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Timberwolves media day takeaway: Can Butler and Wiggins play nice together?

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Andrew Wiggins on Jimmy Butler: “I feel we’re both unselfish players. He likes to pass the ball and I like to pass the ball.”

Media Day — the meet-and-greet occasion when the NBA off-season becomes the preseason — happened on Friday for the 2017-18 edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves, about two weeks ahead of the typical early October timeline. The jumpstart is the result of the league stretching its regular season forward — up to October 17 — to accommodate more off days between games for the players. In addition, the Wolves and Golden State Warriors were given another early bump because they’ll soon be headed off to China for a pair of exhibition games.

The Wolves fan base isn’t complaining. After an off-season in which the team dramatically altered its roster, changing the tenor of its personality and collapsing the timing of its learning curve without sacrificing their two cornerstone young talents, folks can’t wait for the 2017-18 campaign to unfold.

Media Day itself remains something of a shaggy ritual. Wolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau and his general manager Scott Layden took questions from the assembled writers and talkers for about thirty minutes, and each player on the roster cycled in for a ten-minute segment.

These exchanges generally blend the stilted humor of speed dating with the bureaucratic tedium of a corporate update. But after months of social media snark and controversy, deep dives into analytic stat-crunches of wildly varying value and relevance, and the weird coalescing of consensus in a vacuum, it’s refreshing for us “media” to be able to peruse these athletes for signs of new muscle tone, attitude adjustments, or simply the visual confirmation that we really are getting close to a return of NBA hoops.  

Then there is the added enticement that this coming season will not be squalid business as usual. The popular way to describe Timberwolves ineptitude is to note that the franchise currently has the longest postseason drought in the NBA — 13 straight seasons without making the playoffs. But that doesn’t really capture the wretched dearth of hope and gumption that a succession of hapless squads have visited on the Wolves faithful over that time.

Way back in 2004-05, the Wolves finished with a record of 44-38 and missed out on the eighth and final playoff spot by one game. In the dozen years since then, Minnesota has not only never had a winning season, they have finished an average of 18.5 games behind the eighth place team in their conference. That’s right, for the past 12 years, the closest the Wolves have gotten to snagging that final playoff spot — which itself is just a chance to be first-round mincemeat for the top team in the conference — has been 9 games.

But with the acquisition of 2-way star swingman Jimmy Butler, the greening of young cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and an up-to-his-elbows molding of the roster by Thibodeau in a manner that makes him unquestionably accountable for the end result, the Wolves are suddenly expected to make the playoffs this season. This is alien territory for the franchise, who haven’t strayed into that kind of respectability since before Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics.

Should we believe the hype? Media Day offered the first concentrated and concrete responses by which we can begin addressing that question.

An overpaid sidekick?

Barring a slew of injuries or some other capricious misfortune, the most realistic ways in which this Wolves season can go off the rails include the inability of Andrew Wiggins to start living up to the 5-year $148-million contract he is about to sign; chronic breakdowns on defense from the top rotation players; an absence of roster depth; and insufficient three-point shooting.

Begin with Wiggins, who seems destined to be the largest x factor as the Wolves strive to transform tantalizing potential into genuine production.

Ideally, Wigs would size up the acquisition of Butler and the comprehensive scoring prowess of Towns and conclude that the largest contract in Wolves history should be earned through a greater commitment to defense, more conscientious ball movement, and getting himself open and accurate from behind the three-point arc.

Wiggins is justifiably proud of his ability to generate his own shot in isolation — it is a relatively rare and valuable skill. But Butler is better at it due to his superior ball-handling, court vision and crunch time free-throw shooting. Then there is KAT, who requires a boatload of touches in the paint because Thibs likes to run his offensive sets from the inside out and because KAT already sports a phenomenal combination of sophisticated footwork and ambidextrous shooting finesse that will likely put him in the Hall of Fame someday.

In other words, as wonderful as Wigs can be off the bounce, he is appropriately the third scoring option on this team. If he recognized this and rounded out the other aspects of his game that need improvement, he might appear to be an overpaid sidekick, but he would be an incredibly valuable cog on a team that could easily evolve into a championship contender.

