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Great expectations: the Minnesota Timberwolves 2017-18 season preview

Welcome to the first step on what should be a thrilling — and expensive — road to relevance. 

Jimmy Butler will earn $18.7 million.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

There is a new logo. There are new uniforms. A ballyhooed refurbishment of Target Center has brought forth new concourses, new food items on the concession menu, new toilets and new signage, all wrapped in what appears to be countless panels of brown aluminum siding.

But if you really want to know just how vehemently the Minnesota Timberwolves have labored to demolish all the dreadful vestiges of their past decade of ineptitude in preparation for the 2017-18 NBA season, follow the money being showered on the payroll.

Last year, the second-highest salary among all of the Wolves’ active players belonged to Cole Aldrich, a journeyman center clocking in at $7.6 million. Ricky Rubio topped the list at $13.55 million. Eight players were still on their cheap rookie contracts.

During the off-season, the Wolves traded Rubio and signed Jeff Teague to replace him at $19 million this year. They traded for swingman Jimmy Butler, who will earn $18.7 million. Another free agent, power forward Taj Gibson, was signed for $14 million, and the contract that center-forward Gorgui Dieng inked last year will kick in to the tune of $14.1 million this season.

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This spending spree was undertaken despite the plethora of zeroes that will soon be affixed to the end of paychecks awarded the Wolves two young cornerstones in coming seasons. Last week, swingman Andrew Wiggins signed a 5-year, $147 million contract that will go into effect at $25.5 million next season and $27.5 million the year after that. Next October, barring catastrophe, center Karl-Anthony Towns will also sign a maximum deal and hop on roughly the same five-year salary escalator a season behind Wiggins.

Two years from today, unless either Teague and Butler exercise their player options to somehow chase even more money elsewhere, or the Wolves unload Dieng in a salary dump, owner Glen Taylor will be remitting $108 million in order to fill out a mere one-third of his 15-man roster.

If you drop that kind of coin and don’t deliver multiple playoff appearances and a legitimate shot at championship contention, then the front office has mismanaged its resources and the signature stars have underperformed.

The first step on this high-wire journey begins Wednesday, when the Wolves open the 2016-17 season. Gone are the jokes about the retreads and obscurities populating the starting lineup. And the warranty on the catchphrases of the past three seasons — “exciting young talent,” “needs time to mature,” “going to be great” — are suddenly nearing their expiration date.

You think the new uniforms are a change? A franchise that has accumulated literally dozens more defeats than any of its 29 NBA counterparts over the past decade — that hasn’t had a winning record nor come within 8 games of 8th place in the Western Conference for a dozen years — will be widely regarded as a bust if they don’t secure a playoff spot in what has arguably become the most brutally competitive conference ever assembled in NBA history.

The necessity of Butler

Such a monumental reversal of fortune couldn’t be contemplated without the addition of a charmed catalyst whose versatile virtues happen to line up almost exactly with the gaping holes in the fiber and framework of the ballclub.

Jimmy Butler is that catalyst.

Butler is a blue-collar star for whom it is second nature to swim upstream. There are many high-character players in the NBA who dedicate themselves to demonstrating mental toughness, but the ones who have confronted chronic adversity at impressionable periods in their lives have a built-in advantage in that department. Without citing all the claw marks on Butler’s résumé, suffice to say that he has earned his merit badge in leadership.

As a basketball player coming into the NBA with the Chicago Bulls, he was nourished in the cauldron provided by his doppelganger in temperament, Tom Thibodeau, a coach who places a premium on sweat equity. That Thibs — the current architect of the Wolves as both head coach and president of basketball operations — was able to acquire his greatest individual success story at the prime of Butler’s career for the price of callow guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn (plus a swap of first-round draft picks) remains a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment in Timberwolves history.

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At practice and in the locker room, Butler is the ideal person to parse the unrelenting mania of Thibodeau’s coaching style to the rest of the roster, but especially Towns and Wiggins, whose genuine desire for mental toughness is obstructed by the nonstop chatter and adulation their enormous potential inevitably creates within the hoops community.

Butler can soothe their egos or kick their asses as the situation warrants. Compare that to a year ago, when Towns announced he had spent the offseason interviewing Hall of Famers on how best to provide leadership, while Wiggins’ retained the opaque demeanor and dilapidated skill set that provides ample, polarizing fuel to both to the idolaters and the haters of his play.

On the court, Butler is the talisman of rugged team defense for remnants of a unit that, even with the fabled defensive guru Thibs at the helm last season, finished 26th among the 30 teams in defensive rating (points allowed per possession). On offense, he has a pedigree as a “closer,” a confident, stabilizing force as the decision-maker with the ball in clutch situations — an obvious boon for a Wolves franchise that allowed double-digit leads to become losses in more than a quarter of its games last season.

