Minnesota Timberwolves: New Era, New Look
The Minnesota Timberwolves are going through some significant changes this year. During this offseason, they released their new logo and slogan on April 11th, their new uniforms on August 10th, and are conducting major renovations on the Target Center. They are investing in creating a new image for a team with high expectations.
While these cosmetic upgrades are nice, the biggest change is the activity of the front office. The Timberwolves are the most active they have been when it comes to acquiring players in the offseason in franchise history. These acquisitions (Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson) will be making an immediate impact as all three will likely be joining Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in the starting lineup. Many people thought that last year was the year the Timberwolves were going to make a big jump, but it looks like this will be the year Minnesota will be back in the playoffs. As the Timberwolves make their push to end their 13-year playoff drought, here is what you can look for from their new starting lineup.
Minnesota has been pursuing Jimmy Butler ever since Tom Thibodeau joined the franchise. On draft night, the two teams were finally able to agree on a trade that sent Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and the number seven pick to Chicago for Jimmy Butler and the number 16 pick. Butler is a top-15 NBA player who immediately helps the Wolves as an elite defensive and playmaking wing. Butler continued his ascent last season and was unequivocally the star of the Chicago Bulls.
Last season, Butler was able to take on a higher offensive workload without losing any of his impact on defense. His points per game jumped from 20.9 to 23.9, his assists climbed from 4.8 to 5.5, and his rebounds increased from 5.3 to 6.2. As he took on a bigger role, his usage rate increased. For most players, this usually leads to drops in efficiency, but that was not the case for Butler. His PER rose to 25.1, 13th among players who recorded at least 1900 minutes, and his True Shooting Percentage increased from 56.2% to 58.6%.
Very few players are elite on both ends of the floor, especially when they take on a bigger role, but Butler continued to be one of the best defensive wings in the NBA. He averaged 1.9 steals and had a defensive rating of 106 (similar to Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, and Andre Roberson). Now reunited with Thibodeau, I would expect Butler to have another fantastic year. He will again be the leader and star on a young team oozing with potential.
Towns’ first two seasons in the league have rivaled those of former greats. After his historic rookie campaign, Towns continued his dominance last season as he became the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 100 three pointers and the youngest to join the 2,000 point, 1,000 rebound club. Towns improved across the board offensively last year while his PER jumped to 25.9. With the addition of more versatile offensive players like Butler and Teague, Towns will continue to be a focal point in the offense as he can score from anywhere on the floor.
The biggest issue with Towns last season was a drop in his defensive performance. His defensive rating rose to 110 while his steals, blocks, and defensive rebounds per game all dropped. The expectation was for the Wolves defense to improve under Thibodeau’s guidance. Instead, the Wolves’ young talent struggled with the new defensive concepts. Towns has too much talent and basketball IQ to be a bad defender. With a full year in this defensive system and the addition of Taj Gibson, I would expect Towns to improve his defense while he continues to thrive on offense.
Wiggins entered the NBA with the perception he had potential to be the next elite two-way wing. It seemed inevitable Wiggins would at least be a solid wing defender. After his first three years, the exact opposite has come true as Wiggins has improved offensively every year while becoming more of a defensive liability. At Kansas, Wiggins showed that he has the skill and physical ability to be a top level defender. After posting a horrible defensive box plus/minus of -2.9, he can only get better.
In his first three years, Wiggins played for three different head coaches, and this will be the first year with coach continuity. That should help him further develop his understanding and comfort level of the defensive system. Besides the organizational consistency, the additions of Butler, Teague, and Gibson will help Wiggins tremendously. Butler and Gibson will be able to provide that veteran leadership and aid with Thibodeau’s system and expectations. Butler and Teague will also be able to help take the load off of Wiggins on offense. Last season Wiggins had a usage rate of 29% while recording the most minutes in the league. That workload forced him to take possessions off on defense and to be very inefficient on offense with a low PER of 16.5. The addition of these free agents will help Wiggins fully round out his game. His usage rate should drop while his efficiency and overall offensive and defensive ratings improve.
The signing of Teague marked the Wolves moving on from Ricky Rubio. Rubio is a better defender and passer than Teague but struggles to stretch the floor and be a legitimate offensive weapon. The NBA is in the golden age of point guards, and teams have to have someone who can run the offense, score on his own, and navigate the pick-and-roll. Teague checks all those boxes for the Wolves. Teague will help take some of the offensive load off of Wiggins and Towns while creating a more diverse usage rate across the floor.
One of the most common actions in the NBA right now is the pick-and-roll so having a point guard who can masterfully navigate it is essential. Per Synergy, when Teague is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, the team averages 1.13 points per possession which place him in the 89th percentile of the league. Expect to see the Wolves run a lot of pick-and-roll between Teague and Towns while Butler and Wiggins are threatening on cuts and kick-outs. The addition of Teague won’t help the defense, but it will allow the Wolves to run a more creative and diverse offense.
Taj Gibson was a rather controversial signing among the fan base. Many worried that Thibodeau was making the same mistake many coaches make by just signing their former players. While it would have been nice to see the Wolves use that money to add some outside shooting, something they need, I don’t hate the signing. Gibson won’t help a ton on offense, but he will bring a defensive intensity that the team desperately needs. The addition of Gibson will provide a toughness that they haven’t had in years. He will take some of the low-post defensive responsibilities off of Towns while also helping him develop positive defensive habits, similar to Butler and Wiggins. You can easily argue that this impact isn’t worth the amount they paid for him, but he will help make the Wolves a better team that opponents will not be looking forward to seeing on their schedule.