This Timberwolves season has been one of the most turbulent in recent memory, from the Jimmy Butler fiasco through Tom Thibodeau’s firing and now the rash of injuries. We wanted to take a look back at the season so far as well as talk about what we can expect from the home stretch of the regular season.
1) Do you feel like the Wolves have been able to make the most of this season considering all of the off-the-court drama and injuries?
Kyle Thiege: Absolutely. I may be more optimistic than the casual fan, but last summer I tweeted that if the Wolves finished the 2018-2019 season with Thibs gone, Towns extended, and some sort of assets for Jimmy Butler, the season would be a massive success.
When you combine the turbulent nature of the offseason with the ridiculous first few weeks of the regular season, it’s actually pretty wild that the Wolves are only four games out of the 8-seed. It’s now apparent that the Wolves have enough talent to be an annual playoff contender, led by their superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. Another offseason of fine-tuning the roster and adding cheap talent should strengthen Minnesota’s footing in the Western Conference.
Eric in Madison: Not really. Making the most of this season would have meant building on last season’s success and/or emerging with a clear direction for the franchise. In large part due to the off-court drama, we’re left with neither. The question marks surrounding the future of basketball operations means the direction setting is once again likely to start over in the summer.
Josh Clement: While the injuries have recently been an issue, the off-court drama that caused so much turmoil was basically self-inflicted. Or rather, the Wolves saw a particularly thorny bush upcoming and rather than go around it or deal with it in some other manner, they jumped right on top of it. It is hard not to view this as a lost season as a result.
It is also hard to say we learned too much new about the players that started the season on the Wolves, which feels like a failure.
Mike O’Hagan: While the odds have been stacked against the Wolves this year, it’s a no from me. Even with the dysfunction and injuries, they should be able to beat teams like Phoenix. It’s losses like that that make the difference for me. Between that and the 4-9 start, it’s a no.
Jake Paynting; That’s a tough question. I think without Robert Covington and Tyus Jones, who are the two biggest advanced stats darlings on the roster, they have done about as I expected them to. I wouldn’t say they have overachieved since the goal was still to truly compete for a playoff position, but I don’t think they have been a complete disaster. A few more wins and less drama and the mindset could be very different in Wolves World.
2) How do you feel the new Wolves, Saric and Covington, fit in with this roster?
Kyle: Maybe I’m still buzzing off the blue and green Kool-Aid, but I think both players are the perfect fit around Towns. Covington needs to come back healthy and Dario Saric needs to prove that these last two weeks can be sustainable, but considering just how toxic Jimmy was on and off the court, turning his contract into a 3-and-D star on a great contract and a 24-year old playmaking stretch-four is about as good as you can hope for to build the perfect roster around your All-Star.
Eric: Terrific. One of the bright spots of the season given the circumstances was acquiring two quality pros that will hopefully be fixtures in the lineup for a while. Saric clearly matches well with Karl-Anthony Towns, and RoCo is the team’s best wing when healthy. Please get healthy RoCo.
Josh: If you stuck Wolves fans in a create-a-player NBA laboratory trying to imagine two role players to stick next to Karl-Anthony Towns they would come up with something very similar to Covington and Saric. Sure it would be nice if Saric was more of an athletic rim protector, but there are only so many young Serge Ibaka-like players (perhaps just Paskal Siakim) in the league. The Wolves could easily be set at the 3-5 spot for the next 3-4 years.
Mike: So far it seems that Saric and Covington fit in well. Their shooting is what makes them fit in almost any situation and RoCo’s defense also fits in anywhere. The only downside is that they’re not really creators, and neither is Okogie or (gulp) Wiggins, so whoever plays point guard in the future needs to be a reliable creator.
Jake: To put it simply, RoCo and The Homie fit perfectly. Covington provides an elite blend of 3-point mastery and defensive savvy that the franchise has desperately craved for years, with an amazing contract to boot. Saric started slowly, but after being inserted into the starting lineup, his potential to be an elite 3rd/4th option is starting to shine brightly. Saric also fits next to Karl-Anthony Towns beautifully, which is a must.
