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Minnesota Timberwolves SB Nation Preview

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All the SBN NBA blogs are doing a preview in this format. It would have been churlish of me not to. So here it is.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves
Last year: 16-66

Key Losses: Flip Saunders. The President and coach is on indefinite leave as he undergoes treatment for cancer. When it was first announced this summer, the team expected that he would be fine to continue doing both of his jobs following what was expected to be a fairly brief treatment regimen. Things have taken a turn for the worse, however, and Saunders has taken indefinite leave from the team. We wish him the best and hope for his recovery.

Chase Budinger: Traded to the Pacers for Damjan Rudez.

Anthony Bennett: Bought out and signed by the Raptors.

Key Additions: Karl-Anthony Towns, the number one draft pick out of Kentucky. The big man has looked the part early, showing a decent scoring touch and eagerness defensively. Still, rookies, especially rookie bigs, rarely make a positive impact in their first year.

Tyus Jones: Another 1st round pick who the Wolves traded up for from the 2nd round, Jones was a major factor in Duke's run to the national title last season. He's a local kid from a Minneapolis suburb, and will no doubt be very popular. He's also not ready.

Nemanja Bjelica: The Euroleague MVP and star of the Serbian national team was signed away from Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. He's a playmaking power forward who can shoot, handle, and pass the ball, and has really impressed with his smarts and skills so far.

Andre Miller: The veteran point guard was brought in as a hedge against Ricky Rubio getting hurt and/or Tyus Jones not being ready to play. Will hopefully help steady the ship on the 2nd unit.

What Significant Moves Were Made in the Off-Season?

The Wolves were very quiet on the free agency and trade front, as expected. They have a very young team and many players with 0-3 years experience they have to sort through this season. They were never going to be a player in free agency, and they were not ready to move on from any of their young guys just yet (other than Anthony Bennett, apparently).

They drafted Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick; he's expected to be the starting center on opening night.  He has obvious skills, and will eventually be a terrific player in the NBA I believe, but will almost certainly struggle this year defensively and with fouls, as most rookie bigs do.  His development is one of the keys for the season.

They also drafted local product and former Duke point guard Tyus Jones in a draft night trade.  Jones is pretty clearly not ready to play in the NBA--the hope is he develops into a quality NBA point guard at some point, along the lines of a Jameer Nelson or D.J. Augustin.

Sam Mitchell took over as interim head coach in the wake of Flip Saunders taking a leave from the team due to health issues. At this point the expectation is that Mitchell will be the coach all season, and we'll see what happens next summer. Mitchell was previously the head coach of the Toronto Raptors from 2004-2008, and was a Wolves assistant last season. Mitchell spent several years playing for the Timberwolves under Saunders, and is well known within the organization.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

Hmmm....let's see...um...I know there must be some...

Youth? The Wolves are incredibly young, with 8 players who enter the season with two years of NBA experience or less. Hey, let's list them:

Rookies:

Towns
Jones
Bjelica

2nd year players:

Adreian Payne
Zach LaVine
Andrew Wiggins

3rd year players:

Gorgui Dieng
Shabazz Muhammad

In addition, one of Damjan Rudez or Lorenzo Brown will likely make the roster, adding another player to the list above. There is a lot of talent here, and the Wolves have to figure out how to sort it and use it.

The other big strength of the team is Ricky Rubio. A healthy Rubio is a fantastic player who, despite his shooting woes, makes the team much, much better. His defensive skills, his ability to set up other players, play the pick and roll, and lead the team make him by far their best player. He begins a 4 year contract extension this season, and is their one indispensable player.

As bad as the Wolves have been, they've always been competitive when Rubio was available, and that's the key. He needs to stay healthy and play a full season. Not only will that make the Wolves more competitive, but it will allow other players to develop better and we will be able to fairly analyze how the team needs to move forward.

What are the biggest weaknesses?

Uh...how much time ya got?

First, youth. Young teams don't win in the NBA, and the Wolves are very young, as documented above.

