The Minnesota Timberwolves are barreling quickly towards an unavoidable identity crisis. This has been brought on by the Jimmy Butler trade, as, for what it is worth, the team formerly constructed with Jimmy Butler at least had a vision for the future.
The idea of Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns surrounded by veterans and role players is a playoff team. There was the ongoing question around the efficacy of Andrew Wiggins as a third-banana that could blossom into a star, which was going to determine if that team could truly contend for a championship, but the foundation was there.
But the divergence point was coming regardless of a trade or not. After this season, the Thibs and Butler plan would have been reevaluated depending upon playoff success and Butler’s free agency decision.
Now, with Jimmy Butler traded for two rock-solid role players/starters in Robert Covington and Dario Saric, the future has become much murkier. The Wolves still have those veterans on the roster in Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, but the bench features young, interesting players who may be able to step into starting roles in the future in Tyus Jones and Dario Saric. Josh Okogie is lurking as a high-energy bench wing that could become more and Andrew Wiggins remains the same perplexing question as before.
We are only about a month into the post-Butler world, but as Canis Hoopus’ Kyle Thiege points out here, the Wolves have a decision ahead of them. The Wolves quite clearly have a lot of talent and have some very synergistic players between Covington, Saric, and Towns, but this is a team that may not have a high ceiling. Even if Towns lives up to his top-five NBA player talent, teams without secondary or tertiary stars struggle to get much further than this Wolves teams would.
Anthony Davis has helped the Pelicans scrape by to early playoff exits. It has taken Giannis to reach all-world form (along with Khris Middleton and an incredibly complimentary, and deep, roster) to become a top-tier contender. The Wolves have our own recent history with Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love not being able to lift up a floundering roster.
The Western Conference is not going to do the Wolves any favors in terms of reaching the playoffs, but it could help the Wolves with their draft pick odds, particularly with the newly implemented lottery system. With the flattening of lottery odds, picking 9-11th has slightly better odds than it used to. Every step above that and the odds get even better.
But while the Western Conference is relatively flat, the Eastern Conference is not. The 6th-15th seed in the East could easily end up with a worse record than a .500 Wolves team. Those are simply too many teams to try to jump into the tanking wars and the Wolves are too good to go that route. Even a salary dump of Wiggins may (unfortunately) do little to change the win-loss trajectory for this year.
This means the Wolves now find themselves, at least this year, in the dreaded middle ground. Not good enough to compete in the playoffs, but not bad enough to actually score a high draft pick.
This context gives the Wolves stability and a foundation to build from, but relatively few options for flexibility. But the Wolves can choose from a few paths to determine their future.
1) The Technocrat Approach
This seems like the most likely option, as it is the one that most teams take and it does not require Glen Taylor to make any substantial changes. If the Wolves go into the offseason with the same roster, they can essentially plan on taking a player in the late lottery while adding on a free agent at the MLE level. The point guard position will need to be figured out, whether Jeff Teague accepts his player option or not, but essentially the Wolves build from a starting unit of Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
As far as foundations go, that is a pretty good one. The ceiling of this team still depends on if Andrew Wiggins can live up to his max contract, but this could be a perennial bottom-end playoff team, like the Memphis Grizzlies-lite.
In this world, Thibs remains in charge for at least another year and Glen Taylor does not have to shell out any money. This is not the worst plan, as teams like the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and Atlanta Hawks under Mike Budenholzer have shown how incremental improvements can lead to long-term positive results.
However, this is also the approach that will lead the Wolves to continue having Derrick Rose be the crunch-time general. Without any substantial changes, Thibs is just going to continue to stay his course for better or worse.
2) The Regime Change
The second most likely option is largely the same to the one above, except the Wolves decide that Thibs is the one holding the Wolves back. Glen Taylor could look at the Marc Jackson Warriors or Jason Kidd Bucks and think that a coaching change could facilitate internal improvement. He would probably find an agreeable star in Karl-Anthony Towns that would be excited about this approach.
However, it is hard to tell how much this would matter. There are two tracks of complaints about Thibs from Wolves writers and fans. The first set are those that are pretty Wolves specific, such last year’s team not shooting enough threes, the poor defensive schemes, and lack of signing non-former Bulls. Not to mention, the complete fiasco of the embarrassing Jimmy Butler situation.
But a lot of those things are not really issues at this point. The new roster seems to be playing a much higher defensive level and the team is switching more on defense, which is likely helping Towns. The Wolves’ three-point shooting has trended down after an initial spike, but for a while they were shooting a league-average amount of threes. Derrick Rose’s signing will always be problematic and his effectiveness is reverting to the mean, but he has still been a (mostly) helpful player.
The other Thibs issues are ones that every team has with their coach. Take a read through at any SB Nation site’s comments after a team loses and you will see lots of people questioning coaching decisions and rotations. These are the sort of margin issues that everyone has and likely only cost or help a team a few games throughout the season. Sure, Josh Okogie and Tyus Jones need more playing time, but it is a hell of a lot more important that the Wolves have Andrew Wiggins on a 5-year max contract and he is still playing like a below-average player.
A truly helpful regime change would require the Wolves hitting on finding the perfect coach for this roster. We’ve already seen with Thibs how that process can sour quickly.
3) Star Chasing
One of the most exciting things about the Jimmy Butler trade was how important it is to have multiple stars on a team, as that is clearly what drives long-term playoff success. I’ve linked to this article from 538 many times about how championship teams are constructed, which you can read here, but basically the best teams have combinations of Alphas, Betas, and Gammas (as it’s 538, these are defined by an internal advanced stat that is a mix of BPM and RPM). With Butler, the Wolves had a lower-tier Alpha, a rising Beta in Towns, and hopefully Wiggins could fill that Gamma role.
Now, the Wolves just have Towns. Saric and Covington are exactly the type of players that fill in the other starting spots on the best teams, or could even rise to a Gamma role in their peak years, but it is hard to say that they will approach the “Star” level.
That leaves Andrew Wiggins as the other potential star. We have certainly spilled enough virtual ink on the subject, but it remains true that the Wolves future hinges upon their approach with Wiggins. They either stay the course and hope internal development takes place, or they decide that they need to try to turn Andrew Wiggins into another player who can fulfill that star role.
They have options this year if they want to go that route. They could engage with Charlotte about Kemba Walker, taking back Nic Batum and his albatross contract in the process, and hope to sign Walker to a supermax this summer. That could be risky and cap out the team in the future, but would make the team much more competitive. They could salary dump Wiggins to a team like the Kings now or over the summer to other teams that are hoarding cap space, but then they would have to go out and convince a free agent to come to Minnesota. The Wolves would be competing with the Knicks and the Clippers here, which is why it makes sense to go after a lower-profile star like Walker.
However, if the Wolves strike out here, there is really no other option, unless they feel like they can pry away a restricted free agency after salary dumping Wiggins, but there are no great options to pursue this path either. It’s hard to believe that D’Angelo Russell is the missing piece for the Wolves.
That brings us back to a trade. Every year, there are stars that move. This has simply become part of the fabric of the NBA. If the Wolves decide that Andrew Wiggins is not the player for the future, perhaps some other team will. While the Wizards may have decided to stay the course for now, Bradley Beal or Otto Porter could make for easy swaps. Portland could always pull the plug. There are options out there.
The question is, if these prospects do arise, will the Wolves take them?
All of this is to say, it is difficult to know exactly the path that the Wolves should take. Their options hinge on a few key decisions, but the team has a strong base to build from. The floor has been established, now it is up to whoever ends up running the Wolves in the future, Thibs or otherwise, to create the ceiling.