The comments made during Media Day do not offer much hope that Wiggins will maximize his value in that manner. Thibs regularly referred to him as a “primary scorer,” Towns invoked the nickname that mixes ridiculous hyperbole with Wiggins’ Canadian lineage — “Maple Jordan” — and Wiggins claimed that he regarded himself as “a number one option.”

Wiggins did allow that other teammates could rightly regard themselves in a similar manner. And it was nice to hear the quiet confidence ooze forth when he said “me and Jimmy are going to be a problem on both the offensive side and the defensive side.”

That co-alpha attitude is probably inevitable, but, at best, premature. Answering the question about touches and priorities in the offensive flow on the wing with Butler, Wiggins said, “I feel we’re both unselfish players. He likes to pass the ball and I like to pass the ball.”

Except that Butler likes to pass it much more often. Wiggins led the Wolves in usage rate (which estimates direct involvement in the team’s plays when on the court) last season at 29.0 percent, yet only Gorgui Dieng had a lower assist percentage among the five starters. By contrast, Butler led the Bulls with a 26.5 usage rate but ranked second to point guard Rajon Rondo on the Bulls roster with an assist percentage of 24.8, more than double Wiggins percentage of 10.6, according to basketball-reference.com.

It is entirely understandable that someone about to sign a maximum contract is going to regard himself as an alpha dog — one could argue that Wiggins would be cheating his potential if he didn’t. Thibodeau, who wisely parted with Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn in order to land Butler but reportedly resisted trading Wiggins in a deal with Cleveland for Kyrie Irving, claims that Wigs “wants to be great” and has tied his fate to the sincerity and fulfillment of that desire. Best of all, Wiggins looks broader in the shoulders and has added five pounds of mostly muscle.

Wiggins is a polarizing figure among the die-hards in the Wolves fan base — his performance through the lens of analytics leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve always defended his game — his raw talent is elite and I’ve convinced myself that his inscrutable mien is his sage response to the reality-show culture, honed in part by being the child of two star athletes. The grit and competitive desire are there — but so are the lapses in focus and effort, apparent to anyone who watches the Wolves on a regular basis.

Thibs contends that Wiggins’ flaws are simply the growing pains of a kid who entered the NBA as a teen. And it’s important to note that until this season he has never had the same head coach two years in a row since he left high school.

All that said, it is time to take the kid-gloves off when evaluating Andrew Wiggins. He is about to become a max player. He has already logged more playing time as a Timberwolf than anyone else on the roster. (Look it up.) Figuring out how to maximize his contribution to the ball club is as much his responsibility as Thibodeau’s, Butler’s or anyone else.

The Thibodeau makeover

During some of the Wolves’ least inspired, chronically clueless stretches of play during the 2016-17 season, there were murmurs that perhaps the Tom Thibodeau coaching magic had fallen prey to the space-and-pace dazzle of a new NBA era. We will find out this season. After milking as many minutes as possible out Towns, Wiggins and LaVine (until he was injured) and chaining his journeyman veterans to the bench, Thibs completed his due diligence and blatantly overhauled the roster in a manner that reflects his style and his priorities, and generates much greater intimacy with his behavior and expectations.

Butler is the crown jewel in this not-so-subtle remaking of the Wolves in Thibodeau’s image. Butler was coached by Thibs in Chicago his first four seasons out of college and it is probably fair to say that no player has ever demonstrated greater improvement with Thibs at the helm. That’s a tribute to both men, but it is also the synergy of a shared temperament at work — they are driven, vocal, scrappy underdog types who derive their strength and confidence from sweat equity.

“One thing I think I have over everybody is that mental toughness,” Butler told the assembled throng on Media Day. “I may not be the most talented; I may not be this and I may not be that. But you’ll never take the heart from me….You can’t control how hard I play. I control that.”

Word for word, that could also stand as Thibodeau’s credo as a coach.

Jimmy Butler is the crown jewel in this not-so-subtle remaking of the Wolves
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Jimmy Butler is the crown jewel in this not-so-subtle remaking of the Wolves in Tom Thibodeau’s image.

In an earlier interview with former Wolves beat writer and current NBA.com columnist Steve Aschburner, Butler also mentioned how he expects to be a translator and occasional mitigator of Thibodeau’s consistently brash and antic communication methods. In that he will have plenty of assistance — something that was sorely lacking last season.

