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.
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.