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Thursday Musings: Running it Back

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The Wolves will be going into next season with mostly the same roster

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the offseason, it was clear that the Wolves had limited options to improve the team. Large contracts for Gorgui Dieng, Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and the new contract extension for Andrew Wiggins essentially account for the team’s complete payroll. On top of that, there is the extension coming for Karl-Anthony Towns that could shoot this team into the luxury tax level.

Thus, the Wolves were armed with a mid-level exception, a late first-round pick, and a restricted free agency to deal with in Nemanja Bjelica.

While there was a glimmer of hope (without any sources) that the Wolves would be able to translate some of their bad contracts via a trade into a usable wing, such as Kent Bazemore, nothing really materialized on that front. Instead, the Wolves stayed the course in the draft and ended up with two solid prospects in Josh Okogie and Keita-Bates Diop, both of whom could crack the rotation next year.

In free agency, they simply have replaced Nemanja Bjelica with Anthony Tolliver, which is hard to regard as anything but a lateral move. At this point, the Wolves are limited to minimum contracts until they hit the edge of the tax apron. Tolliver is a fine player in his own right, but the dream of grabbing a legitimate wing with the MLE fell through.

It seems that the Wolves were never really in play for those players, as the current contracts that were accepted are:

  • Joe Harris - $16 million over two years
  • Avery Bradley - $25 million over two years
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: $12 million for one year
  • Tyreke Evans: $12 million for one year
  • JJ Reddick: $12.5 million for one year
  • Mario Hezonja: $6.5 million for one year
  • Glen Robinson: $8.3 million over two years
  • Marco Bellineli: $12 million over two years
  • Doug McDermott: $21 million over three years
  • Will Barton: $50 million over four years

Sure, Jeff Green may have been available at the veteran minimum, and Luc Mbah a Moute has not signed anywhere at this point, but it is clear that the Wolves were simply out-priced for the wing market. A few of those guys, like Robinson and Hezonja, may have been in the Wolves price range, but at that point we are getting to the level of players that likely will have a similar impact as Tolliver.

At the end of the day, the Wolves are running it back. The starting lineup will not change, barring a major unexpected trade, and the roles on the roster will not change. Tolliver will slide ride into Bjelica’s minutes, Rose will take over Jamal Crawford’s role as a bench gunner, and Okogie and Bates-Diop will likely filter in and out throughout the year depending on how their rookie seasons go.

Compared to last year when the Wolves had three new starters, there has been very little roster turnover, so we can likely be confident about a few things for next year.

First of all, the Wolves are certainly not going to be making much ground in three-point shooting. The Wolves lost two of their most prolific long-range shooters in Crawford and Bjelica. Tolliver does shoot threes more willingly than Bjelica ever did, but Rose is certainly not a prolific three-point shooter.

Rose’s career average is 2.5 three attempts per game, while making only 29.6 percent of them. It seems odd that many have pointed to Rose’s success from deep in the playoffs, where he shot an incredibly unsustainable 70 percent from deep on only 10 attempts (while also shooting over 50 percent from the floor), but that is such a small sample that really has no bearing on whether or not Rose will succeed as a three-point shooter. I would put more faith in the career 1248 attempts from three that had a lower than 30 percent success rate.

Odds are that the Wolves will be finishing near last or last in three-point attempts again, unless Jeff Teague or Andrew Wiggins really start letting it fly.

The Wolves should also be a bit better on defense this year. It’s been pointed out many times before, but it is very possible that simply running out Jamal Crawford for major minutes sunk the defense from a league-average defense to one of the worst in the NBA.

Now, the lineups that Rose was in during the end of the year in the regular season were also abysmal. However, most of those, again, came alongside Crawford in the dreadful Tyus Jones, Rose, Crawford grouping. So we may see the Wolves shoot up in defensive rating this year. The starting group actually had solid defensive metrics while playing the most minutes in the league, so there is a pretty solid case for this argument.

Finally, yet again, the Wolves have no depth on the wing (outside of the rookies). This is where things are a little more up in the air. It’s pretty unlikely the Wolves will nab an interesting wing for a minimum contract, but it is theoretically possible. Rose has been, to put it lightly, not exactly a bastion of health in his career and Jimmy Butler typically misses a few games here and there. One of the benefits of Bjelica is that he was able to somewhat effectively slide to the small forward position. Tolliver played about 15 percent of his minutes last year at small forward, according to Basketball-Reference, but it is hard not to be worried about the wing depth.

The rookies are the variables here. Okogie and Bates-Diop are prototypical 3-and-D wings, yet it is implausible to expect either of them to become efficient players immediately. Players like Jayson Tatum are extraordinarily rare.

Depending on how the rookies play, as well as how the Wolves health holds up, the rookies may see quite a bit of playing time. Only time will tell.

But as the Wolves are running it back, we will be rehashing the same arguments from last year. Can Wiggins and Towns play effective defense? Can the Wolves dominate the rebounding, turnovers, and free throw battles to make up for the three-point shooting disparities? Is Jimmy time in the fourth-quarter the only solution to close games out?

None of these questions, amongst many more, were answered last year. We will find out which team this is though. If they are the team in the Winter that rattled off a bunch of wins and looked like one of the better teams in the NBA, everyone is happy. If they are the team that vacillated around .500 the rest of the year, change is coming.