One of the more notable failures during Thibs’ first season running the Wolves was discovering how ill-suited the three veterans he signed were in implementing his agenda both on and off the court. To varying degrees, Cole Aldrich (who remains with the team this season), Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill were all nice guys and relatively class acts. But none possessed the organic authority that comes with having been a vital cog on a winning team.

As Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and Aaron Brooks took their turns at the microphone on Media Day, it was easy to see how a cabal of healthy perspective would naturally cohere among these veterans, all with at least eight years of experience as regular rotation players on predominantly successful teams. Along with Butler, this quartet will regulate the locker room by example and direct counsel.

Teague commanded the highest salary, but Gibson feels like the most important new acquisition after Butler. Both in his introductory press conference after he was signed this summer and in his Media Day appearance, he comes across as a player who would run through a wall for Thibodeau — and know exactly the spot where the wall-bashing would be most successful.

There was a stretch last season right after the All Star break when the Wolves finally delivered the kind of defensive cohesion and tenacity that many expected much earlier out of a Thibodeau team. It coincided with the emergence of 6-10 stretch power-forward Nemanja Bjelica getting extended minutes and pointed out the absolute priority of securing a mobile big man who could defend out on the perimeter and still mix it up successfully under the basket.

Gibson is that player. Thibodeau raves about his ability to guard multiple positions and seamlessly switch on pick-and-roll plays. Gibson returns the love by proclaiming that Thibs blends a copiously detailed approach to defense with the ability to adjust his game-plan to address the weaknesses of his players when matchups and schemes aren’t panning out.

As well as Towns and Gorgui Dieng seemed to function as a frontcourt duo last season, Towns was exposed on defense without a savvy compatriot like Kevin Garnett covering up his tendency to overcommit, take bad angles or simply misread the appropriate reaction necessary under the abiding defensive scheme. Gibson will fulfill that role and hopefully also offer up enough of an example that Towns gets into the rhythm of team defense. KAT’s frequent proclamation during Media Day that he can rely more on his “instincts” at the defensive end this season is troubling if those instinctual reactions aren’t formed by a greater knowledge of what his teammates are doing.

In any case, it is clear that Thibs will deploy Butler as a wing stopper and Gibson as an all-purpose big man on defense in much the same way that he deployed Luol Deng on the wing and Joakim Noah as the big during his prime seasons orchestrating the Bulls defense. The difference is that Gibson will not play nearly as often because Dieng is a far better offensive player and a quality contributor overall. But Gibson will be a crucial tone-setter.

The de facto swap of Teague in at the point for the departed Ricky Rubio also caters to a specific Thibodeau idiosyncrasy. Given his vaunted reputation as a defensive guru, it is revealing to realize that during his stint in Chicago, he continually opted for small, jittery, scoring-oriented point guards — the epitome of Teague and the opposite of Rubio.

When listing the reasons why he coveted Teague, Thibs usually begins by noting how tough it was to devise schemes that prevented the point-guard from executing the pick-and-roll. This is pure conjecture on my part, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Thibs was also turned off by the way Rubio allowed his intensity to overwhelm his common sense during crunch time of close games — be it flopping on defense, rubbing parts of his body with a wince after an unsuccessful gambit and simply straining to thrive. For better or worse, Teague is cooler under pressure. I’d personally rather have Rubio than Teague, even with Butler as the likely initiator of the offense in crunch time. But Teague — and Brooks, another smallish scorer, who played for Thibs in Chicago — is the prototype he prefers.

Which brings us to Jamal Crawford, 37 years old and clearly on the decline — known primarily as a scorer, his true shooting percentage has actually been less than Rubio’s the past two seasons. But his ten-minute stint on Media Day made it clear why he remains one of the most well-liked and respected players in the league. Affable, insightful, laid-back, candid and humorous without stepping on toes, it is hard not to imagine him being anything other than an anodyne presence among his teammates.

Is Crawford likely to be among a bench crew that plays awful defense? Yup. But if that is the most glaring weakness on the ball club this season, the scene at Target Center, which has been under heavy reconstruction through most of the summer and early fall, will be one of rejuvenation in more ways than one.  

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Comments (11)

Did not like article

Little doubt that Wiggins will deserve criticisms if he doesn't live up to his large contract, but I thought this a rather insulting article regarding Wiggins...lot's of what ifs.
I think we should analyze Thibs for his historic failure to use his bench, wearing out his players and leaving them exhausted in the event of a playoff berth.
That is more my concern than a divisive article of this nature.

what ifs more charitable that what is's

Gene--

I gather you haven't read me much.