Team chemistry is maximized when the pecking order on the team is appropriate, understood and accepted. Butler immediately becomes the abiding alpha who will help the rest of pieces fall into place, an absolute necessity on a young, inordinately talented yet perpetually underachieving team.

Three potential pitfalls

A “Big 3” of Butler, Towns and Wiggins, abetted by veteran winner Teague at the point and defensive specialist Gibson at power forward, has convinced people who make their living on basketball performance that the 2017-18 Wolves are a legitimate playoff team.

The Vegas oddsmakers established their win total at 48.5 (some have revised that down to 46.5 in the wake of late trades around the league), which represents a formidable leap from last year’s 31 victories and would place the Wolves as the 5th seed in the Western Conference postseason. A poll of NBA general managers at put the Wolves at the top of the “Most Improved Team” category and once again named Towns as the player they would choose above all others if starting an NBA franchise from scratch.

But there are at least three specific areas where the Wolves are vulnerable. For a franchise that has not yet “learned how to win,” confronting a beefed-up conference that runs at least 11 teams deep as viable competitors for eight playoff spots, these deficiencies open up a variety of ways in which this season could yet result in crushing disappointment.

Begin with defense. All three pillars of last season’s team — Thibodeau, Towns and Wiggins — took hits to their reputation due to the clueless and stubbornly inconsistent manner in which the Wolves tried to stop opponents from scoring. From all three principals, it was a flat-out regression from past performance.

Optimists take heart in the fact that when Wiggins and Towns were alongside two vocal and savvy vets like Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince two years ago, team defense was frequently a coordinated thing of beauty. Plug Gibson in KG and Butler in for Prince and you have an equally vocal and more spry tandem (if not as much wisdom) to caulk the defensive seams.

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Granted. But Ricky Rubio played point guard on that unit and he has more size and better defensive instincts than Teague both on and off the ball. Also, Thibodeau’s defensive schemes are more complex and demanding than Sam Mitchell’s from two seasons ago — Towns admitted his befuddlement last season during Media Day in September, and it is not a stretch to imagine that Wiggins also got confused. (That the then-21-year-old, 199-pound Wiggins led the NBA in minutes played while manning the small forward position 93 percent of the time is another factor.)

The most significant wild card here is the mental toughness factor alluded to earlier. If both Towns and Wiggins have the discipline and the gumption to tune out the plaudits and concentrate their focus on the grimy, unsung industry of getting stops on defense, even at the expense of their offensive prowess, the Wolves will almost certainly ratify the lofty projections set forth for them this season.

Unfortunately, that is also assuming that the starters stay healthy despite Thibodeau’s infamous tendency to shun reinforcements off the bench. The makeup of the second unit is where one potential pitfall, iffy defense, meets another, lack of depth.

Dieng is expected to anchor the defense off the bench and he is indeed a player who diligently respects and follows the prevailing coverage schemes (sometimes to a fault when sudden adjustments are required). His frontcourt partner will usually be Nemanja Bjelica, whose presence among the starters last season spurred the team’s best defensive stint of the season, primarily because his length and quickness contested perimeter shots versus opponents playing the space-and-pace small ball that is a hallmark of the modern NBA offense.

But during the preseason, Bjelly reminded us that he is often fatally caught in space when his man fakes the jumper and drives toward the hoop. Yes, he was coming off an injury, but the fact is that Bjelly-Dieng is neither optimally rugged nor instinctively rapid in their reads and reactions. And they comprise the defensive strength of a unit that also includes defensive sieve Bazzy Muhammad on the wing with the undersized Tyus Jones at the point and the aged and always defensively-mediocre Jamal Crawford in the backcourt.

The best argument for better Wolves defensive is the infinite upgrade from the easily torched LaVine to Butler on the wing, which has the added advantage of moving Wiggins to smaller matchups at shooting guard. But if Butler were to get injured, the plunge down to Bazzy is precipitously fatal for a playoff team.

Butler, Towns and Wiggins have been phenomenally durable throughout the course of their careers. Because Dieng, Gibson and Bjelly are relatively reliable and capable in the frontcourt, losing Towns would not be quite as glaring as losing Butler and perhaps Wiggins from the backcourt. But the greater point is that the Wolves bench doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for physical setbacks among the starters — especially on defense.

