Preface: It's been a long time, and this is just a long-bloated preview of what's to come. Some retrospective stats, and new faces incoming! Thanks!.
The North Remembers…
The Timberwolves remember years past. Rising Wolves star Karl Anthony-Towns wants to make sure that the league understands that the memory of Wolves’ teams from then are not the one Minnesota will field in this new season. And this team means business, with a goal of ending the longest playoffs drought currently in the Association. Gone are the days of a Kevin Love - Darko Milicic frontcourt, stuck in mediocrity. Love is no longer the pillar holding Minnesota up (in nearly last place). No more Al Jefferson, Corey Brewer, and waiting until Rashad McCants hits an open shot. Finally, the Derrick Williams saga and Brandon Roy days are done. Former General Manager David Kahn is now a nightmare of yesteryear, a ghost story for the children. And sadly, gone is Flip Saunders, the architect of what has come to fruition before this season. Now is the time for Tom Tibodeau, Towns, and Wiggins….and friends.
This year’s Wolves have something that hasn’t been associated with Minnesota basketball in over a decade; they have real potential. As a long-suffering follower of this team, I personally feel like the next years are bright as a full moon on a clear night sky for these Wolves.
There is work yet to do, the players on this team are looking to experience their first taste of playoff basketball while reppin’ a Minnesota jersey (Except for old-man KG who was a member of the 2003/2004 playoffs teams). On that note, new head coach Tom Tibodeau has been to the Eastern conference finals. He knows playoff basketball. G Brandon Rush was acquired in the off season. And he, with The Big Ticket, are the only NBA champions on this roster. Rush was a member of the Golden State Warriors the last few years, and they lost him to free agency. He will solidify a solid rotation on the perimeter for Minnesota.
The depth chart appears to be set. The starting backcourt will be Ricky Rubio and reigning Slam Dunk champ Zach Lavine. Both of whom did pretty well in 2015/16. Rubio will need to improve his shooting, still a concern after five years, if he wants to stay relevant. However, he will provide good counsel for young Kris Dunn, the 5th overall pick in the draft. Rubio’s team defense is solid and despite his lack of perimeter game, he still provides above-average guard play. His offense is at its best in the open court when finding shooters to hit down shots or cutters in the lane.
Rubio’s 15/16 stats: 76 games, 10.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 3.4 A/TO ratio
Lavine had somewhat of a breakout year, now solidified as a two-guard, instead of trying to play point, Lavine showed the moxie to take and make shots. Both FG% and 3P% increased for him in his sophomore season. Tibodeau will demand more of Lavine on the defensive end as well. Lavine looks primed to accept this challenge.
Lavine 15/16: 82 games, 14 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, .8 SPG, 1.6 A/TO ratio
The players filling in behind the two starters are previously mentioned Rush, and Dunn with Summer League MVP Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad (Who also plays SF). Rush did not contribute much to GSW last year but this gives the Wolves a decent option to spell Lavine for a time with a solid backup at SG.
Dunn will experience some growing pains for sure. This kid can play and torched the first two games of Summer League for over 20 PPG before suffering a concussion, he will be a viable option off the bench for Minnesota. With a game similar to Kyrie Irving, he can be a real spark. Dunn may very well get some run if Rubio is struggling offensively as a change of pace option.
Jones, on the other hand, has proven that he does not want to go quietly into the night. He balled hard to win the Summer League MVP in Dunn's absence, showing much more tenacity for defense and a command of the offense. This year could be pivotal for Jones as he fights his way into the stacked backcourt rotation.
Tyus appeared in 37 games last year posting meager stats, but had a solid 3.3 A/TO ratio.
That leaves Shabazz Muhammad, a feisty, undersized SF who can also play the SG. Although Muhammad’s game is still developing, he plays with a lot of energy and helps Minnesota get over that lackadaisical hump. The issue for Muhammad has been his inability to guard most SFs in the League. Thibs now must decide how to fit Muhammad into the lineup, a SG who isn’t the best floor spacer (28% from 3), but rebounds and provides high energy, or as an undersized SF/small ball utility player. The plus side, is that he is durable and willing to compete.
