The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead-up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!
Inputs: Kris Dunn (PG, NBA Draft pick No. 5); Cole Aldrich (C, signed for three years, $22 million); Brandon Rush (SF, signed for one year, $3.5 million); Jordan Hill (C, signed for two years, $8 million); Toure’ Murray (SF, signed for one year, partially guaranteed); John Lucas (PG, signed for one year, $1.4 million); Rasual Butler (SF, signed for one year, $1.4 million)
Outputs: Greg Smith (PF, unsigned); Damjan Rudez (SF, unsigned); Tayshaun Prince (SF, unsigned); Kevin Garnett (PF, retired)
Most important player
There’s absolutely no question abut the fact that second year center Karl-Anthony Towns is the most important player for the Minnesota Timberwolves. There haven’t been many more definitive Rookie of the Year races than last season. And frankly, that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the 2015 rookie class and everything to do with the talent-level of Towns. He’s the prototype for the modern big man. Towns can abuse you with post moves down on the low-block, run the offense with passing out of the high-post, and can also knock down jumpers from the perimeter. If Towns isn’t performing at a superstar level and taking steps forward (as impressive as that would be), this Wolves team isn’t taking steps forward.
However, there’s a 1B right behind Towns that deserves mentioning. Rookie point guard Kris Dunn is going to have a major impact on this team in a number of ways. For one, he’s a player many considered able to make the most impact right away out of the 2016 rookie class. With Ben Simmons out, he may hold that title solely now. He’s a dynamic point guard that can both score and fill in every other facet of the game as well. Him being able to effectively do that against NBA-level competition and thrive under new head coach Tom Thibodeau would be huge for the results on the court. It would also be huge for personnel changes.
There’s already buzz that point guard Ricky Rubio is on the trade block in Minnesota. If Dunn comes in as a rookie and tears it up, that could pave the way for Rubio out of Minneapolis. In return, the Wolves could pick up missing pieces that they need to become a potential playoff team. Subsequently, how Dunn performs is pivotal to this team’s outcome in the 2016-17 season.
Frankly, the Timberwolves don’t exactly have a natural rival. As a construct of geography and their lengthy playoff drought, there hasn’t been any room for any type of rivalry. However, what you have to look at is the other young teams around the league looking to make the leaps. Subsequently, you have to think fellow Western Conference teams like the Portland Trail Blazers or even the Los Angeles Lakers as somewhat rivals of the Timberwolves. They’ll never have the history of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry or the bad blood of Warriors-Clippers. However, they will have the elusive notion of bragging rights up for grab against these teams as they try to become the proverbial next big thing in this league.
What does success look like?
There’s no question about it: this is an exciting season for the Timberwolves. But as far as expectations go, well, that’s a bit tougher. On the one hand, it’s an organization that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2004. On the other hand, it’s a 29-43 team from a year ago with a new head coach and a wealth of young talent.
Indeed, the opening night starting lineup will likely be the same five that were the principal starters on last year’s squad. There isn’t much precedent for 29-win teams without major free agent acquisitions suddenly becoming playoff teams, so the uphill climb is real.
Let’s break it down: a new coach and head front office man in Tom Thibodeau. A roster led by the last two Rookie of the Year award-winners in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. An exciting and rapidly-improving third-year player in Zach LaVine, plus Ricky Rubio as the straw that stirs the drink.
The bench is improved, of course, with the additions of Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, and Jordan Hill, but so much depends on how rookie point guard Kris Dunn commands and directs the second unit. If the new acquisitions (plus holdover Shabazz Muhammad) are able to gel nicely, the bench improvement alone would add a few wins to last year’s total.
Add in Coach Thibodeau and natural growth and development from the likes of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, and even Rubio, Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, and that equals a few more wins.
So that means the Wolves have an improved bench, a top-five head coach, and natural improvement from a team full of players in their early-to-mid-20’s. Add that to last year’s 29-win team, and let’s call it 42 wins and a playoff berth in Year One for Coach Thibs.