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Minnesota Timberwolves Team Preview

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As part of the SBN annual team previews, we present the 2016-17 Wolves, who are still young but (finally) have realistic playoff aspirations.

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last Year's Record: 29-53

Key Losses: Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince

Key Additions: Kris Dunn, Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, Jordan Hill, Head Coach Tom Thibodeau

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

Kevin Garnett Retires

Kevin Garnett wore a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey for 36,189 minutes in his NBA career, and while he only played 556 total minutes last season, the loss of Garnett from the Wolves core is significant for each and every type of intangible factor that comes from having a veteran leader.

Garnett’s impact transcends the court. He was the emblematic piece of a thoroughly scorned Minnesota franchise that has missed the post-season for the past twelve years. While Garnett’s status for the 2016-17 season was ambiguous for much of the off-season, his retirement has been a bit deflating in Minnesota. While his minutes and production will be filled by the plethora of big men the Wolves have on the roster, who Garnett was to his teammates and the fan base will not be replaced.

Wolves Draft Kris Dunn

The Timberwolves entered the off-season with two clear mandates - improve shooting and improve defensively.

The first place to address these needs was the 2016 NBA Draft. With the fifth overall pick, there was a certainty that a young player with one of these skill sets would be available. Jamal Murray, and Buddy Hield could address the deficit in shooting. Jaylen Brown and Kris Dunn were terrific college defenders and they could, therefore, take care of the second mandate of defense.

After hiring Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations, it was no surprise that defense held a premium. Murray or Hield could have provided depth at another position of need for the Wolves. Instead, Kris Dunn, a point guard, was drafted.

While there has been speculation Dunn can also play some at the off-guard position, he currently sits on the depth chart behind the most tenured Wolf - Ricky Rubio. Rubio is a polarizing character in Minnesota. His flaws- an inability to consistently make jump shots and finish at the rim-often lead to an uproar that calls for Rubio to be traded. Adding an athletic point guard, in Dunn, has only amplified these cries.

The reality of the situation is that Dunn is not, in fact, all that different of a player than Rubio. Rubio’s shooting form is awkward and the arch of his shot is wildly inconsistent.

Those who watched Dunn in college saw Dunn’s effective scoring ability, but also an inconsistency in his shooting form. Derek Bodner of Draftexpress.com describes Dunn’s jump shooting:

“At times, he'll make shots that fall effortlessly through the hoop; at other times, he'll miss, wildly, to the left or right, shooting air balls that make you wonder how much progress he's actually made on his shot. In terms of form, there's still quite a bit of extra motion in his shot, and his balance is questionable at times as well, with the plant, angle of jump, and landing seemingly changing from shot to shot, even when not under duress.”

True Shooting Percentage (TS%)—a measure of efficiency that takes into account 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws—shows that Dunn was a similar true shooter to Rubio.

Dunn’s 2015-16 season at Providence: .541 TS%

Rubio’s 2015-16 season with the Wolves: .529 TS%

It’s fair to say that Dunn won’t likely be an efficient shooter, at least at this juncture of his career. Yes, Dunn is going to be a player who succeeds on the fast break (25% of his possessions at Providence) and in the pick-and-roll but he will not be the shooter the best point guards in the league are. Sounds a good deal similar to Rubio.

The biggest difference in Rubio and Dunn will be Dunn’s ability to score, both on the fast break and off the pick-and-roll. While both play an up-tempo style, Rubio is more apt to set up a teammate on the break or off the rolling action.

Stylistically, Rubio is the point guard who uses the threat of penetration on the fast break to lure the defense towards the epicenter of the play so as to open up the perimeter for his teammates, either for an open three or in this case an alley-oop off the cut from Anthony Randolph.

Rubio Fast Break

Like Randolph, the alley-oop recipient, on the Rubio fast break, number-24 for Providence on the left wing is in a nearly identical position to score. However, in contrast to Rubio’s style, Dunn is the point guard who sees an adjusting transition defense as an opportunity. Through his speed and athleticism, Dunn is more apt to look to score himself.

Dunn Fast Break

Similarly, on the pick-and-roll Rubio is the point guard who waits for the defense to adjust. Below, you can see him almost baiting Kendrick Perkins to come up for a “hedge,” blocking off his path to the basket. The hedge allows Kevin Love to quickly slip the screen towards the basket. It is Rubio’s foresight, and the speed in which he passes the ball, that allow him to be highly successful in the pick-and-roll.

Rubio Pick-and-Roll

If Rubio is using the speed of his passing, Dunn uses the speed of his feet. In the same pick-and-roll scenario, we see Dunn attack the defensive switch. Rubio waited for the big man, Dunn sprints around him. Once Dunn has his man, it is full-bore to the rim, around and through the defense.

Dunn Pick-and-Roll

It isn’t that Rubio is incapable of penetrating himself or that Dunn refuses to pass once he smells the rim, these are admittedly hand-picked clips. They do, however, show the propensities of each player. In a peculiar way, Rubio and Dunn are eerily similar, yet vastly different.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

New Head Coach Tom Thibodeau

This is probably the best time to bring up Tom Thibodeau. The hiring of the new coach was also a significant move this off-season. That is because the hope in Minnesota is that Thibodeau is the key that unlocks the team’s biggest strengths.

Thibodeau has, of course, been known as a defensive guru. Both in Boston, where he served as the defensive coordinator of the championship-winning Boston Celtics, and during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls. Unfortunately, to say the defense will be a strength for the Wolves would be a stretch.

