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Making a Case For a 50-Win Minnesota Timberwolves Season

A case for a 50-win season begins with Jimmy Butler but also relies on internal development.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

On the surface, the Wolves winning 50 games can seem daunting as this would require a 19-game improvement on last season’s 31-51 record. Many will point to the addition of Jimmy Butler or the presence of a point guard who can shoot as the biggest reasons for optimism but another crucial factor in the calculus is internal development.

Internal Development

What does internal development even mean? Rather than a definition an example of internal development seems to make more sense. Almost exactly 12 months ago the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas released it’s win total over/unders for the 2016-17 season. The Timberwolves win total (essentially a projection of the team’s record) came out at 41.5.

If a believer in the Wolves last season, one would be betting the team was going to win 42 games. Had the Wolves hit the over that would have implied a 13-game improvement from their 2015-16 record of 29-53. To some, thirteen games of improvement seemed perplexing as the team had minimal roster turnover, only adding three end-of-the-bench veterans — Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich, and Jordan Hill.

A bet on the Wolves would have been a bet on the same pieces as the season before. The core of that team was again going to be Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Ricky Rubio. Thus: betting on the Wolves was a bet on the internal development of the 2015-16 team.

In many ways, this was warranted. Towns was not yet 21 years old while Wiggins and LaVine were only one year Towns’s senior. It was intuitive to believe that three budding prospects would step up their games and propel the team upward. Betting against at least some improvement would have actually been illogical. An optimistic outlook on Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine was further buoyed by the change from Sam Mitchell to Tom Thiboeau as head coach. Things were looking up, the playoffs seemed plausible.

But the development did not happen. Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine all flashed but it was noise for naught. The Wolves missed the playoffs by ten games as their win total only increased from 29 to 31. Team-wide improvements were also marginal. The offense improved from 12th in the league to 10th and the defense (despite adding a defensive guru) improved marginally, up from 28th in the league under Mitchell to 27th with Thibs.

Patience in Development

So, why? The logic was sound. There should have been more improvement. Many will point to reasons it did not happen but a positive outlook is that this internal development may just take more time. And if we are making the case for a 50-win season there is a fair reason to believe that development begins to come to fruition in 2017.

Thibodeau runs a defense that was particularly difficult to pick up for inexperienced players, and he had a rotation with eight players with three or fewer years of NBA experience. Those young players made up 77.2 percent of the total minutes played and their ability to intuit not only the defensive system but the game as a whole was slow.

2016-17 Wolves Minutes Played Distribution

0-3 Years Experience Minutes Played Veterans Minutes Played
0-3 Years Experience Minutes Played Veterans Minutes Played
Andrew Wiggins 3048 Ricky Rubio 2469
Karl-Anthony Towns 3030 Brandon Rush 1030
Gorgui Dieng 2653 Cole Aldrich 531
Zach LaVine 1749 Omri Casspi 222
Shabazz Muhammad 1516 Adreian Payne 135
Kris Dunn 1333 Lance Stephenson 67
Nemanja Bjelica 1190 Jordan Hill 47
Tyus Jones 774 John Lucas III 11
Total 15293 Total 4512

The roster has turned over and through that process matured. Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford bring a combined 39 years of NBA experience and with that experience comes an expedited learning curve of Thibs’ system. Meaning those four should absorb the system quickly, particularly Butler and Gibson who have previously played for Thibs.

The new veterans can also teach. There is an anecdote to this teaching from the 2015-16 season in the improved defense of Towns alongside Kevin Garnett or Wiggins with Tayshaun Prince. It is fair to assume a similar trickle down effect from Butler, Teague, Gibson, and Crawford.

These new veterans are not the only players who are mature, the hold over players are also another year older. Towns, Wiggins, and Dieng played 82 games last season. Shabazz Muhammad played 78 games and Tyus Jones tallied minutes in 60 games last year. While that development may not have budded into flowers the roots theoretically began to grow simply through steeping in the wake of Thibodeau.

Making the Jump

Maybe the 13-game jump “projected” by Vegas was not, in fact, asinine but instead just premature. If Vegas was projecting 13 additional wins from almost exclusively internal development last season, one could argue the likelihood of that improvement is even higher this season.

Oh yeah, the Wolves also added Jimmy Butler at a relatively slim cost of LaVine and Dunn’s production. While Butler will certainly contribute to that internal development through his own understanding and teaching he also brings a star dynamic, a player who accumulated 13.8 Win Shares last season, production that will be welcome at Target Center.

If the internal development does bloom this season there may be nothing else needed beyond Butler to reach the arbitrary 50-win line.