If you are asking me to write that Wiggins is the current equal of Butler and Towns, you are going to be disappointed. If you are expecting me to not balance the many moments of undeniable optimism I expressed about this team with the ways I fear things could go awry, you are probably better off with Sid Hartman.

If you think that right now Wiggins is worth 5-years and $148 million, you need to watch more pro basketball. While you watch, please notice if his lapses in focus and effort are continuing to occur, because I watch every minute of every game and wouldn't write such a plainspoken thing if I didn't see it.

Maybe it would help if you googled my name with Wiggins. You'd see that I am a longtime, detailed defender of his--you want divisive, my takes on Zach LaVine are the place to go.

You know what they say: You can't please all of the people all of the time. And I'm not trying to please anybody. I'm just providing the most honest assessment I can muster.

Thanks for reading and responding.

Still can't believe this is our team

The last time I was this excited for the Wolves was probably in 2012, when the big moves were signing Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. What I'm most impressed with (from a front-office perspective) is that we've directly addressed some of this team's weaknesses before they manifest themselves as larger problems.

For example, we all love Ricky's game, but if I had to talk myself into how his shooting is "just about to turn the corner" for another year, I'm not sure I could handle it. Rubio maximizes the talent of those around him, but that glaring weakness (shooting) puts a ceiling on where this team can go in the future. Point guards need to shoot in the modern NBA, and the Wolves have acquired someone who can. Teague shot 40 percent from downtown two years ago for the Hawks.

Second, we had a pending decision on a max for LaVine, who is far more problematic on defense than Wiggins, but who is absolutely a lights-out shooter and fantastic athlete (before the injury - I'm hopeful he bounces back). Instead of making that decision, we packaged him with the struggling rookie Kris Dunn and gained a bona-fide max player in Jimmy Butler.

And while some of the recent signings are "Thibs guys" (Brooks, Gibson), I like that he knows what they'll bring in terms of a locker room presence. Going from KG and Tayshaun Prince two years ago to Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill was a big shift in pecking order, and getting vets who still have something left in the tank is critical not only for team cohesion, but also to prevent a dropoff when we go to the bench. Our bench has certainly improved, but lots of non-starters can't play much defense - let's hope that changes over time.

Britt...Love your stuff

Love the honesty and directness.

The comment "you are no Sid Hartman" is reflective of your directness...and I would consider a massive compliment.

I read Sid as well,....however he has been the ultimate homer/apologist for the local teams longer than both of us have been alive....

Keep up the good work.

Greg Price

2017

I like Britts work as well as the next casual fan, but I didn't care for the tone of this one. This will be the best squad in a long time, and I will take your wagers that the record will reflect that. These guys are pros. Wiggins will do what he needs to do. Kat will get better. Maybe neither of them will end up with the ball beyond the 3 point line with the clock running out as often this year. I'm not familiar with Butlers work, but it seems like he an elite NBA player who will find a way to raise his teammates games if it helps the team succeed.

It's not my job to wave your pom poms

Charles--

I'm actually quite optimistic about this team. I did a rah-rah story in reaction to the Butler trade and have been pretty upbeat the entire off-season--including this piece.

But as I plainly stated in the first section of the piece, that is the abiding consensus of most folks. It is easy to look at Butler-Towns-Wigs and gush, but teamwork is more complicated than that--and thus more interesting to analyze and write about.

For example, what exactly does Wiggins "need to do"? Just because Wiggins is a pro doesn't mean he is void of weaknesses--or that other pros aren't devising ways to exploit those weaknesses.

As for "the best squad in a long time," well, simply winning as many games as they lose would ratify that statement because it hasn't happened in a dozen years. But if the Wolves go 41-41, I'm guessing many folks will be disappointed.

That's the context I'm working with. The Wolves traded for one guy making $19 million, signed another guy for $19 million and are about to sign a third for $25 million. Next year it is Towns' turn.

Time to get serious, and to treat this team seriously.

Thanks for reading and responding.

The biggest mistake that Thibodeau made in the offseason...

...might be trading an already Thibs-blast motivated Ricky Rubio to the in-division rival Utah Jazz...

