This has been a strange and tumultuous season that began with grief due to the unexpected passing of Flip Saunders which left the organization in disrepair due to the immense control and influence that Flip previously had in his dual position of President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach. This grief turned to hope as the team jumped out to an 8-8 start on the backing of strong defense and tremendous play from Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. From there was the fall from grace in the dispiriting winter months, which finally gave way to our newfound optimism based upon the strong post All-star period which saw the youth revitalization and offense rejuvenation.
Here at Canis we have been through the thick and thin all season long and wanted to bring together our final thoughts on the season with a roundtable discussion.
1. Biggest surprise of the season?
David Naylor: I've written about this before, but given the past few years, the Wolves actually beating their preseason over-under for wins surprised me more than anything. It's not that I didn't think this team was capable of winning 29 (or more) games, and I may have even written that I thought they would get to 30. It's simply the fact that with one thing and another, the expectation of winning has been missing, even in the better of the recent few years.
Eric in Madison: I can tell it's going to be hard to limit myself to one answer for some of these questions, so I won't try. Two big surprises for me: First, just how good Karl-Anthony Towns was as a rookie. I liked the pick and thought he would be good, but when considering his accomplishments and realizing the names that are statistically comparable as rookies are Duncan, O'Neal, Robinson, and Olajuwon...that has to be a surprise.
Second is how quickly Glen Taylor has decided to move on from Sam Mitchell and to an extent Milt Newton, and that he appears to be doing so in a professional manner. Obviously we will have to await events, but planning what appears to be a real search for the best candidates without any post-season dithering is a wonderful surprise to me as a long time Wolves fan.
Lucas Seehafer: I think the obvious answer here is Karl-Anthony Towns. He was historically good in his rookie season and looks every bit the part of being a superstar in the league for years to come. So for the sake of switching it up, I will say Zach LaVine. LaVine's growth from his rookie season to this season could be paramount for the Wolves going forward. If LaVine can continue to develop at the rate he has (with an emphasis placed on improving his defense) and can solidify his starting two-guard position, he will be the perfect player to compliment the skills of Andrew Wiggins and Towns.
Josh Clement: The fact that Karl-Anthony Towns is so good right away. I had tempered expectations for the rookie big man, at least expecting a campaign similar to Andrew Wiggins last year, meaning lots of flashes and a few games where he puts it all together but plenty of rough patches along the way. This was going to be likely even more true for Towns, who played limited minutes in his one year of college due to the platoon rotation that Calipari used to get all of his All-Americans sufficient playing time. Instead, Towns turned in one of the best rookie seasons of all time, rivaling even Duncan's first year when he was an important contributor on a playoff team. It's unbelievable what he has done and I am incredibly excited about his future.
John Meyer: I'll go with the collective health of the team. Arnie Kander (Vice President of Sports Performance) and the medical team did great work this season. Four of the core members of the Wolves - Towns, LaVine, Dieng and Muhammad - played all 82 games. Andrew Wiggins played 81. Ricky Rubio came back from the most disappointing year of his career (see last year's severely sprained left ankle that limited him to 22 games) to have his best season to date in 76 games.
The Wolves have been ravaged by injuries almost every season of this 12-year playoff drought so the health was really inspiring to see. Most of the games lost were from Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Garnett and Nemanja Bjelica. Nobody can be surprised about the first two given Pek's Achilles issues and KG's age/minutes restrictions/decision to hang it up for the season in an effort to (in my opinion) save the last minutes he has left in his knees for next season as the Wolves look to fulfill their playoff aspirations.
2. Biggest disappointment of the season?
David: Nikola Pekovic's continued struggle with injury. I sincerely hope that he will be able to get back on the court at some time next season and be even a shell of the player he was in the last few years. When he returned in the middle of the season, he showed sparks and had some good minutes, but just as quickly, he was back to inactive and in a suit. This isn't about his contract, although the salary cap space would be nice. I miss Pek just dominating opposing centers, in a different way to how KAT has started to do so.