3) How do you rate the Wolves franchise cornerstones, Wiggins and Towns?
Kyle: With Towns, I’m not sure you could ask for more from your 23-year old franchise player. His production on the court paired with his professionalism off it makes for the ideal cornerstone to build a strong franchise around. With Towns in the fold long-term, it doesn’t appear like there are many things that could impede an incoming GM from being successful going forward...
Except for Andrew Wiggins. Unfortunately, we seem to say this every season, but the 2019-2020 season may be the biggest season of Andrew Wiggins’ career. Karl-Anthony Towns is simply too good and too valuable to have some of his prime years stunted because of Wiggins’ contract, and if Wiggins cannot put the pieces together to take “the leap,” the top person in charge for the Wolves will need to prioritize cutting bait, rather than stringing everyone along for five more years.
Eric: Towns has been terrific. I think he’s getting better in certain areas: namely passing and defense, though there is still work to be done. He might never be a top five player in the league (though then again he might) but he’s more than met my expectations.
Wiggins is not a cornerstone. He’s an anchor, weighing the team down. I don’t know what else to say about him. He isn’t getting appreciably better, he sucks up way too many minutes, shots, and salary cap space.
Josh: Towns has been having the kind of quiet, superstar season, that we have almost come to expect. He has continued his dominance on offense while continuing to add new facets to his game and slowly becoming a positive contributor on defense.
I’m not sure there is anyone left on Wiggins island. This is one of the few summers when lots of teams will have cap space and quite a few of them could strike out on high-profile free agents. Hopefully, whoever is running the Wolves will take advantage of the situation.
Mike: I’m thrilled with Towns. He needs to learn to foul less and be a bit more assertive on the offensive end, but he is just so good. I don’t think the national media understands quite how good he is. Wiggins is only a “cornerstone” because of the contract he got. That says about all you need to know about the guy.
Jake: I think anyone who consistently watches Minnesota can agree that Towns is a stud and will be an All-Star for the next decade. With Wiggins, on the other hand, things get a bit more blurry. He has shown flashes of being exactly who we need him to be post-Butler, but they are scattered in between bouts of inefficiency and general disinterest. I love Wiggs, and hold out hope he can get back to the offensive ways we know he has in his bag, but I’m not holding my breath. At least he seems to be improving on defense.
4) How do you feel about Ryan Saunders coaching thus far and into the future?
Kyle: It’s borderline impossible to judge Ryan’s performance thus far solely on wins and losses, considering all of the injuries on the roster. Instead, I think it’s important to look at some of the more subtle impacts Coach Saunders has had on the team with Dario Saric and his impact on some of the reserves like Luol Deng.
Overall, the players seem to enjoy playing for Ryan, but how much of those feelings are tied to the simple relief of being freed from Tom Thibodeau’s death grip on the franchise? If you were imprisoned for a long period of time, would a simple city park feel like an oasis once you were freed?
With the Wolves expected to get the cavalry back healthy after the All-Star break, I think it’ll be extremely important for Ryan to start putting his real stamp on the team. If the Wolves fall out of the playoff picture, does Ryan have the conviction to severely shake things up (start Tyus Jones over Jeff Teague, move Andrew Wiggins to the bench, etc.)? It’s Ryan’s job for the taking, so let’s see if he has what it takes to seize the job.
Eric: He’s done some things I like--been more flexible with the rotation, moved Saric into the starting lineup. He seems well liked. But the team is also 8-9 with him at the helm, with several truly abysmal losses. I’m not at all convinced he’s ready for this, but I fear Glen Taylor has painted himself into a corner. It’s going to be hard to “fire” him after half a season (even if he is technically “interim,”)
Josh: I’ve become a bit of agnostic on the actual impact of coaches. Saunders certainly says a lot of the right things and seems to have his father’s knack for winning over the media. I’m a lot more concerned with who the next GM of the Wolves is going to be. However, whatever happens this summer, Saunders should get a fair shot at the job.
