Even with the doldrums of summer fast approaching and the beginning of the 2016-17 season still three months away it's never too early to begin looking forward to what is in store for the Wolves come October.
I asked the guys of the Raised By Wolves podcast (A Wolf Among Wolves' Steve McPherson and 1500 ESPN's Derek James and Manny Hill) for their latest episode what they are most looking forward to watching next season, whether it be a specific player, storyline, or what have you. I figured I might as well try to answer my own question as well.
For starters, it will be interesting to see to what extent the Wolves' defense improves under the leadership of Tom Thibodeau and Andy Greer. They struggled mightily last season, posting the fourth-worst defensive rating in the league according to NBA.com (107.1) and third-worst according to Basketball-Reference (110.1). The addition of Thibodeau and Greer, along with new big man Cole Aldrich, should help the Wolves defense improve from being one of the league's worst to at least being league average, something that would bode well for the team's playoff chances. Thibodeau will bring new defensive schemes to the woebegone franchise, the most notable being that of the "Ice" strategy.
The main goal of Ice is to force the ball handler towards the sideline while also driving him towards the baseline corner. Additionally, in Thibodeau's system, the help defenders drop down packing the paint in a pseudo-zone and often switch on screens. This strategy was paramount for the success of the 2010-2015 Chicago Bulls and revolutionized the way teams, especially successful ones, play defense.
In theory, the Wolves have the perfect personnel for an Ice-based defense. Ricky Rubio is a good on-ball defender, whose lateral quickness and size is underrated and extremely valuable for forcing opponents to the outside. With the selection of combo guard Kris Dunn, the Wolves also now have a bulldog defender who can guard both point guards and wings, perfect for switching on screens. Karl-Anthony Towns figures to be an improved rim protector and his length will continue to cause problems in the lane.
The success of Thibodeau's Ice strategy, however, ultimately hinges on the improvement of players like Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Wiggins contributions defensively will be invaluable if he can capitalize on his on-ball defensive potential, as well as continuing to improve his strength, especially if doing so means gaining the ability to switch onto and defend fours for brief spurts. With LaVine, it's all about learning to corral his physical defensive tools and using them to improve his team defense. LaVine is long and quick, much like Rubio, but at the moment he isn't strong or experienced enough to consistently defend two-guards well. If he can find a way to use his tools to cause problems in passing lanes and with help defense, the Wolves wing defense will improve.
The Wolves must also learn how to handle pick-and-rolls and screens better. Last season they allowed 1.04 points per possession to the roll-man (19th in the NBA), 0.86 ppp to the ball handler (28th in the NBA), and 1.04 ppp when the opponent was coming off a screen (28th), according to NBA.com. A team cannot be successful without defending the pick-and-roll or fight through screens adequately. As was mentioned before, an important aspect of Thibodeau's defenses during his time in Chicago was their ability to switch on screens. Again, in theory, the Wolves have the perfect personnel for a switch-heavy defense, but it will be on Thibodeau to put the schemes together and the players to execute them. The reality is that until players like Wiggins, LaVine, and even Dunn build up their "grown man" strength (i.e. reach adulthood and have more experience in the league), the Wolves' defense will be limited to some degree. So in that way, it may be a year or two yet before the team's defense is at a top 10 level.
On the other side of the ball, I am most looking forward to seeing how Thibodeau utilizes the Triangle offense. Kurt Rambis was infamously the last Wolves' coach to employ the Triangle with, uh, little success, but I imagine this time around things will be quite different. Thibodeau's version is much more fluid, bending to the skill sets of his players, rather than the more static version utilized by Rambis and coaching legend Phil Jackson.
Traditionally speaking, the Triangle needs a scoring point guard who can shoot consistently from outside in order to be successful, but that is not necessarily the case with Thibodeau. Derrick Rose, while being a scoring point guard, was not, and continues to not be, known for being a prolific shooter. Dunn is more cut from the mold of Rose (athletic, driver, bulldog-mentality), while Rubio is almost the exact opposite (defense oriented, outstanding passer, not as bouncy). I can't wait to see how Thibodeau highlights their abilities within the Triangle.
Towns is the perfect big for Thibodeau's version of the triangle; in many ways, he's like a more offensively-explosive Joakim Noah. He can pass, shoot, and handle the ball, a skillset that makes the point of the Triangle that much more dangerous. Additionally, Nemanja Bjelica might also be a low-key good Triangle player, functioning in a role similar, but obviously less voluminous, to that of Towns.
I'm also interested in seeing to what extent Thibodeau's offense involves more three-point shots. I am of the opinion that the Wolves have the personnel to be a league average three-point shooting team, especially if their volume from the corners increases. According to NBA.com, last season the Wolves shot just over 38% from both corners (compared to 32.8% from above the break), but only attempted 285 shots combined (compared to, get this, 1,053 from above the break), so increasing the volume in these areas should be imperative. Perhaps a greater emphasis on corner threes was already shown during Summer League with Dunn and Tyus Jones actively seeking to kick out to players in the corners on drives.
Finally, how will Kris Dunn function within the Wolves' offense? He was mainly utilized as the off-guard during Summer League, so naturally one would expect that trend to continue into the regular season. But how much burn will he get at the point? How often will Rubio and Dunn share the court? Same with Jones and Dunn? Will Dunn primarily be set up/look to score off of drives or will Thibodeau try to focus on and develop his outside shot? Even though we may have an idea, all of these questions lack concrete answers as we only got the briefest of glimpses of Dunn during Summer League.
All in all, the upcoming season figures to be an exciting one full of questions that currently lack answers. I can't wait to see how it all unfolds.