Building a Contender in the Twin Cities
The summer of 2017 may go down as one of the biggest off-seasons in NBA history. Players seemingly were on the move all over the NBA. Granted, there probably was not actually an increase in transactions, but there may have been an increase in star player transactions. One of those players that moved this past summer was former Marquette University product Jimmy Butler landing with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Unlike most of the other trades in the high-profile trades in the NBA, Butler was brought to a team that took the long path in rebuilding.
It is easy to see when the rebuild truly began; it was when Kevin Love, Minnesota’s last superstar was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In all honesty, the rebuild could have started 10 years earlier than the Love trade. The last time Minnesota had a winning record was in the 2004-2005 season. Before that the last time, the Twolves made it to the playoffs was the 2003-2004 season. That was back in the Kevin Garnett days. Needless to say, basketball fans have been rebuilding this team for the better part of the 21st century. This season might finally be the season that pushes the Timberwolves into NBA contention.
There are three ways to build a team in the era of the super team. First is to “tank” and draft top young talent to build around. This is a model that was followed almost exclusively by the Philadelphia 76ers. This is the longest way to rebuild because it requires at least three losing seasons. If history has proven anything, it is that a team has to endure closer to like six or seven losing seasons before it lands transcendent talent via the tanking approach. No fan base wants to suffer through that just to have the possibility of having a good team. There is no guarantee that prospects in the draft will ever pan out. Just ask the franchises that drafted the likes of such lottery busts as Anthony Bennett, Hasheem Thabeet, O.J. Mayo, Greg Oden, and Darko Milicic to name a few. There are no absolutes in basketball.
The next way to rebuild is through free agency and trades. For a long time, this way of building a super team was not as common as you would think. That all changed when the Miami Heat decided to bring in LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010. Of course, teams were always able to make trades and bring in the final pieces to their puzzles. The Heat went from a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs to one that was getting to the NBA Finals every year. Such a run probably does not happen without the acquisition of James and Bosh. The Oklahoma City Thunder recently followed this model. There are risks that go along with the transaction model as well. If franchises start making trades, they will have to give up young controllable assets for expensive superstars. It is not the easiest system to make work, but when it works it is unstoppable.
The final way is a mix of both. When the core of a basketball team is built through young controllable talent and the final pieces are brought in through a transaction, it is a recipe for success. The Golden State Warriors and most franchises in basketball followed this model. It is essentially the best of both worlds. The right balance is the best way to build a winner. Minnesota is following that model. Granted it has been a long time since the Twolves have had a winning record, but this rebuild is in full swing.
Just look at the players currently in the starting lineup for the Timberwolves. Starting with Andrew Wiggins, this young asset was brought over in the Kevin Love trade. Most people probably do not remember the Cleveland Cavaliers originally drafted Wiggins in 2014. Imagine a world where Wiggins stayed in Cleveland? That’s a world that would be scary to live in. Well, Wiggins came over with Anthony Bennett another first overall pick, and Thaddeus Young in exchange for Love. If Bennett panned out to what the basketball world thought he would be, Minnesota would be in even better shape. Wiggins is a top-notch athlete that has the potential to be a star. It is safe to say that the Canadian forward has not lived up to initial expectations. He is a great scorer but is lacking in rebound and assist numbers. Coming into the league as a hard-nosed defender, Wiggins was expected to be the next big star in the NBA. Now he is not even the biggest star on his team.
The biggest star on the T-wolves is probably Karl Anthony Towns. At a ripe age of 21, KAT is one of the most exciting big men in the NBA. He is a shot-blocking machine and can score the ball with emphasis. Towns was also a first overall pick. Between the two first overall picks on the roster, Minnesota has a great young core. KAT is also a stellar rebounder that averaged just over 12 a game in 2016. Those two are already making an impact in the league and are still very young.
The other three starters are acquisitions. After point guard Ricky Rubio did not pan out to be the player the T-Wolves were looking for, he was traded this summer to the Utah Jazz. That left an opening on the roster for a veteran ball distributor. That created a space for Jeff Teague to take his passing skills to Minnesota. Teague is a point guard that can score and assist with ease. He is the perfect fit to replace the light scoring Rubio. Teague was brought on in 2017 to help Minnesota make a push towards the playoffs.
The final two starters have a connection with head coach and President of Basketball Operations, Tom Thibodeau. Thibs has been the coach and president in Minnesota since 2016. It did not take long for him acquire two guys that were a big part of his success in Chicago. One is the superstar guard Jimmy Butler. Butler was a huge success in Chicago and has brought his talent to the Twin Cities. Needless to say, between Towns, Wiggins, Teague and Butler, there is a lot of scoring to go around in the starting 5. In 2016, Butler averaged just over 23 points a game and is a great defender. These are two really important elements in a Thibodeau team.
The final starter is Taj Gibson. As a true veteran presence, Gibson rounds out a well-rounded starting five. Gibson is the definition of a solid NBA player. Nothing is going to be impressive about the play of Taj, but he does everything right. Gibson will be able to rebound and give about 10 points a game. He is not relied upon though, with the skills of the other players on the court.
From there the bench rounds out with a nice mix of veterans and young players. Aaron Brooks and Jamal Crawford are great additions because of their ability to bring a veteran presence to the bench. Both experienced guards bring different skill sets. Crawford is a sharpshooter who can hit threes with precision and Brooks is a ball handler with some scoring prowess. The active bench players are Serbian Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng, and Shabazz Muhammad. All three of those players were drafted by the Timberwolves and play integral parts on the bench. All together this squad rounds out to be one of the more up and coming teams in the league. They will have to be solid if they want to compete with teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
To make these players reach their fullest potential is coach Tom Thibodeau. The former Chicago Bulls coach is widely regarded as one of the top coaching minds in the NBA. He preaches a defense first approach that is essential to winning matches in the league. Thibs has the right mix of veteran and young players to compete at a high level this season. They have been a fun team to keep track of, but also have a lot to learn. Look for Minnesota to have the first winning record since 2005 this season. They will probably make the playoffs and could potentially upset one of the top seeds in the Western Conference. Keep track of this team, they will make some noise in the NBA very soon.