my prevailing philosophy here is that you need to give the overlord the freedom to execute his vision, I will be the devil’s advocate on why these maneuvers make sense.

According to the stats page at nba.com, the Wolves ranked 10th in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and 26th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) last season. Quality teams are well balanced on offense and defense. When you are a top 10 offense and a bottom five defense, you emphasize defense.

Remember, that top 10 offense happened despite the Wolves ranking last in both three-pointers attempted and made last season. And while it is true that outside shooting is a trend still on the rise in terms of usage and effectiveness league-wide, it is not as if the Wolves have abandoned that aspect of their offensive arsenal.

Yes, the loss of LaVine is especially acute here. Despite missing 35 games due to injury, he attempted 18 percent of the Wolves total treys, and made 20 percent due to his team-best accuracy of 38.7. Neither Teague nor Butler shot threes nearly as often or as accurately.

But the loss of LaVine is mitigated somewhat by the loss of Rubio and Dunn, who shot 30.6 and 28.8 percent, respectively, from long range. By contrast, Teague was at 35.7.  

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Gibson is a nonfactor from three-point territory and will hurt floor spacing when he is out there. But it is possible that the Wolves will often play with a quintet who are all around average — last season that was 35.8 — from beyond the arc. Gorgui Dieng takes forever to wind up and shoot but nails 37.2 when he does, and would seem a natural fit if the Wolves want to emphasize corner threes. Towns shot 36.7 percent and has a great touch all over the court. Butler also shot 36.7 percent, while Wiggins was just a titch below Teague, shooting 35.6 percent.

Granted, sustaining a high percentage with a high volume of attempts is what separates the great shooters from the merely good or average ones. And it is not clear that anyone on the Wolves can be that sustaining outside threat.

But there are also no shortage of potential candidates. It is interesting to note that in Thibs’ final year in Chicago, Butler used a greater percentage of his shot attempts on three-pointers, and made those threes with greater accuracy, than at any other point in his career. Wiggins boosted his three-point percentage from 30 to 35.6 last season on significantly more frequent attempts. Teague was a 40 percent shooter from deep two years ago on a career-high number of attempts.

Furthermore, it is not as if the Wolves have to live and die by the three. No, it is hardly optimal to not have as many outside threats as opponents. But the Wolves actually have strengthened the way they were so efficient on offense last season — putbacks off offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line. Gibson excels at offensive rebounding and will clean up the boards on the weakside when Towns is double-teamed in the paint. Towns, of course, is arguably the NBA’s most prolific putback artist. Meanwhile, adding Butler to Wiggins gives Minnesota two wing players who thrive on drawing fouls.

Going for broke

Thibodeau’s approach to payroll is a little tougher to defend, especially since he still has five or six roster spots to fill and very few resources to do it that don’t involve packaging the top draft pick they got in the Rubio trade with Cole Aldrich, their primary free agent acquisition from last season.

One can argue that Thibs is using the vets as a bridge to catalyze the development and eventual dominance of Towns and Wiggins. In this view, Gibson is signed for two years, and both Butler and Teague have player options on the third year of their respective three-year deals.

But the rosy scenario of a seamless transition from the vets to the emerging kids is hardly guaranteed. To the surprise of almost everyone, the salary cap for this coming season actually declined from an expected $103 million down to $99 million (it is based on a percentage of total revenues). And the Wolves are looking at a potential train wreck for the 2019-20 season.

At that point, Wiggins and Towns are almost sure to have been offered maximum contracts, paying a combined $50 million per season ($25 million apiece). If the salary cap isn’t rising and clubs are hamstrung from making big deals, folks like Butler and Teague may well opt in for the $19 million apiece they are owed in 2019-20. Meanwhile, Dieng will still be pulling down his $14 million per season.

That’s $102 million for five players. Ideally, the Wolves will be a team that goes deep into the playoffs by then, generating the kind of gate receipts and enthusiasm for the future that will convince owner Glen Taylor to lay the big bucks.

But over the past couple of weeks, the Western Conference has become even more brutally competitive, making even a playoff trip a signal accomplishment. Indeed, despite their obvious improvements, the Wolves currently seem like they in a large cluster of teams outside of the top three of Golden State, Houston and San Antonio, scrapping with as many as seven other clubs for the remaining five playoff spots.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Wolves fans understand that frustration all too well. But what if you venture and still gain nothing? That’s a potentially bittersweet drama that adds an extra tang to what will be one of the most exciting and consequential campaigns in Wolves history.