Eric: Hmm. I guess how poor the defense was for much of the season. Not exactly shocking after last season's defensive disaster, but I would have liked to see more improvement in that area.
On an individual basis, I would have said Nemanja Bjelica, but his late season play (perhaps illogically) makes me feel better. He had a tough transition but hopefully will be more comfortable from the start next season.
Shabazz Muhammad took something of a step back I thought, and was unable to establish a consistent role on the team, which I guess is a bit disappointing, but I said at the beginning of the year that it was unlikely for all of the 1st-3rd year guys to come good.
Lucas: The biggest disappointment for me this season was the ownership snafu that occurred between Memphis Grizzlies' part owner Steve Kaplan and the Wolves, however, this gripe has maybe been mitigated with the announcement that the team will be conducting a complete search for a new head coach this summer. At the time (now proven false) the sense was that Taylor would be content with simply keeping Sam Mitchell instead of considering all of his options and that that wouldn't be an issue if Kaplan was involved. It is still a little bit of a bummer that Glen Taylor couldn't get a deal completed with Kaplan, though I realize that had more to do with the Grizzlies infamous majority owner Robert Pera than Taylor. Still, it would have been nice for a deal to have been made so that the future and direction of this franchise would have been made a little clearer, a little earlier.
Josh: There are two for me, which are both the result of the Wolves front office general confusion. The first being the fact that the Steve Kaplan deal fell through, although there are rumblings of its resurrection. While this was not entirely the Wolves fault, Glen Taylor's extraordinary restrictions on terms of sale (the 2 year learning period) make it difficult to find a worthy successor who will take over the franchise. The second is the weird Zach LaVine stuff at the beginning of the season. In the very beginning of the season Zach was penciled in to start at the 2 position, then immediately moved to backup PG after two pre-season games or so. This was likely due to Sam or Milt not having the power to change things right away while still appeasing Kevin Martin. But why say you are going to start him at SG and then back down two pre-season games later? It made no sense.
John: I can only pick one? That's not possible. Flashseats went horribly for the organization and the sale to Steve Kaplan went from promising to seemingly unrealistic in a short period of time. Andrew Wiggins' defense was arguably the most disappointing aspect on the court. He got lost off-ball one too many times for my liking and regressed in terms of basketball reference's DBPM (-1.8 to -2.5 in defensive box plus/minus) and was about the same (-2.13 in his rookie season to -2.04 this year) in DRPM (ESPN's defensive real plus-minus) which was 73rd among shooting guards. I still think he has an incredibly high ceiling defensively but I was hoping to see more of a lockdown defender in year two after getting reps against all of those elite wings last year.
Others: Shabazz Muhammad's lack of development and Zach LaVine logging 53 percent of his 2,294 minutes at point guard when it was obvious he needed to play off-ball next to Rubio.
3. Did the season match your expectations?
David: It blew them so far out of the water I can scarcely believe it. Karl-Anthony Towns is incredible right now, and he just finished his first season in the NBA. He can only get better, and I can barely process what "better" means with him at this point. Andrew Wiggins took the next step towards fulfilling his potential as a scorer, and while his defense is still inconsistent, he showed flashes what he could be on that end of the floor. Zach LaVine's move to shooting guard in February opened up everything about his game, and while he struggled late in the season, Zach is now an important part of the rotation. Ricky Rubio had perhaps his best season, and more importantly his healthiest season in years. Sure, the wins didn't pile up yet, but now you can see the direction this team is going, and it looks really good right now.
Eric: More or less the season matched expectations. John and I did an email exchange before the season in which he expressed hope for 30+ wins and I said that was reasonable but I'd take the under, and the Wolves wound up with 29, so not bad. Some of the details were a bit different than I expected, but overall about right.
Lucas: I wrote in my season preview at my old blog that I thought the best case scenario for the Wolves this season was 30 wins. Ultimately the team will come up just short, but Towns surpassed all expectations I had of him by a mile and the continuing growth of players like Wiggins, LaVine, and Dieng has me excited for the future. It maybe would have been nice to see a little more consistency this season, but such is life when the major components of the team are in their rookie or sophomore seasons. While the season had soaring highs and lows that rotted in the pits of Hell, I think overall this season was an encouraging one. It feels like the Wolves are finally on the brink of something really special.