...for a lottery protected first rounder originally from Oklahoma City...

...after the Thunder basically went all-in for this season in the free agent market (thus likely making that draft pick lower than it otherwise would have been).

The consensus I am seeing in Salt Lake City (via SLC Dunk) is that Rubio will fit in quite nicely, although there's worry about his shooting - but there's also consensus that Quin Snyder will push Rubio to keep improving as he did post-ASG last season, and Rubio won't need much pushing, if he wants a decent next contract in two years.

From what I am seeing, the consensus of the national media seems to be that the Timberwolves will reach the 4th seed / 50 or so wins, and that the Jazz won't make the playoffs at all. My thought is that the Timberwolves are unproven right now, and that the Jazz, although having lost Gordon Hayward, still have enough pieces to make the playoffs.

Having two foreign exchange students living with me this year who both love basketball, and want to see Timberwolves games at Target Center this season, I still must pay attention to the Timberwolves, even though my heart was traded to Utah along with Rubio (and if anyone wants to criticize me for following Rubio to Utah, consider, first, that I had given up on the NBA, as well as about everything else fun, in the late 90's, when my mother was (as it happened) very slowly terminally ill, and I was caring for her in our home, for six years...and it took Ricky Rubio to bring me back to the NBA at all).

I'm thinking that the Timberwolves won't make the playoffs if too many of these things occur:

1 - Andrew Wiggins does not play much better defense
2 - Karl-Anthony Towns does not improve his defense (he needs less improvement than Wiggins, but he must improve)
3 - Jeff Teague doesn't play as well as the Jeff Teague that Thibodeau thought he was getting (I've gone Elsa and tried very hard to let comparisons between Teague and Rubio go, as far as possible)
4 - Either Jimmy Butler or Towns miss more than 12 games due to injury (if both do, it's going to be very hard, with the relatively weak bench that the Timberwolves have, for them to make the playoffs)
5 - Gorgui Dieng regresses at all this season (I think if he improves even slightly, the Timberwolves' playoff chances will improve significantly).

My guess? The Timberwolves can make the playoffs, but if Wiggins and Towns "know" for any significant length of time before the All Star Game that they will make the playoffs, they're in danger of not making the playoffs, because your point that both must improve significantly on defense is accurate, and to do that, they cannot take as many plays off on defense as they did last season.

If Wiggins and Towns both improve as they need to, I'd say 50 wins is possible, but 48 is more likely, based on how things stand as of right now - and the April game at Target Center with the Jazz could help decide whether the Timberwolves finish ahead of the Jazz or not, because I'd say that the Jazz will be in the around 50 win area too.

Wolves

I disagree with Britt sometimes, but I thought this article was pretty much spot on.

There are a lot of problems with this team. Wiggins is a very flawed player, and certainly not worth that contract (although they probably had to do it to keep him). I'd rather have Rubio - shooting less important with Wiggins and Butler already competing for shots. I think Thibs has a hard time adapting when the players aren't exactly what he wants.

I think the over/under is 48.5 wins. I'm taking the under.

Trade Wiggins?

If Wiggins keeps sitting on signing his max contract (what's that about anyway?) Thibs/Layden should trade him ASAP before he goes max. His non-signing is a pretty clear message that he's not thrilled about the Thibs regime and having to play hard. Or does he have a Kyrie Complex? The longer the season goes on, the less they'll get for him.

This team is deeper than many think and can go big/small once they and Thibs figure each other out. Hopefully, the vets help with all that. So they should consider trading Wiggins for a high pick or solid young swing man who is a comer and actually wants to play the game hard. Package him with Aldrich to up the ante. And Muhammad is no bum in the meantime. He can still grow alot with a little direction. The talent is there.

PS: Thibs still has to learn (as Jo Noah once said) "to manage the minutes thing." He has his players now and some depth; it's a prove-it year for him too. In any case, this team borders on greatness and is almost guaranteed to make the playoffs, barring injuries of course.

Meh

I think thibs has transformed our team from one that was learning together on a slow curve upward to one that will have as its ceiling the conference semi-finals. Teague was a lateral move that cost us $4M per year more. We still have a weak bench with little to no D, and 4 high volume players who all need the ball in their hands to be effective. Additionally, we still have an unbalanced roster with little depth at key positions.

Couldn't agree more.

Couldn't agree more.