Muhammad 15/16: 82 games, 10.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG (1 ORPG), +.500 FG %
The strength of Minnesota’s team lies at the forwards, where starters Andrew Wiggins and Towns will be playing for years to come. Wiggins took another step this year in his development, but still hasn’t shot well from deep. He reminds me of Kobe with his form, how he backs down opponents in the post, and plays defense. Wiggins can really improve on his passing and rebounding. At 3.6 RPG he is below average at his position.
Wiggins 15/16: 81 games, 20.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2 APG, .300 3Pt %
Towns is a natural. His second year in the NBA will take the Rookie of the Year into next-level status. Towns showed he belongs in the Association and averaged a double-double. That’s awesome. See my previous KAT article to see some comparisons to his game with other NBA legends. Good things are on the horizon if KAT can stay healthy.
Towns 15/16: 82 games, 18 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2 APG, 1.7 BPG, Wow!
We, and the League, know what Minnesota will be bringing out at the 3 and 4 this year. But the big question marks are what will the bench do while these two players rest? Garnett is not a viable replacement at this stage of his career, Adreian Payne has been inconsistent, and Euro-League transfer Nemanja Bjelica showed a lot of fatigue as the tough NBA season went on last year. If Payne and Bjelica can pick their game up, the Wolves stand a chance against other NBA teams second units.
Payne 15/16: 52 games, 2.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, .2 BPG, 1 APG …Booooo pick it up Adreian!
Bjelica 15/16: 60 games, 5.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, .35 BPG …. Even Bjelica was better than Payne.
The Wolves also added C/PF Jordan Hill and C Cole Aldrich to mid-range deals this offseason. Filling the roster out at the maximum 15 players. Hill provides a tangible presence inside, he has produced with limited minutes for IND, LAL, and Houston before. Hill won’t move the needle much but injuries to big guys can be crippling. He’s a good piece of insurance to have. Aldrich on the other hand is a Minnesota-born product who I actually watched while in high school as he dominated our (our being my alma mater, the Prior Lake Lakers) 6’8 center, Mark Klingberg. Aldrich shot nearly 60% last year and nearly a block a game (13 minutes per game). He will be a solid backup 5.
Hill 15/16 (With Indiana): 73 games, 8.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, .506 FG%, 1.2 APG.
Aldrich 15/16 (With LA Clippers): 5.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, .596 FG%, 1.1 BPG (In half the minutes as Jordan Hill)
The starting center will be Gorgui Dieng who, as I had hoped, improved his game by leaps last year. He had career highs in five categories and showed improved shooting touch, including some nifty bank shots to open up his arsenal. Dieng is still a bit undersized to play the center. He gets pushed around a lot. With another year of strength and conditioning he should fare much better. Also, his backups this year are competent players instead of such stop-gaps like Greg Smith, Lead-footed Pekovic, or Miroslav Radulica (who?).
Dieng 15/16: 10 PPG, 7 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 1.7 APG, Above average FG%
For that matter, what should happen to Nikola Pekovic? The oft-injured big man has had a frustrating last couple of years. Whether a back, ankle, or Achilles issue, big Pek hasn’t been able to produce to his liking. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and when on the court, has been burnt by opponents in the pick-and-roll. Fear not…. The Wolves have a fair amount of salary space. They are about $14 million below the cap as I type. So Pekovic’s $12 million contract is not a killer right now, and it runs through next season (17/18), so after it ends the Wolves will conveniently be looking to sign Wiggins to his first post-rookie deal. He may be a trade target but it is unlikely a team will bite. Unless the Wolves give incentive (1st round draft pick or an attractive asset/player). Pekovic’s best bet is to work hard this summer and through the first half of the season to come back for January/February 2017 healthy. If I were the organization I would let Pekovic take another six months to make sure his body is rested, closer to in-game fitness level, and healthy before getting him back on the floor. And even for floor time, it would be better for short spurts, five-to-seven minutes on the floor per half. I hope he can prove me wrong when I say he’s well past his best time on the floor. Or even, he’s well past his productive time in the NBA. Pekovic is a talented offensive player and gets rebounds when he’s able to move around. If his mobility is shot, he’s toast. Good luck, Pek.
