Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden have studied up. They know the players in tomorrow’s draft. They know about all the trades yesterday. They know they’ve got Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and a slew of other young, talented players.
“There’s been a lot of talk about trading the pick,” said Thibodeau, “so we know there’s great value in it. We like the players that are in the draft, both at our position and if we decide to move down a little bit. There’s a possibility of moving up as well. It’s a great position to be in.”
They’re not gonna make too much of this event, however. They’re not drafting No. 1 overall, and a lot can happen with the first six picks. Hell, they might even move down in the draft tomorrow.
“There’s always outliers,” said Thibodeau. “There’s always a player that maybe jumps up a little bit. But you also study that possibility, who has the capability or might be the person that does jump up and then you have to be ready if that knocks somebody back. You’ve gone through all those scenarios and played out every possibility. You want to be ready for everything.”
Thibodeau is pulling the levers for a team that won 31 games last year, 10 below the Vegas projection for them before the season started, and is entering his second year as president of basketball operations. But improvement comes not just from the draft, but also free agency and trades. One possibility is for the Wolves to trade the pick for a veteran player in an otherwise young locker room.
Layden believes this is a “historic” draft
“I don’t want to get stuck on is he a young guy, old guy,” said Thibodeau. “We want good players. If it can improve the team, that’s what we’re looking for. This is a process that you want to go through in terms of preparing for the draft. You don’t want to get stuck on this is a big event.”
Having said that, Layden believes this is a “historic” draft. Both he and Thibodeau would not tip their hand on which kind of player they would take. Without mentioning names, they said they could take a point guard as well as a big man. They would like a rim-protector to compliment Towns, but they also need shooting.
“I think the options are many,” said Layden. “When you get into a draft and have a high pick, generally you take the best player available. I think that holds true in most sports, because you can miss on a great player that might be there. We’ll take whoever is the best fit for us and you also are not looking at it as an isolated event, as just the draft.
“If it’s a point guard, if it’s a center, whatever the position is, if we feel it’s going to make our team better, that’s what we’ll do.”
An emerging narrative following this year’s Finals has been that it will be the Golden State Warriors vs. the field in the NBA for the foreseeable future. The Wolves aren’t at the contending stage yet, of course, but as a developing team with a generational talent like Towns and a proven scorer like Wiggins that is going to be under pressure to make the playoffs this year, Thibodeau was asked about the Warriors as a possible roadblock in the Western Conference.
“The Warriors have done a great job. … When you look back it wasn’t that long ago where they won 23 games”
“There’s always been dominant teams in the league. The Warriors have done a great job. You have to give them credit and it was built up over time. When you look back it wasn’t that long ago where they won 23 games,” said Thibodeau, referring to 2011-12 — Golden State’s most recent losing season.
“It was step by step and they got to the position they are in and of course that makes it attractive to other players. When you think about a team that won 73 games and they add a guy like [Kevin] Durant, that’s a tall task. For us, it’s not to get lost and remember it’s step by step, come in every day, work, improve, get better. At the end of the day, there’s one team that wins it, everyone else is chasing them. And so that’s what we have to strive to do.”
Taking the next step will likely require the Wolves to see players in free agency. Everyone here knows the narrative: Mid-sized city, cold in the winter, history of losing, etc. But given the salary cap structure and the increased competitiveness of the league, NBA free agency has shifted from a city-centric model to a player-centric one. Golden State’s arena is in Oakland and the team has a long history of losing, but Durant wanted to play with Steph Curry and Co. Cleveland is a small-market, Rust Belt city, but players want to play with LeBron James. Minnesota has Towns, Wiggins and a proven coach.
“The way it is today, these guys are all familiar with each other,” said Thibodeau, “and they’re used to having relationships, whether it was the AAU stuff, where they all travel and they’re all together, so there’s prior relationships.
“The players in this league are very aware. They watch, and they see and they think about how they could fit in and of course contracts are important. I think we’re in a good position there.”
“This is a very important summer for us”
So while the Wolves don’t want to get caught up in the hype around the NBA Draft, and shouldn’t, a lot of eyes are on them right now and will track what they do. In order to win, it’s going to take a combination of drafting, free agency and trades, and given that the core is solidifying in some sense, drafting and free agency are more attractive options because they do not require relinquishing assets. What Minnesota does between now and the beginning of the season will have major implications on whether they can create an attractive, winning culture that will bring in the free agents they need down the line.
“You want to think about all the steps you have to take along the way to make sure that you’re prepared for [the draft] and have a strategy for it,” said Thibodeau. “So I think Scott and his staff have done a great job of preparing for all the possibilities that could come our way, then to not lose sight of the guys that we do have here, to continue with their development. This is a very important summer for us.”
Thibodeau remains high on Kris Dunn, saying that he can be both a floor general and a wing stopper: “I actually just watched two games yesterday that he played very well in. He’s got really good vision, he’s unselfish. His defense, as you know, has been terrific from Day One. So I think he’ll continue to grow and get better, and I like the way he’s working this summer.”
He said that he believes that with Dunn, just like with any player he drafts, it’s not just about the first year, but the next two or three.
He also sees Nemanja Bjelica as a valuable player off the bench going forward: “He just went home for a short break, but he’s been in every day. That’s a critical piece for us. Prior to his injury, I thought that four or five weeks right after the All-Star Break, I thought he was playing great basketball.
“And so we have to get him back to playing like that. I thought he fits great with our team. His shooting, he’s bigger than you think, rebounds well, moves the ball, makes quick decisions. He’s a really good fit for us.”
And while he would not go into details, he was upset that his career was cut short: “We’re not gonna get into specifics other than we did waive him, and we want to thank him for all that he did here. It’s unfortunate that his career was cut short, because he’s a terrific talent, terrific guy.
“He did everything he could to come back, and it just got to the point where we just didn’t see it happening, so we felt that that was the best thing to do. But we want to thank him for all that he did for the organization.”