With the benefit of hindsight of a few weeks from the Wolves last game, we wanted to weigh in on the end of the season.
1) What is your overall take on the season?
Kyle Thiege: For me personally, I thought this latest Wolves season was encouragingly successful. Did it end with a disappointing thud? Yeah, but the same could be said for a dozen other playoff teams.
The main highlights that I’ll take away from 2017-2018 are KAT’s continued development as a generational offensive talent, Taj Gibson’s ability to bring it on the defensive end night in and night out, and literally everything Jimmy Butler related.
Josh Clement: I think it is hard not to say that overall the season was a great success. I think that it is hard to truly ascertain how difficult it is for teams to make the move from bad to good. There have been quite a few teams in the NBA the last few years that simply stagnate for a variety of reasons, such as the Bucks, the Jazz from 2014-2016, and the Nuggets. I truly did not expect the Wolves to even get close to their project over-under around 48.5 and to do so in a monstrously difficult Western Conference is impressive.
Before Jimmy Butler was hurt he was playing like a legitimate MVP candidate. The guy is just incredible. It is hard to imagine that with Butler and Towns the team can ever be bad. Those guys are just too good.
However, that is not to say that there are not some problems lying just below the surface.
Charlie Johnson: It was a blast. I expected the Wolves to win 45-50 games; they won 47. I hoped they’d have two all-stars, start to pack Target Center like the old days, and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They did all of that and I enjoyed every second of it.
But it was also volatile and dramatic to a frustrating extent. Jimmy Butler’s injury sent a three seed to the playoff bubble, and struggles on the court change everything; they spark rifts between players, over-analysis among media members, and disappointment throughout fan bases. All of that happened this season and it seemed to take a toll on the team.
Most importantly, though, after more than a decade of false hope, the Wolves made a real, tangible step in the right direction. They made the playoffs and ended the drought. No more will every player acquired by this team be asked about the franchise’s incompetence,
2) Thibs’ job (both as coach and GM) has become a point of contention among Wolves fans, how do you see this going moving forward?
Kyle: I’m on the record as no longer being a “Thibs guy,” but I also don’t think he has been as damaging to the franchise as some think. Do I support the constant barking from the sidelines, the generic post-game interviews centered around “doing your job,” and the lack of creativity centered around building the back end of the roster? No, no, and no.
But I also think that whenever the Thibs era does end (which I personally believe could happen as early as next summer), I think we will remember it as a period of successful growing pains for a franchise that possessed so much disappointing baggage. It’s very rare for NBA franchises to make monumental leaps in one season, and I think what the Wolves did accomplish this past season will serve them well for many years to come.
Josh: Well, since this question was posed early last week, a lot of new information has come forward making this look much more problematic. From all reports (mostly off-the-record) the rumors certainly point to an extremely toxic work environment in Timberwolves-land, both in the locker room and in the actual management side of the organization. Thibs is responsible for all of this as the President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach and things certainly seem to be deteriorating. This is likely, although unfortunately so, going to become the biggest story of the Wolves off-season as it seems more change is fast approaching.
Charlie: The results have been fine. Far from exceptional, but certainly not deserving of termination either. When Glen Taylor hired Thibodeau, though, the new Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations was expected to come in and revamp a team culture that had been lost since Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics. Fundamentally, winning is probably the most important aspect of culture in professional sports; and the Wolves are starting to do just that. But it’s certainly not the only one. Successful franchises are also synonymous with continuity, professionalism, and chemistry.
Recent reports about Thibodeau’s team do not seem to indicate an evolution in those regards. At this moment, I’m not in favor of moving in a new direction. But if an atmosphere of cohesion, excitement, and joy isn’t evident next season, I will not be sympathetic.
3) Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns got their first taste of playoff basketball, how do you see this impacting their game next year?
Kyle: Both players clearly said all the right things after their playoff run ended, and that’s to be expected. For Towns, I think he’s wired in a way that demands greatness, and what he learned going up against Capela for five games should pay significant dividends as he continues to polish his game on both ends.
As for Andrew? I really don’t know. I still own property on Wiggins Island, but I’d be lying if I said the market was robust. He’s 22, is financially set for life, and doesn’t seem (as of now) to possess the same motor as young studs like Donovan Mitchell, Jason Tatum, and Joel Embiid. But on the flip side, he is still only 22 years old, and possesses the athleticism and durability of a star. Will next season be the year Andrew finally puts it all together? I can’t wait to find out.
Josh: I think getting that playoff basketball experience was extremely important for Karl-Anthony Towns in particular. Wiggins certainly was able to show exactly what he can do, particularly in Game 3, but he also reminded us just how quickly he can disappear from a game.
For Towns, having an opponent game plan against him specifically over the course of a series must have been incredibly challenging, but learning to make the adjustments when you are the focal point of the opposition’s defense will only provide long-term benefits for his ability to handle these matchups.