Pekovic 15/16: 12 games, 4.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0 BPG…. Sad Days for Pek
Garnett, on the other hand is still mobile enough, an active defender, and an A-plus trash talker, but deals with achy old-man knees and a declining offensive game. I was lucky enough to see Garnett play in a win against Memphis last season. A rare game, because it was his last appearance of the 15/16 season. He is not going to provide a lot of help for Minnesota on the court, but Garnett will be there off court and his leadership will show. Expect a lot of DNPs and not-dressed-for-game for the Big Ticket this year as the reigns are handed over to Towns, Wiggins and company. For Garnett, it's nice to have an seven-figure salary to not play much. ($8,000,000/year)
Garnett 15/16: 3.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, .3 BPG.
The outlook of Minnesota is exciting, but it must prove capable of hanging with elite competition. The NBA doesn’t let you win, you must show it.
Here’s a summary…for Minnesota's 2016/2017 outlook.
Strengths – Dynamic roster, young team, high-energy players, rising star, new defensive minded coach, upset mentality
Weaknesses – Lack of spacing (Wiggins/Rubio), mediocre second unit (Bjelica/Aldrich/Rush/Muhammad), unproven (Dunn) in clutch or playoffs, needs to play better defensively (Lavine/Dieng/Wiggins), Inconsistent offensively
Possible Improvements – Steady backup SF, stretch PF, proven shooter
Dead weight – Pekovic, Garnett (combine to make $20 million this year, $12 million for Pekovic next year)
NBA CAP: $94,143,000
MN BELOW CAP ~ $13.5 MM (Million)
Ricky Rubio: 3 years remain @ $13.5, $14.2, $14.9 MM *ends 18/19*
Nikola Pekovic: 2 years remain @ $12.1, $11.6 MM *ends 17/18*
Kevin Garnett: 1 year remains @ $8 MM
Cole Aldrich: Signed 3 years / $21 MM in offseason ($7 MM a year)
Jordan Hill: Signed 2 years / $8 MM in offseason ($4 MM a year)
Brandon Rush: Signed 1 year / $3.5 MM in offseason
Nemanja Bjelica: 2 years remain @ $3.5, and $3.5 MM (QO for year 3)
Kevin Martin: 1.3 MM stretched over next three years (Counts against cap)
Angrew Wiggins: 1 year @ 6MM, Team Option for 7 .5 MM next year, QO if unsigned for yr 3
Karl Anthony Towns: 1 year @ 6 MM, Team Option for next two years, QO after
Zach Lavine: 1 year @ 2 MM, Team Option for 3.2 MM next year, QO after
Tyus Jones: 1 year @ 1.2 MM, Team Option after, QO after
Gorgui Dieng: 1 year @ 2.3 MM, QO after. (Can be extended this year)
Shabazz Muhammad: 1 year @ 3 MM, QO after (Can be extended this year)
Teams like to keep rookie scale contracts and use the Team Options built in, so these guys will be around unless something big happens.
It is possible that before Oct 31st, Minnesota will extend Dieng or Muhammad to longer contracts. Watch for this, if they do, other bigger salary may be moved (Pekovic, Bjelica, Payne)
Trade watch: With the roster as is, I do not see Adreian Payne or Nemanja Bjelica on this roster in the future, they could be pieces in a Pekovic deal. Muhammad may also garner interest from teams.
Untouchables: Minnesota will not trade Garnett, Towns, Wiggins, Dunn, or Dieng this year. Rubio is unlikely, this year, but if he doesn’t produce well, he could be on the block.
Thanks for playing for Minnesota! – Greg Smith, Kevin Martin, Damjan Rudez, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller.
Smith was a ten-day contract signee who was picked up the last half of the year. He will have another journeyman season. Good luck big guy.
Martin was a 4 year/$32 million dollar Free Agent from OKC who was eventually wavied via the stretch provision (a portion of his contract was paid out and the rest will be paid over three years to Martin). The former Thunder, Rocket, and King sharpshooter is now a member of the San Antonio Borg.
Rudez was a sharpshooter SF who didn’t get a lot of playing time because he was virtually unplayable for defensive reasons. However he did see time in 33 games, in limited time. He might land back in Europe.
Miller was a veteran backup but he’s an old man now and was there to provide veteran leadership. Prof. Miller, MD, we’ll miss you.
Prince was a solid backup but he was also aging and his offensive game shows. He couldn’t beat guys off the dribble so he could never get separation in iso, and required open looks to make buckets. Good luck, sweet Prince.
And now, AYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!