The Minnesota Timberwolves are in a rut, with no discernible identity and an ugly cap situation. How can they build properly around Karl-Anthony Towns?
Two years ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. It looked like it might be the beginning of something, with the acquisition of Jimmy Butler boosting a young team seemingly on the rise. The Wolves had gone from 16-66 to 29-53 to 31-51 in the three years before jumping to 47-35 and finally returning to the postseason. Of course, things have only gone downhill since then.
Butler requested a trade, then staged what essentially amounted to a prison-break, getting himself traded to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the season — but not before putting on as public a show as possible about how much the Wolves really need him and how dissatisfied he was with both his teammates and the difference between some of their contracts and his. Tom Thibodeau was fired 55 days later, with the Wolves’ record sitting at 19-21. Scott Layden saw Gersson Rosas hired higher up the food chain a few months later, after the team had slumped to a 36-46 finish.
Rosas elected to keep interim coach Ryan Saunders in place, handing him a multi-year deal to steer the team into the future. The Wolves moved one piece of the Butler return (Dario Saric) to Phoenix for the right to move up five spots in the 2019 NBA Draft, where they snagged Jarrett Culver at No. 6 overall. They then let Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver walk in free agency, replacing them by signing Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh, and trading for Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham.
Two-plus months into the ensuing season, the highlight of the Wolves’ year so far is Lizzo admitting that she has a crush on Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota is 11-19 after winning Thursday night’s game against the Kings, tied for 12th in the Western Conference. They’ve been outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions on the season, 22nd in the NBA; and Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating system has them looking even worse, with a schedule-adjusted point differential of minus-4.17 points per game.
A look under the hood doesn’t reveal much reason for optimism. The Wolves’ 20th-ranked defense is one that rarely forces turnovers (24th in opponent turnover rate) and that sees them both foul excessively (22nd in opponent free-throw rate) and struggle on the defensive glass (25th in defensive rebounding rate). They’ve actually done an all right job of forcing opponents into poor shooting nights (16th in opponent effective field goal percentage), largely thanks to their ability to limit 3s and force misses at the rim. Unfortunately, they’ve hemorrhaged corner 3s at a higher rate than all but six teams in the league, and they’ve allowed opponents to take more than 45 percent of their shots from within 10 feet of the rim.
Minnesota’s 19th-ranked offense is essentially in the opposite situation. They’ve done a decent job protecting the ball (13th in turnover rate) and securing bounces off the glass (13th in offensive rebound rate), and they’ve paraded themselves to the line at the fifth-highest rate in the NBA. But they can’t shoot. They’re 26th in effective field goal percentage, with struggles finishing at the rim (26th in the NBA) and from 3-point range (29th). They’ve taken an extremely healthy amount of 3s (fourth in 3-point rate) but almost none of them have come from the corners (30th), and they have generated fewer dunks than every team save for the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, and Boston Celtics.
The season has been … rocky. Towns got suspended for “fighting” with Joel Embiid, and has missed a few games with a knee injury. Layman has been listed as day-to-day with a toe injury that is still lingering and holding him out more than a month later. Andrew Wiggins got off to an absurdly hot start that had people wondering if maybe he’d make his contract into a non-disaster after all (26 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game with 48-36-74 shooting splits through 11 games) but has regressed back his previous self since then (24-5-3 per game but with 44-31-75 shooting splits). Covington hasn’t really shot well all year (33.3 percent from 3), while Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver have consistently been drags on the offense without bringing quite enough to the table defensively to make up for it. Jeff Teague was benched about a month ago, and while the team won its first two games in the wake of that benching, it lost 11 consecutive contests immediately after.
Given the way all of this has gone, it’s worth asking: Where are the Timberwolves going? They don’t do anything particularly well. They don’t have a roster that either accentuates the strengths or mitigates the weaknesses of their foundational superstar. There’s not enough shooting, there’s only one guy who creates shots for his teammates at anything resembling an above-average level, and there are maybe two high-level defenders on the whole team. They benched their starting point guard (the aforementioned creator) for a rookie who can’t yet shoot and doesn’t appear ready to run the offense. (Culver does appear on track to be a good multi-positional defender and he’s at least contributing by rebounding fairly well for his position.) Wiggins’ bump is looking more and more like a blip.
