Change is scary.
The last few weeks have been incredibly tumultuous in Wolves fandom. A significant part of last year’s roster has been shipped out, including the one and only Ricky Rubio. Incoming are players who are ready to play in Tom Thibodeau’s system, including Jimmy Butler, who is one of the best players in the entire league.
The New Wolves Order, Thibs and Layden Corporation, decided that this was the time to strike, or rather it was forced upon them with last year’s dismal record and the upcoming contract extensions for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. This was never going to be a smooth transition.
As such, Wolves fans have become somewhat polarized during the course of the free agency period. The elation following the Butler trade has morphed into a divided fanbase, on one side the overwhelming belief that the Wolves are simply better. The ends justify the means and those ends are NBA Playoff Basketball. On the other side, a distrust in seemingly mismanaged resources and lack of process may handicap the team in the future.
So who is right?
In the words of the famous critic Anton Ego, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”
The Wolves have made a slew of terrible management decisions throughout the years. That list bears not repeating. Those who were wary of the Wolves giving full rein to Tom Thibodeau, not to mention the prior examples of Coach-GM combinations, are seeing their fears come to light. Thibodeau has, thus far, fulfilled the worries of many fans.
As Brian Windhorst recently wrote, rather than evolving to the NBA, Thibodeau is basically making the Wolves a “Thibs 2.0” team. The starters play too many minutes, players who are not part of the plan are given no second thought, there is an over-reliance of playing two big lineups, and a lack of importance of three-point shooting and team spacing. Defense trumps all and there is no room for deviation from the path unless there is no other option. There was no room for Ricky Rubio in this plan.
This is, essentially, the good practices lead to good results method of thinking. The league has changed and Thibodeau is refusing to see that he must adapt. In the previous season, he wasted time browbeating the Wolves with point Wiggins, not playing Tyus Jones, and keeping hanger-ons at the end of the roster rather than trying to use the end of bench spots as a revolving door of try-out spots and D-League contracts.
He then overspent on bringing Taj Gibson, who fills a need but not a dire need, and wasted resources in trading Rubio and signing Jeff Teague, who may be a slightly better fit but a worse player. The Wolves, as of now, are stuck with no wing depth or three-point shooters. They are perhaps the most overloaded team in terms of bigs in the league, save perhaps the Kings. The only way out is particularly unjust, as the small value that the Rubio trade brought back, the 2018 OKC pick, may have to be used to unload a contract signed the previous season. The last vestige of Ricky Rubio on this roster is being used to save the Wolves from a corner they painted themselves into.
Altogether, seemingly poor process indicates the Wolves have given the reins to a stubborn taskmaster who has no interest in fitting into today’s NBA. The team will be good next year, but the long-term future of this team is in jeopardy and the upper limit for the Wolves’ success has been capped by bad decisions. Smart, well-informed, people are in this camp, such as Jonathon Tjarks who recently wrote a piece for the Ringer about how the Wolves may find their old-school ways won’t create playoff success or this Nylon Calculus piece by Nick Sciria that indicates the Wolves will have one of the worst “spacing” lineups in the league.
For the pessimists, the optimists are an unhearing bunch that are waving a fallacious appeal to authority argument around as a way to force disengagement with real issues.
The optimistic fans are incredulous that the pessimistic fans even exist. The naysayers are missing the forest for the trees. The Wolves have a top ten player in the NBA with Butler. Towns will almost certainly be a top 15-20 player next year and will only move up that list as he gets older. A ton of smart people across the NBA believe that Wiggins will join him in that tier. Jeff Teague may not be the perfect point guard, but the Rubio-Butler combination was destined to not work. Not to mention, Teague was an All-Star in 2015, it is not like the Wolves are getting some scrub.
I mean, look at this graph of net pointed added on offense and net points saved on defense from the 2017 Free agency.
The Wolves just had their most successful offseason of all time. Why would anyone want to question that? Not to mention, it is not as if the roster today will be the same one that the Wolves will work with on opening day. There are still moves to be made, smaller free agents to be picked up, that will fill out the roster.
The small moves are inconsequential in the long run. The important stuff is having stars and establishing a team culture. That is by far the most important thing. All these other teams can focus on trying to emulate the Warriors, like the 76ers and Nets, and shoot all the threes they want, but that is not going to help them win any games. Tom Thibodeau knows how to get teams to win games and that is what he is doing. It was unfortunate to lose Rubio, but was anyone really excited to watch him stand in a corner while Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins took turns running pick-and-roll or isolation sets? Jeff Teague is simply a better fit for this roster and the cost of obtaining him was worth it.
Also, remember those first few months a few years ago when Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Garnett, and Karl-Anthony Towns were one of the best defensive teams in the league? That is the reason why Taj Gibson matters. Towns needs someone in his ear and on the floor next to him to mentor him on defense.
It is hard to see how this offseason wasn’t an immense success. Who cares about C.J. Miles? We got Jimmy Freakin’ Butler. The pessimists are making mountains out of molehills and missing the fact that the Wolves are simply going to be good at Basketball.
Do you know who also thinks this? 538’s CARMELO projections here, (just don’t look at Rubio’s individual CARMELO numbers) and Nylon Calculus again showing how the Wolves just had an amazing free agency.
This team is about to make some serious noise in the playoffs and, while some of the contracts are not ideal, we still have the necessary flexibility for the future.
The Realist (?)
Both of these sides are likely correct to some degree. It’s unsurprising that the best take on this all is the inimitable Britt Robson:
“The guy with the track record successful enough to garner the enthusiastic participation of Butler — his former player and one of the top two-way performers in the entire NBA — is also the guy who doesn’t value Rubio’s magic enough to countenance his clanking jump shot.
A year ago, the consensus was that the Wolves needed an overlord to transform the promise of Towns and Wiggins into concrete, meaningful victories. They hired the best candidate on the market. Now comes the consequences. LaVine’s buckets and Rubio’s dishes may indeed be beautiful keepsakes for the mind’s eye, but as the saying goes, beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. And Thibodeau’s vision necessarily holds sway.”
The Wolves are in a position that is the envy of perhaps 75-80 percent of the league. To pair a true superstar in Butler (on a below market contract) with one of the best three young players in the NBA in Towns is the best of all possible worlds. Wiggins has moved from being the make-or-break decision point of the franchise to a necessary third star who can grow into his role.
Tom Thibodeau has decided it is time to make his omelet, so to speak, and thus has broken a few eggs. The Wolves are not going to be a pace-and-space team with switch-everything lineups to combat the Warriors. However, they do have the necessary core talent to succeed.
This leaves two questions, which cannot yet be answered, that shall decide the fate of the Timberwolves.
Has the NBA irrevocably changed, due to the analytic-led three-point revolution and rule changes, so that teams built like the Timberwolves simply cannot compete for championships?
Do talent and dedication trump all? Is all that matters simply having the best players in the NBA at the right time and surrounding them with a decent enough supporting cast, no matter if they are shooting threes or not?
Your answer will probably tell you what camp you fall in.