Josh: I think if you painted the broad strokes to me of this season before the year started, that being Towns' extraordinary rookie year, drastic LaVine improvement, flashes of what Wiggins is hopefully working towards, and a fully healthy and amazing Rubio, I would be pretty excited to watch that season. There have been a lot of bumps along the way but I would say the season exceeded my expectations, although that is almost entirely due to the post All-Star break period when the Wolves found a lot more success.
John: Finishing with 30 wins seemed realistic and achievable when the season started, so 29-53 matched my expectations there.
I thought Towns was going to be really good right away and ultimately win the rookie of the year, but he was even more dominate right out of the box than probably anyone could have imagined. I expected the young core to develop, which they did, and for there to be growing pains in their development, which there was. I wasn't especially surprised by anything that happened this season outside of KAT absolutely taking the league by storm and for the "Who would you start your team with: Anthony Davis or Towns?" debates to even be legitimate.
4. Biggest offseason need?
David: Three point shooting. Some things have not yet changed, and while the Wolves managed to beat Stephen Curry's 402 on the season, the changing direction of the way the game is played in 2016 demands more. Part of this is internal: Andrew Wiggins already has plans to focus on continuing to improve his three-pointer over the offseason, and a more reliable outside shot from him changes the current paradigm of how teams can guard him (and by transfer, the rest of the Wolves' offense). Nemanja Bjelica, after a strong close to a mostly disappointing NBA season, should also be a focal point of the Wolves' offseason development. A small sample size, but in the final twelve games of the season (after Bjelica's return from injury), he was 14-26 from behind the arc (53.8%). Obviously adding another shooter in free agency at the 3 or 4 is another possibility, with Nicolas Batum being the most obvious non-Kevin Durant dream candidate.
Eric: Wing defense preferably in a person who is also not an offensive hindrance and a more modern power forward. That's two, sorry. Oh, and a good head coach.
Lucas: The biggest need is definitely a starting quality big man, but I'm torn between that big being a stretch four or being a burlier post presence. Gorgui Dieng was a revelation after the All Star break, but it is fair to wonder if he would be more valuable off the bench. This decision hinges on Karl-Anthony Towns. I think that Towns would be most valuable as a five because he has skills that give big, slow centers nightmares, but the fact of the matter is that the NBA is becoming more positionless with every passing season; does it really matter if Towns is a four or a five? As I wrote before, the Wolves are in the unique position in which they can choose their identity on the court and deciding to sign a stretch four or another "center" would indicate which path the team chooses. Another need the team, well, needs is more outside shooting. So, if forced to make a decision, I think the Wolves should acquire a stretch four, someone of the mold of Marvin Williams of the Charlotte Hornets.
Josh: Rebounding and strength. Those aren't so much of a positional requirements but rather what the Wolves are utterly lacking in at the moment. Some of this has to do with having such a young team, but if the Wolves are going to pin so much of their starting line-up on Wiggins and LaVine then there is a definite need for overall strength, as those two are much smaller in the weight department than their positional counterparts. Also having Tayshaun Prince as our "defensive ace" is not going to be sustainable, nor it is even currently successful. However that is a general team trend rather than something we can likely fix with one asset acquisition.
John: Tough to narrow this down as there are plenty of needs on the roster and in the front office and on the sidelines (coaches). A power forward who can defend, rebound, and space the floor (at least a little bit) would be the ideal addition. The Wolves need defenders and 3-point shooters to surround the core. The biggest need is unquestionably on the head coach/President of Basketball Operations front. The organization NEEDS to secure the right guy(s) as soon as possible to ensure a successful summer.
