The Timberwolves preseason is finally upon us tonight as the Wolves take on the Phoenix Suns. It’s hard to believe it was just a year ago, but the Wolves were fully swept up in the chaos wrought by Jimmy Butler at this point. The infamous practice took place on October 10th, followed by the pre-coordinated interview with ESPN and Rachel Nichols.
Who could forget the reporting from ESPN, about how “Butler was vociferous and intense throughout the scrimmages, targeting president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, general manager Scott Layden and teammates, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, league sources said.” And that, “many of the Minnesota players left practice energized by Butler’s performance, mesmerized with him taking several end-of-the-bench players and running the table in scrimmage games against the regulars, league sources said.”
Now, a year later, nearly everything has changed (except for most of the starting lineup of course). Thibodeau is long gone and Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders are leading the feel-good Timberwolves who all like each other now. Karl-Anthony Towns will no longer be held back to 40 percent of his capabilities, Andrew Wiggins will no longer have those internal doubters, and Jeff Teague will finally get to play in the up-tempo, three-point slinging way he has always desired.
As many have pointed out, it remains to be seen what will happen to the family narrative when the going gets tough. For all the talk coming into this season, there is no promise that this team will be any good. In fact, it feels more likely than not they will not be very good.
But we have a whole season to talk about that. For now, we can watch these preseason games and get overexcited about the things that definitely will not carry over to the season, like that time that Taj Gibson was shooting threes. We will also be getting our first chance of figuring out how this Wolves team is actually going to play. The most interesting things to keep an eye on are:
Tempo and Three-Point Shooting
The Wolves have been talking a lot about how they want to run and how they want to shoot threes. As nice as it sounds, it remains unclear how this roster fits into that playstyle. Jeff Teague has never really been an up-tempo point guard and the Wolves have few players that have any sort of playmaking skills. They also have few proven three-point shooters outside of Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns. And by few, I mean zero.
Previous Nets teams, of which a few of the Wolves new hires hail from, pushed the boundaries of how effective a three-point shooting team can be without having competent three-point shooters. Between Wiggins, Josh Okogie, Jake Layman, and Jarret Culver, the Wolves will be running out a bunch of spotty three-point shooters on the wing. If the shots don’t drop, will they keep taking them?
The Wolves have too many big guys for too few minutes. This is primarily by design, as this will allow the Wolves to mix and match lineups depending upon their opponent. However, it will be interesting to see how the Wolves balance Towns, Jordan Bell, Noah Vonleh, Gorgui Dieng, and Naz Reid. It the Wolves are truly going to a significant amount of minutes with four wings on the floor, then a few of those guys are going to be squeezed out of the rotation. Does Gorgui Dieng even get more than five minutes of time in a preseason game when Jordan Bell is hurt? Do the Wolves value exploring how Naz Reid handles the NBA as an uber-cheap backup center?
One of the many chagrins that Wolves fans (and the players at times) had with Thibs was his stubborn refusal to enact a switch-heavy defense that may have better-suited the personnel and the modern NBA. The Wolves have talked up their new defensive approaches, but David Vanterpool typically had his bigs drop back against high pick-and-rolls, which Towns is more used to.
It’s more likely that the Wolves will mix it up here, as this may change depending upon the opponent and personnel, but the team could easily run a switch-heavy scheme if they play four wings.
Of course, the follow-up question to this is how exactly Robert Covington will hold up at the four. Beyond Towns and Jeff Teague (just because the Wolves are so thin at point), Covington is the most important player on this team. It will be very interesting to see how much they rely on Covington at the four against bigger opponents.
Who exactly is, um, dribbling?
Speaking of Jeff Teague, how in the world are the Wolves going to have a semi-competent offense with so many brick-laying wings and no creation skills? Having Towns on the roster means the Wolves can sleep-walk their way into a top-ten offense, but we have seen time and time again this does not necessarily mean the team will have a competent crunch-time offense.
While there is an argument to be had about salary cap management and finding marginal efficiencies for long-term success, there is also the reality that this Wolves team is relying upon either spectacular health for Jeff Teague, abnormal success from a rookie, or an Andrew Wiggins leap in dribbling, passing, and decision making. Sure seems like a risky bet. I would bet the Wolves try out a bunch of sets in the preseason to test out various players’ playmaking ability.
2019-2020 season, here we come. At the very least, it can’t be worse than last year.