When you look at it, like in every season, there is going to be some good things, some things that you didn’t do as well as you would have liked. And then you want to formulate your plan going forward.
— Timberwolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau at his season-end press conference
The Minnesota Timberwolves should have made the playoffs this year. Had they gone over their Vegas projected total of 41.5 wins, they would have been in. The Portland Trail Blazers made it with a 41-41 record; Minnesota finished 31-51 — only two wins more than last year’s total.
“I came in with eyes wide open. In studying the numbers from last year, I knew where the team was. I knew the most important thing was to build the foundation, and to make sure that Andrew [Wiggins] and Karl[-Anthony Towns] developed a voice,” said Thibodeau when asked if his team failed to meet expectations before the final home game of the season.
“Your best players, you want them to lead and set the tone, and the best thing for us to take the long view. We probably could have added some different type of players, but I think this was the best plan for us.”
Thibodeau decided to avoid signing a veteran player to a poor contract while the rest of the league dished out money to underperforming players after the new nine-year, $24 billion television deal that the NBA struck with ESPN and Turner. Joakim Noah got $72 million. Evan Turner got $70 million. Timofey Mozgov got $64 million. And there were many other deals like this handed out last year. The Wolves’ big contract? Giving Bloomington-Jefferson graduate Cole Aldrich a three-year, $22 million deal.
“We’ve gotta add more shooting”
This offseason he seems hell-bent on improving the team in free agency. He knows the Wolves need to make the postseason in Year 2 of his five-year, $40 million deal, believes he can fit Towns, Wiggins and LaVine under the cap even with free agent additions and doesn’t want to be left on the outside looking in this offseason as he was a year ago.
“No,” he said if he will take the same approach in free agency as he did last year. “For us, right now, what we have to do is we have to plan. So the immediate task is to study, prepare and look at all the opportunities, whether it be through free agency, trade. All things are open. Whatever way we can improve the club, that’s what we have to do.”
Thibodeau is keeping the specifics of his offseason plans to himself, of course, but it’s clear what the team needs. “Some defense. Shot blocking. Wing defender. And then the shooting,” he said. “We’ve gotta add more shooting.”
The Wolves need a large center that they can start next to Towns and can guard NBA bigs like DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Zach Randolph. They could use a starting 3 that would push Wiggins, who has a slight frame and struggles to rebound, to the 2 and moves Zach LaVine, a mediocre defensive player, to the bench.
Adding a big man shouldn’t be too hard. He doesn’t have to be a scorer, since Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have that pretty well covered; he just needs to be able to shut down opposing players. Adding a wing, however, is more difficult, since that position would be expected to be an impact player.
First it requires that a highly-coveted player wants to come to Minnesota. Thibodeau didn’t seem too worried about that, however. “The big thing, and the most important thing, and this has been my experience with the other teams that I’ve been with, with most players, they’re going to look at your roster,” he said in his final press conference of the year. “[Well] let’s not kid ourselves, the most important thing will be the money, and after that they look at the roster. How do they fit in? How does that make the team? If they feel that this is the best opportunity to win big, I think we’re attractive to people.”
So not only does he have to sell a free agent that his 31-win team will win significantly more games next year, but he also has to talk LaVine into coming off the bench in order to make this work. Although he is still rehabbing from the ACL tear that cost him half the season, he’s going to want max money — something teams are reluctant to give their sixth man. On the other hand, he may not get it anyways since he’s coming off injury and his defense, Thibodeau’s most coveted trait in a player, has been subpar throughout his career.
One harbinger is that Thibodeau seems willing to have LaVine and Gorgui Dieng spearhead a second unit. The two players thrived in the two-man game and could buffer a bench that would also have Kris Dunn as a wing-stopper and backup point guard Tyus Jones. And as much as Thibodeau seems open to seeing Shabazz Muhammad return next year, if LaVine is on the bench, he basically takes over the role of a player who might get overpaid in free agency.
That’s a big if though. A superstar free agent may be reluctant to come here, meaning LaVine would start. It’s not just the cold weather or market size — which always seems like a specious explanation in a city with skyways, heated garages and nearly 20 Fortune 500 companies — that would deter him. It’s the fact that this team miss the playoffs in a year when the 41-41 Portland Trail Blazers snagged the 8-seed.
“There have been ups and downs,” said Thibodeau. “Like I said, when you look back, you see a lot of games that we had big leads against good teams late, and we didn’t close it out the way we could have. And a big part of that was maybe a mental mistake here or there at the end of a game.”
Minnesota blew 22 double-digit leads.teams who take a double-digit lead win the game 79 percent of the time
Minnesota blew 22 double-digit leads, to be exact. According to team broadcaster Alan Horton, teams who take a double-digit lead win the game 79 percent of the time. If Minnesota had been league average when it comes to those leads, the Wolves would finished the year with 48 wins — about where MinnPost writer Britt Robson, who has covered the team since its inception, placed them at at the beginning of the season. Even if they had only blown half of the games, they finish at 42 — just over where Vegas had them.
That stat works both ways in the sense that it can either be passed off as an anomaly or malady that would be cured by the help of a star veteran on the roster. Conversely, it could be seen as lack of discipline or Thibodeau’s defensive emphasis not getting through to his players. Both arguments have their merits.
Even if he cannot land a big-time free agent, there is a core of players to build around. By improving as a scorer this season, Ricky Rubio has proven he is part of the winning formula in Minnesota. Thibodeau says he’s the starting point guard as of now, and that he can add a three-point shot, so he appears to be buying into Rubio even if he damned him with faint praise earlier this year. “Until you get around him, like all players until you coach them, you don’t know them,” said Thibodeau of Rubio. “You have a perception of them from competing or coaching against them of who they are and I can see why Ricky has improved. It’s the way he works. He was healthy for the most part throughout after the initial injury and I think he gained a lot of confidence from the work he put in.”
Odds are the Wolves won’t land a marquee free agent this season, so LaVine and Wiggins start as the wings, while Towns and another big man start at guard. Dieng comes off the bench or starts against small-ball lineups. Dunn is the wing-stopper. Jones is the backup point guard. Aldrich is a situational big man. Muhammad is retained if he takes a team-friendly deal.
That’s a strong foundation, one that can easily be improved on as time goes on. That is, of course, if Towns and Wiggins commit to defense, Dunn develops a shot and Rubio continues to score. They may have won only two more games than last year, but what separates this Wolves team and those in years past is that we can pinpoint exactly what they need. If nothing else, Thibodeau has a clear-cut plan going into the offseason. Now he has to execute it.