5. Favorite moment of the season?
David: Ricky Rubio's buzzer-beating three pointer to beat Oklahoma City in March. KAT, Wiggins, and LaVine all had great moments, but that was so unbelievably satisfying as a long-time somewhat delusional Rubio fan. Ricky's improved shooting during the back half of the season may stick, or it may not, but the shooting he put on from outside the arc in the last 15 games of the season (18-48, 37.5%) is just what he needs. A close second: this video from Wednesday's final game.
Eric: A bunch stand out, but I'll keep it to one: Ricky Rubio's game winner in Oklahoma City
Lucas: Without a doubt my favorite moment was the Wolves victory over the Golden State Warriors. This iteration of the Warriors is quite possibly the best team the NBA has ever seen and to say that the Wolves were one of the teams to beat them is pretty freaking cool. The way the young guys carried them from down double-digits to tying the game to winning in overtime perfectly encapsulated how dangerous the Wolves could be in a couple of seasons, if not sooner. At their peaks, the combination of Rubio-Wiggins-Towns and whoever is their supporting cast will cause major difficulties for opposing teams, especially if Wiggins can develop into a defensive force. For one night, we were able to peer into the magic crystal ball and see what this team may be like in the future.
Josh: As much as this season has been defined by the Wolves' young core, for me it has also been about a fully healthy Ricky Rubio, which we truly haven't gotten to see for a continuous length of time in a while. I can't place the specific moment, but it was during a game when I was trying to explain how valuable Rubio is to one of my roommates when Rubio forced the opposing team's big into a moving pick, drawing the offensive foul. That was a moment when I exclaimed to my roommate that this was exactly what I was talking about. I don't know how Rubio does it, but he somehow forces that exact call about once a game, creating an extra possession for the Wolves. It's been a joy to watch Rubio all year long and just see how he is able to just make everyone better on the court.
John: Again, it's hard to pick just one. Garnett's emphatic slam over Blake Griffin brought back old memories. Towns' reaction afterwards, along with the other young Wolves, was the icing on the cake. Obviously beating Golden State at Oracle was special seeing as nobody beats Golden State at Oracle and the Warriors had the best season in NBA history.
Other great moments:
- I loved the game-winner in Portland by Towns. Two franchise cornerstones that can close-out games!
- Rubio's game-winner in OKC.
- LaVine winning his second straight dunk contest over Aaron Gordon. That was the best dunk contest I've ever watched in real-time and experienced on Twitter with everyone else in the world.
- KAT winning the skills challenge over Isaiah Thomas during All-Star weekend in Toronto.
- Any time Andrew Wiggins soars above the rim/posterizes another big man.
6. Far too early win projections for next season?
David: 45 wins and the 7 seed. Allow me to be one of the first to drink the Kool-Aid and be overly optimistic about next season.
Eric: What the hell, it's the start of the off-season, so why not dream? 42 wins. They eclipse .500 for the first time in more than a decade.
Lucas: Regardless of the moves the team makes this summer, I think the Wolves' goal should be 41 wins next season. I think this team could win anywhere between 37-40 wins if the roster stays as is, but that could jump to 40-45 if the right offseason moves are made. The keys will be, as I said earlier, signing a starting quality big as well as buffing up the bench with shooting and defense. I think improving the team defense - getting better at help rotations, developing a strategy for transition defense - will be what either propels this team forward or holds them back.
Josh: Hitting 40 wins would be great. I think this really depends on what direction they go in the draft and during free agency, but at least with the current Wolves core plus a few minor upgrades I think the baseline should be 35-40 wins. I don't think the Wolves are going to make a Thunder-like jump. Regardless of how optimistic one is about the Wolves' young core they just don't have the talent level of the Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka group. That's unreasonable. But if the Wolves somehow jump into the top 3 of the draft and then go out and get a pipe dream of Batum/Horford/Barnes, then I could be coerced into buying some stock in the Wolves' mega-leap.
John: Add two plus defenders, fix the bench, get Thibs to coach ... 45 wins.
That wraps up our roundtable on the season. I know it ran a little long, but this season has definitely been an interesting one to talk about. On my behalf (Josh), it's been a pleasure writing for this site the last few months and I am excited to continue engaging in Wolves discussion over the off-season.