The third potential pitfall that could realistically be invoked when arguing against the Wolves return to the playoffs is the absence of a deadly volume scorer from three-point range. This was the primary sacrifice in the no-brainer Butler deal, as LaVine led the team in three-point attempts and makes despite missing 35 games last season. The swapped draft picks in the deal also deprived Minnesota of the chance to obtain Lauri Markkanen, a sweet-shooting seven-footer snapped up by the Bulls with the ninth overall pick that originally belonged to the Wolves.

On the bright side, the Wolves unloaded two wretched long-range shooters from last season in Kris Dunn (28.8 percent from behind the three-point arc) and Ricky Rubio (30.6 percent), who were both well below the NBA average of 35.8 percent. Their current starting lineup features a bevy of decent three-point shooters, including Towns and Butler (both at 36.7 percent), Teague (35.7 percent) and Wiggins (35.6 percent).

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But it is harder to sustain a high shooting percentage when you are called upon to be a primary three-point weapon in an offense. Absent that weapon, opponents are comfortable packing the paint or at least not being magnetized out beyond the arc to throttle a proven volume marksman.

It sets up a fascinating dynamic. The Wolves ranked 10th in offensive efficiency last season despite finishing dead-last in three-point attempts. That’s because their young stars were masterful at controlling the offensive and scoring off of putbacks (Towns) or drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line (Wiggins).

This coming season pushes that envelope at both ends. The absence of LaVine makes then less able to magnetize defenders out to the perimeter to open up driving lanes. Yet the presence of Butler  (who draws fouls and free throws even better than Wiggins) and Gibson (a monster on the offensive boards) makes them even more adept at the old-fashioned ground-and-pound style of play that extends possessions and improves offensive efficiency.

Can a team reach the playoffs in the modern NBA without utilizing even the threat of a reliable three-pointer as an integral part of the offense? The Wolves will likely present a compelling test case in 2017-18.

A prediction …

A year ago at this time, besotted at the prospect of Thibs teaching defense to Towns and Wiggins while a cadre of well-chosen veteran acquisitions ably stocked the second unit, diminishing any concerns about pecking order drama, I boldly predicted 46 victories and a seventh seed in the playoffs. Then the defense took a disillusioning pratfall and the vets stayed chain-linked to the bench, where they probably belonged, and the Wolves limped in with a 31-51 record.

This season, justifiable concerns about defense and depth have not been ameliorated that much. But anytime you can replace the deceptively empty sizzle of Zach LaVine with the well-rounded and -grounded substance of Jimmy Butler, especially when Tom Thibodeau is the coach, the expected upgrade should be stupendous.

Whether or not the Wolves hit upon a satisfactory solution to their three-point drought, the offense should again rank among the top ten in efficiency and could crack the top five. I am going to assume ongoing health for the Big 3. And I am going to assume the presence of Butler and Gibson at minimum improves the defense to 20th or so in efficiency, even with Teague in for Rubio.

If the defensive focus and commitment of Towns and Wiggins remain sporadic and/or confused, the Wolves will scrap to grab one of the final two playoff berths. If Towns and Wiggins are fully engaged at the defensive end, the Wolves will be in the hunt for the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the postseason.

I’ll split the difference in those two scenarios and say Vegas has it right: 48 wins and a sixth seed — the first step on the thrilling, expensive road to relevance. 

… and a farewell

Finally, this season preview closes out my five-year tenure writing about the Timberwolves for MinnPost. It began in September 2012, when I asked the site’s editors if they would be interested in some juicy leftover nuggets from my interview with the perpetually quotable Wolves owner Glen Taylor for a profile for the Twin Cities Business Journal. I had just left and was looking to get back to focusing my NBA energies on the local franchise.

My time doing hoops at MinnPost has been one of the most positive relationships of my hopscotch career. My pay escalated as readership grew, but more importantly, the staff has been incredibly flexible in allowing me to set my own writing schedule and then turning around what I submit in rapid fashion so that I can be as incisive and timely as possible. My columns are generally much longer than the MinnPost norm, yet accommodations have been made, to the point where I have been able to make multi-part, mid-season Q&A interviews with the reigning architect of the Wolves a valuable tradition for me.

In summation, MinnPost has consistently worked to make me look good under my own idiosyncratic conditions, a rare and blessed event in journalism.

The other folks who deserve a shout-out here are my readers. I have treasured your loyalty, intelligence, curiosity, and willingness to debate on twitter and in the comments section. As I head over to The Athletic beginning on Wednesday, I understand the impediment of it being a paywall site for many of you. My response is threefold: I will sincerely endeavor to make it worth your while with more frequent copy; upcoming additions to the site will improve its value going forward, while those who still can’t make the leap are welcome to follow me on twitter or tune in to my podcasts with David Brauer.

Thanks for a marvelous five-year run. See you on the other side.