For as long as I have followed the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team has lacked one distinct attribute: toughness.
No, we’re not counting the Jimmy Butler-era Wolves as a “tough” squad. The young duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, plus the geriatric Chicago Bulls guys playing second fiddle to a dude that called Rachel Nichols on his way out, isn’t exactly what anyone wants in a team identity. But, for all of the bravado and theatrics, Butler’s Timberwolves had about as much toughness as the Miami Heat showed in their most recent playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
As the Wolves sat through yet another uniquely excruciating season, some players from their most recent draft class finally began to show a bit of grit. That bodes well for the mental make-up of this team moving forward. However, as much as KAT is beloved in Minnesota, it would take a total sea change for the narrative around his game and persona to be anything but soft.
Anthony Edwards unquestionably has that “it” factor and will be this team’s undisputed leader in two years or less, if he isn’t already. Jaden McDaniels is a silent killer. If McDaniels bulks up a bit, he will be able to bully opponents defensively for many years to come. These two don’t quite fit the tough archetype yet, but they’re more representative of that trait than many of their senior teammates.
Bringing toughness to this squad is not something that will happen overnight. The Wolves are particularly hindered in any free-agent pursuits, considering the horrific cap situation left by Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau in his quest to relive the glory days of losing in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The effects of many of those bloated contracts (Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, Cole Aldrich, etc.) are still felt on this current iteration of the Timberwolves.
It’s as simple as this: Any free-agent acquisitions made this year will have to be made on the margins of the budget. Fortunately, that is an area where Gersson Rosas excels. Franchises that find success long-term can make these shrewd deals to find quality players who excel in their roles.
This is why the Timberwolves should take a long look at Nerlens Noel this offseason.
Adding Noel would certainly give the team a much-need psyche boost. I mean, look at this guy. This is petty as hell, in a great way:
The Wolves haven’t had a bonafide goon on the team since the visage of Nikola Pekovic was on the roster. I dislike the metaphor of a guy being “in the trenches” for your team, but that’s exactly the type of player and teammate that Rosas would acquire if he were to take a flier on Noel this upcoming season. The Wolves would have an interior big who wouldn’t back down from any matchup — something the Wolves are not always able to bring out in Towns.
Noel just wrapped up a 1-year, $5 million deal with the New York Knicks. Playing 24 minutes per game, Noel scored 5.1 ppg to go along with 6.4 rpg and a gaudy 2.2 blocks per game — good for second in the NBA this last season behind only Rudy Gobert. Noel also posted a defensive rating of 101.2, which would have been good for second in the league behind Gobert as well had he met the minutes requirement for the league leaders (per StatMuse).
The Wolves have been clamoring for a defensive-minded big to play alongside KAT for years. While Towns has showcased a much-improved defensive acumen in recent seasons, the team would still greatly benefit from a player who, to put it plainly, knows how to box out. The Timberwolves finished last year 27th in the league in defensive rebounding at 33 per game. This is unacceptable from a team that wants to have any shot at making the playoffs in the Western Conference this upcoming season.
Adding a big center like Noel would also open up more opportunities for KAT and Naz Reid to playtime at power forward. The 4 was arguably the roster’s biggest positional deficiency last season, and the more minutes that can be given to Towns and Reid and taken from rapidly fading Juancho Hernangómez can only help the Wolves defensively. The team could go from a porous sieve to a respectable defensive unit, at the absolute least.
The potential lineup options for Chris Finch and the Timberwolves with Noel on the team would be vast. If Finch wanted to be crazy and start a big lineup with both Towns and Noel, we could see something like this:
- D’Angelo Russell (6’4”)
- Edwards (6’4”)
- McDaniels (a tall 6’9”)
- Towns (a short 6’11”)
- Noel (6’11”)
This would, of course, be assuming that Malik Beasley accepts an offseason transition to a sixth-man role. A bench unit led by Ricky Rubio, Beasley, Naz, Josh Okogie, and Hernangómez would provide an intriguing blend of offensive firepower and defensive capabilities.
To put it bluntly: The Timberwolves’ current cap situation is dire at best. The team only has the flexibility (which is a generous term) to sign a player for around the mid-level exception, which is what I would figure Noel’s market to be this offseason.
Barring an unexpected splash in the trade market and assuming the Wolves lose their lottery pick, I’d expect Rosas and Co. to make a small number of moves this offseason as the team looks to build upon the elevated play showcased after the All-Star break. If a move is made, the Timberwolves would be silly not to pursue a player like Noel if and when he becomes available.
Of course, free agency is a two-way street. Noel never quite developed into the player worthy of the sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft, but he’s a solid rotational player who could be had for the right price. If the trio of Ant, KAT, and DLo is enough to lure one free agent to Minnesota, here’s to hoping that it’s Nerlens Noel.