Mike: I think Saunders has been fine. He clearly wants the team to try to play a faster and more modern style of basketball, but it’s hard to implement that in the middle of the season. I don’t necessarily think he’s the guy for the future, but he’s been fine for the most part.
Jake: I’m not completely sure how I feel about Saunders. He has been dealt a tough hand, having to deal with a multitude of injuries to key players and an owner who demands immediate success. However, I think he has shown his inexperience at times and that can hurt the team. With that being said, his lineups, ability to instill faith in players, and his general likability have been a refreshing scene after the Thibodeau era.
5) What would you like to see from the Wolves after the All-Star break?
Kyle: I may be in the minority here, but making the playoffs, in my opinion, is fairly meaningless. The Wolves have had an extremely turbulent season, but to their credit have maintained their heads above water by promoting Ryan Saunders and extending Karl-Anthony Towns. However, the Wolves still have long-term issues they need to address, including the selection of a new GM who will immediately be tasked with figuring out what to do with both Wiggins’ and Gorgui Dieng’s contracts. Neither deal will be easy to move, but having a lottery pick and even just a slight percentage chance at moving up to grab one of the highly-touted Duke players could be just the luck the Wolves need to take the next step in their perpetual rebuild.
Eric: Hopefully they will be healthy and we can get a better look at the roster as a whole. That’s all I really want--I think the playoffs are too much of a long shot to worry about, and I never advocate tanking. Be healthy, go play, let’s see what’s what.
Josh: A healthy team will be important, but they are already beginning to do the right things now that Saric has been inserted into the starting lineups. Whenever Tyus and Covington come back, the Wolves simply have to try out a theoretical starting lineup around Tyus, Covington, Saric, and Towns to help them decide what to do about Tyus this summer.
Mike: It seems like they’re going to keep pushing for the playoffs, so I guess I’d like to see Okogie keep progressing more than anything else. Obviously, getting healthy is priority number one, but after that it’s important to let the rookie play through his mistakes. Finding more ways to get Saric and KAT looks on offense would also be near the top of the list.
Jake: After the break, I’d like to see this team make a genuine run at the eighth seed. I know it’s not going to be pretty in the playoffs, and it might cost them a lower pick, but Towns deserves to be playing playoff basketball. And this fan base deserves to be watching more postseason basketball.
Bonus Question - The Wolves are three games from the 8th seed and three games from a top 10 lottery pick. Which way do they go?
Kyle: This is such a perfect question because it’s so Minnesota. Whether people like it or not, the Wolves best long-term approach is trying to eek closer and closer to the top of the lottery in the hopes of securing a franchise-changing pick (whether it be to draft a player or attach it to a bad contract to free up more room to build around Towns).
With that said, it’s going to be practically impossible for a fully healthy team led by a young and highly motivated interim head coach to successfully tank, so I expect the Wolves to make a late-season push for the playoffs. With the hungry Kings and Team LAbron still in front of them, it’s going to be a daunting uphill battle, but it should provide for some competitive basketball between now and the middle of April.
Eric: Boring answer: No place in particular. I expect they’ll stay right around where they are in the standings. I expect they’ll finish 10th or 11th in the West.
Josh: The Wolves are too good to actually tank but not good enough to make a real run. If the team gets a bit healthier, I can see them picking up a bit of steam heading into March, but the schedule from there on out is just brutal. I think the Wolves should keep an eye on how Orlando, New Orleans, Miami, and Dallas are doing, as a late-season slide could help move their draft pick from 12 to 8 pretty easily.
Mike: I wish they’d try to improve their lottery position, but that’s not going to happen. When healthy, the Wolves will win games. I’d expect them to go above .500 the rest of the way.
Jake: As I mentioned above, I think the Wolves climb closer to the eighth seed. Perhaps they even nab it. The Clippers just gutted their squad, the Kings aren’t world beaters, and the Lakers seem destined to spectacularly fail. Throw in a (hopefully) healthy Wolves squad that is desperate for some playoff validation, and I think they will have a decent second half of the season.