Last season, only three teams in the NBA gave up more points per 100 possessions. The Wolves were particularly terrible in defending the rim, despite having respectable big man defenders in the starting lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Kevin Garnett should not have been giving up 62.3% shooting from within 5-feet of the basket (28th-best in the league).

That points to coaching scheme being an issue. Sam Mitchell, last season’s head coach, was, in fact, a serious issue. Thibodeau is, in theory, a massive upgrade there. The defensive scheme will be different and has to be better. But to say the defense will be the team's biggest strength, just from the addition of a coach, may be an over-statement but Thibodeau certainly brings the potential of a high-level defense.

Biggest Strength: The Potential of Youth

Potential may be the best word to describe the Wolves biggest strength. Potential is a bit of an ambiguous term, but youth inherently brings potential. Every returning player is either in their prime or approaching it. There is potential, through youth, for the Wolves to make a huge stride not only on defense, but in their shooting, and overall continuity.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Shooting

Zach LaVine’s shooting was terrific last season, especially during the second-half of the season. LaVine was comfortable in shooting both off of the catch and off the dribble. He asserted himself as a legitimate 3-point threat last season shooting 38.9% from distance.

Karl-Anthony Towns was also a bright spot in showcasing his jump shooting potential, but as a whole, the Wolves simply did not shoot well from three, 33.8% (26th in the league). Not only did the Wolves not shoot well from three, they were not running an offense that presented 3-point opportunities - only the Milwaukee Bucks shot fewer threes.

Again, part of this could be corrected with scheme, but the rest of the Wolves starting lineup is filled with players who are not traditional shooting threats. Andrew Wiggins 3-point shooting actually regressed in his second season - down to 30.0%, Rubio is okay when he is wide-open, and Gorgui Dieng is not shooting anything other than an elbow jumper.

The lack of shooting around Towns could be a serious issue in finding clean looks for the Wolves best player.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Playoffs

Again, it has been twelve years since the Wolves reached the post-season. Yep, that means Karl-Anthony Towns would have been eight years old last time the Wolves played a meaningful NBA game.

The team has plenty of young pieces. Adding a lottery pick is always an asset, but for a team that has eight players already on rookie-scale contracts, it does not have the feel of the need to add more young talent.

Minnesota wants to build and progress with their current young core. Reaching the playoffs would be a milestone that might not mean more to any other team in the NBA.

Finding an Identity

For the past two seasons, the team has been simply known as the Young Wolves. They have been fun a League Pass team, Rubio makes crazy passes and watching LaVine dunk can arouse the casual fan. But finding an identity that translates to on-court success has evaded this team.

Through volatility on both ends of the court, the Wolves made crucial mistakes that led to losing 18 games by 5 points or less. If Thibodeau implements a true commitment to defense and runs an offense that pushes the pace, the Wolves would begin to be known as something that is more than a flash in the pan. They could be known as a winner.

5. Is this team still too young to succeed?

After drafting Kris Dunn, the Wolves have nine players on their first NBA contract. With Garnett’s retirement and Nikola Pekovic’s season-ending injury, Rubio was the only veteran on the roster.

Addition of Veteran Role Players

Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush, and Jordan Hill were all brought on to help mitigate the negatives of a youthful roster. All three players were on playoff teams last season and Rush won a championship with Golden State two years ago. At this juncture of their careers, Aldrich, Rush, and Hill are role players with one specific area of expertise.

Aldrich is a fundamental post defender who really understands help defense. His ability to keep his opponent in front of him while keeping his hands high for a block, as he does on Andrew Wiggins below, is a great example of both his high basketball IQ and shot blocking ability. It’s also very fun to watch.

Aldrich was a defensive efficiency darling with the Clippers last season, posting career highs in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (5.8) and Defensive Win Shares (2.0). Aldrich should bring a high-level of rim defense to the second unit, he blocked 6.7% of opponents field-goal attempts last season.

One more time...

Rush addresses the need of an elite 3-point shooter. For his career, Rush has shot 40.3% from 3-point distance. Only eleven active NBA players have a better career 3-pt%. He, of course, brings the value-added in having a player with championship pedigree. In the NBA fraternity, rings matter. Rush enters the Wolves locker room with an immediate respect quotient.

As he did for the Warriors, Rush should be able to spot up along the perimeter during Rubio drives or in the corner when the double-team inevitably collapses on Towns.

Hill is another big man body. As for his position, he’s been viewed as a power forward or center depending on team needs. Statistically, Hill is most distinguishable in his rebounding ability—offensive rebounding to be specific. In his career, Hill grabs 4.1 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. The average big-man is bringing in 2.7 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, according to boxscoregeeks.com.

If you stare into Karl-Anthony Towns’s eyes long enough you can convince yourself almost anything is possible. But, are the Wolves actually too young? Can Towns lead a playoff team at the age of 20?

Expecting great NBA success from a team that essentially is as old as the mid-2000s Duke teams led by Shane Battier seems crazy. But, Towns might be that good.

If the Wolves actually make the playoffs it will be because of Towns. Not simply by Towns putting together ridiculous stat lines, but from being the key cog of a successful unit.

In Minnesota, a good game has often been defined by highlights; a Rubio no-look pass, a Wiggins spin move, or a LaVine windmill. This year, the novel concept of a good game should be defined by wins. The future is bright, now it’s time to see how quickly it can all come together.