Worse yet, the books are weighed down by bad contracts like those belonging to Gorgui Dieng ($33.5 million between this season and next) and especially Wiggins. The long-term deal for Towns will be just fine assuming he remains perhaps the most efficient and diverse scoring center in the league, but combining it with the Wiggins contract makes clear how little wiggle room this team has to add talent over the next several years. That duo makes $54.8 million this season, and will make $59.0 million, $63.2 million and $67.5 million over the next three seasons before Wiggins’ contract expires in 2023. That’s somewhere close to 50 percent of the cap — and potentially more — for those two players in each of the next four seasons.
We’ve seen what a Timberwolves team based around Towns and Wiggins as its two foundational pieces looks like. It’s not pretty. It was only when they had Butler alongside them that they were remotely successful. But because those two take up so much space, because Wiggins is such an anchor that he’s nearly impossible to trade for positive value while clearing room on the books, and because Minnesota is not typically a preferred destination, it seems unlikely that they’ll be adding a significant, Butler-like talent in free agency. That means they’ll have to primarily do this through the draft, and by making smart trades like the one where they sacrificed Saric — who they probably were not going to pay on a long-term deal after this season — to move up in the draft to land Culver.
The most tradable asset the Timberwolves have left is probably Robert Covington. They’re on the hook for just $36.4 million to him over the next three seasons, and his ability to defend any position on the floor carries tremendous value to teams that are actually, ya know, good. It’s extremely easy to see any number of contenders targeting him, and the three years left on his deal are actually a positive — especially ahead of an offseason where the free-agent crop is so weak and teams will have to avoid the temptation to overpay marginal players. (The problem there is the exact reasons why he would be appealing to other teams are the reasons it would be tough to part with him. He’s a helpful player for the type of team the Wolves should aspire to be, too.)
Teague’s contract is expiring, which seems valuable on the surface, but his $19 million salary is a bit bloated and there don’t seem to be many teams out there who are a Jeff Teague away from being a real contender. They could try to use his deal as part of a larger package for somebody on a long-term contract, but what are they enticing teams with? The Wolves are not in a position where they should be sacrificing future draft picks; they’re not going to give up on Culver this soon; and neither Okogie nor Keita Bates-Diop seems likely to be enough bait to drag in the type of player needed to elevate the Towns-Wiggins tandem.
So, again, where is this team going?
It’s early enough in Rosas’ tenure that we don’t really know his plan just yet. The Saric trade and Layman signing look like smart, forward-thinking moves. The Bell and Vonleh signings less so. He’s well-respected and well-pedigreed, though, and that’s more than we can say for some previous Wolves executives. It’s still incredibly early for Saunders as well, though at least he is pushing the players to pursue the right kinds of shots. After instituting new practice rules that reward corner 3s and punish long 2s, the Wolves are up to fourth in 3-point rate and eighth in the percentage of their shots that have come within three feet of the rim, while they’re down to 27th in the percentage of their shots that have come between 16-23 feet away. That’s something to build the foundation of a good offense on, even if the players simply aren’t good enough shooters to turn that foundation into an actual good offense just yet.
It doesn’t necessarily look like Culver is going to be a lead ball-handler, but he’s also not really asked to be one while playing in an offense with Towns and Wiggins. It made a degree of sense to separate Teague and Wiggins because the latter is far more useful with the ball in his hands than without it, but an offense where Wiggins has the ball the majority of the time is probably bound to be below-average.
Sending Teague to the bench seems like a sure sign that he won’t be back beyond this year, which means finding a point guard of the future who knows how to create the best shots and can put Towns in position to succeed probably has to be the team’s highest trade deadline and/or offseason priority. There are obviously improvements to be made defensively, but a player like Towns should be an annual foundation of a top-10 offense. He’s a damn near 50-40-90 center who moves like he’s 6-foot-2 but is actually 7-foot. His team should not be struggling this badly to score. Figuring things out on that end seems easier than building an entire defense, though, if only because a big enough upgrade at 1-spot probably gets you there, while the defense needs far more work.
It seems premature to worry about this team given that Towns is under contract through 2024 and he’s the one this whole thing is going to be built around. But 2024 will be here sooner than it seems, and if the Wolves haven’t turned themselves into a contender by the time 2022 rolls around (that’s just two years, by the way), you can count on Anthony Davis/Giannis Antetokounmpo-style attention being directed Towns’ way. That’s not that much of a runway to get this team in gear. There are also clear obstacles in the way of the Wolves’ ability to do so quickly and competently. That makes the situation more interesting, but also more difficult.