Charlie: Let’s just take a second to remember how much fun the playoffs were. In hindsight, a 4-1 route was a bummer. But we won game three at home in convincing fashion, got to chant ‘Wolves in 6’ and anticipate the possibility of returning to Houston tied 2-2. It was everything I’ve been waiting for.
Throughout the playoffs, I’ve been thinking about all of those games that the Wolves lost to bad teams this season. They fell to the Phoenix Suns twice, the Memphis Grizzlies twice, the Brooklyn Nets, the Orlando Magic, the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls. That’s eight losses to teams that ended the season with 28 or fewer wins. Had the Wolves finished with two more victories in hand, they would have had home-court advantage in the first round. They likely would have faced one of the Trail Blazers, Thunder, Jazz, Pelicans or Spurs; a collection of teams they were 15-2 against with a healthy Jimmy Butler during the regular season.
Falling to the eighth seed and getting stomped by the Rockets in round one should give Wiggins and Towns a fundamentally different understanding of why those regular season games against bottom-feeding teams are so important.
4) There seems to be a split between some of the veterans and the younger guys. Can the Wolves resolve the differences?
Kyle: This issue doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it does for others. Listen, in any sport, veterans want to win, while young guys don’t know how to win. As I referenced earlier, I think this season demonstrated necessary growing pains for the Wolves young core (Towns, Wiggins, and yes... Tyus), and I think those lessons learned will help prepare them more for future battles with the veterans of this team (Jimmy, Teague, etc.).
Josh: Again, I think a lot of this falls back on Thibs, as it is essentially his job to make sure things like this do not happen. Or if they do, that they at least do not really have much of an impact on team morale. I think the ability to resolve this problem will depend upon the roster makeup next season. If the Wolves simply sign Derrick Rose and little else, it is hard to imagine the situation improving.
Charlie: This is a conversation that I feared before the season started. Jimmy Butler lost face in Chicago, and was ultimately traded, because of a rift that formed between him and Dwyane Wade and Chicago’s younger players. Although Thibodeau did surround Butler with a collection of veterans, the two players that are expected to help him the most – Towns and Wiggins – are still in their early twenties.
Butler’s honesty is both a blessing and a curse. It’s what endears him to fans and media members, but it’s also what can create friction within a locker room. Frankly, I think that any and all drama will be squashed only when Towns and Wiggins grow up and exhibit the consistency of effort and execution that Butler requires from his teammates.
5) What should be the Wolves priority this off-season?
Kyle: Again, I think the snap reaction for most fans here (myself included) is to blurt out “fire Thibs!” I personally don’t think that’s a realistic possibility for THIS season, so I’m more focused on the roster.
With Jamal opting out, and the uncertainty surrounding Rose’s future (with how everything has gone so far this offseason, I’d be shocked if Glen signs off on a future deal for him), the Wolves enter the 2018-2019 season with an extremely depleted reserve unit. Add in Belly’s RFA status and the recent surgery for Justin Patton, and the overall bench uncertainty reaches extreme heights.
As an eternal optimist, I still have a positive outlook on how this offseason can go. Using order of operations, the Wolves should first use the OKC pick to draft a young, cheap wing player that can come in and play right behind Jimmy/Andrew. Next, with the current cap situation restricting how teams can spend money, I think the Wolves can (and definitely should) re-sign Belly to a team-friendly deal.
From there, some combination of a Gorgui Dieng trade, buying out Cole Aldrich, and finding a few veterans who want one-year “prove it” deals (much like what Jamal signed last summer) could significantly re-shape the Wolves bench and give them a significant shot in the arm as they look to build upon this past season.
Josh: Personally, I think priority number oneshould be not committing a high amount of resources to Derrick Rose. I hope that is the case.
This Wolves team is incredibly thin. Absolutely nothing has been done in over a year to address the wing depth and that needs to be addressed in both free agency and the draft. At the same time, that should hopefully help with their three-point shooting needs. If Nemanja Bjelica leaves, I think the Wolves should also pursue another stretch forward, as the Wolves have not been able to open up the floor in recent years as they typically favor two-big lineups. This is going to be another important offseason and I think at this point it is fair to be pretty concerned about how this management team will approach the offseason.
I would say there is a chance that the Wolves make a big move with Andrew Wiggins this summer, which would be a pretty big change in direction after the last four years.
Charlie: There seem to be two routes that the Wolves front office could explore this offseason. The first would be to make a splash and trade one of their substantial salaries. If that were to be Gorgui Dieng, it would require a willingness to relinquish meaningful assets in order to unload the center’s contract. If it were Jeff Teague, it would mean finding a trade partner that values the point guard’s veteran savvy and doesn’t see his contract as a negative. And if it were Wiggins, it would be another structural shift in the direction of a franchise that continues to push toward present success.
The other route would be far less exciting. It would entail acquiring depth through the draft and free agency, despite possessing such limited cap-space. Improvement would come from another year of development within the same system and internal improvement.
I think the Wolves should explore each and every avenue to execute the former strategy and inject a dose of energy into a group that seems to need it.