More specifically, three point shooting is going to be a problem as it was last year. The Wolves appear set to continue to be a team that does not take many threes, in favor of long two point jump shots, a point of great irritation for much of the fan base. They are without question way behind the curve here. They also don't have a lot of good shooters, which merely adds to the problem.

Rebounding is something I expect them to struggle with again. Rubio is a terrific rebounder for his position, but beyond him, they don't have much on the defensive boards. Shabazz Muhammad is a good offensive rebounder from the wing spot, and Dieng gets his share of offensive boards as well, but they'll likely get consistently battered on the defensive glass except the few minutes that Kevin Garnett will play.

The Wolves also had the worst defense in the league last season, and while a healthy Rubio makes a massive difference here, they will still likely be poor at that end of the court. The hope is that Towns emerges as an effective rim protector, but it's unlikely to be this season. The off-guard duo of LaVine and Kevin Martin is a defensive sieve, and their approach tends to lead to lots of fast break opportunities for opponents.

What are the goals for the Wolves this year?

Sam Mitchell has already made it clear that despite the veterans being better, he's going to play the young guys. LaVine is slated to start ahead of Martin at shooting guard. Towns will start ahead of Dieng. It's even possible that Jones gets some back up point guard minutes ahead of Andre Miller.

In other words, development. Hopefully. I'm a believer in trying to win, and I'm not sure throwing young guys out there regardless of how they perform is the best strategy. Still, they have a large number of guys they have to figure out, so it's understandable.

The number one goal is to stay relatively healthy, so everybody gets a chance to show what they can do.

Another is steps forward for as many of the young guys as possible, especially Andrew Wiggins in his 2nd year. His rookie of the year campaign was impressive, but he remains a fair distance from stardom, and the Wolves need him to get there if they want to take a real step toward relevancy.

From a win-loss perspective, it would be good to see them beat the Vegas over/under of 26.5.  Health would help. At some point, you have to actually start winning some games, and while a huge jump to the playoffs is almost certainly not in the cards this season, they have to do enough so that it's at least conceivable for 2016-17.

What Are the Most Likely Roster Changes During the Season?

The Wolves are a somewhat odd mixture of the very young and very old, with veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller supplementing a roster of guys still on their rookie deals. It's difficult to see any of the players at either end of this spectrum being moved during the season, but the most likely player to get traded is probably Kevin Martin, who has a player option for 2016-17. Martin can still score efficiently, but is being supplanted in the starting line up by Zach LaVine, and might be of interest to a contender at the deadline as someone who can put up points in a hurry. I still have a soft spot for him and he's still the best off-guard on the roster, but it wouldn't be a shock if he's moved.

Otherwise, probably very little. They are invested in seeing what they have in their young guys. I suppose it's possible that if center Nikola Pekovic returns healthy, they might explore the market for third year big man Gorgui Dieng, who probably looks a little better in the box score than he actually is, but I doubt they seriously consider it until next summer.

What Can Kevin Garnett Do for the Wolves?

Franchise icon Kevin Garnett was acquired from the Nets last trade deadline, played a handful of games, and promptly sat down with knee problems for the rest of the year. The team re-signed him to a somewhat shocking two year, $16M deal in the summer, and he's slated to start at power forward. He won't play a ton--20 minutes a night when he's available seems a reasonable guess. Still, he's likely to be their best defensive rebounder when he's on the court, he remains a good defensive player, and has obvious leadership skills. Is it worth it?

Everyone universally raves about his demeanor in practice and on the bench, how much he's teaching the young players, and how his commitment to defense and effort is rubbing off on the whole team. This is something impossible to measure, but certainly he means a lot to the franchise as the signature player in its history, and he probably helps some even at this late point in his career. That $8M won't hurt them this season; whether it matters next season we'll have to wait and see.

This is shaping up to be another losing year for the Timberwolves, and at this point the fan base, what's left of it, is pretty numb. Hopefully, however, it will also stand as a turning point when some of the young talent amassed actually begins to assert itself and show the ability to compete in the NBA.