When the Minnesota Timberwolves last made the playoffs in 2004, Kevin Garnett was 27, Flip Saunders was coaching the Wolves during his initial tenure, and Ndudi Ebi was just starting his short-lived NBA career. Thirteen years later and the Wolves are on their third rebuild of the period, but this one feels decidedly different.
Start with the duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. No other NBA team can claim a pair of young players like these two, who are respectively just 21 and 22 years of age. Towns put up a season that has him in consideration for All-NBA honors, averaging 25.1 points, grabbed 12.3 rebounds and blocked 1.3 shots, all while shooting over 54 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from behind the arc on three attempts per game. Depending on where you place Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis, Minnesota has anywhere from the first to third best young big man in the league.
Wiggins is coming off a year where he scored 23.6 points on 45 percent shooting and over 35 percent from downtown. His playmaking improved and his defense continues to improve as well. In addition, both young building blocks have missed just one game between them over their five combined years in the NBA.
Toss in Gorgui Dieng, who continues to be a nice match next to Towns up front, and Zach LaVine, who was having a breakout season before tearing his ACL, and the Wolves have a nucleus to build around for years to come. Ricky Rubio, who is actually younger than Dieng despite having two years of NBA experience on Dieng, also showed a lot of improvement. He shot a career-best percentage from the floor and averaged career-highs in points and assists.
Leading the franchise is Tom Thibodeau, who was announced as the new President of Basketball Operation and Head Coach last spring. Thibodeau was brought in to teach a young roster discipline and how to play defense, and to be the guy to lead them back to the postseason. His first year showed growth, but the team still has a ways to go. And Thibodeau needs to trust in his bench a bit more to avoid wearing out his top players, as he did in Chicago.
At the 2016 NBA Draft, Minnesota picked Kris Dunn as the heir apparent to Rubio. Dunn struggled to adjust to the NBA and had a miserable first season offensively in a primarily bench role behind Rubio. With Rubio’s improvement and Dunn’s slow start, it is fair to suggest he needs at least another year or so of seasoning before he’s ready to take over a bigger role, never mind the starting spot.
In free agency, the Wolves targeted veterans who could help off the bench. Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill were all added on team-friendly contracts. Off his run in a similar role with the Warriors, Rush was given a one-year deal to be a mentor to Wiggins and LaVine. He was pressed into service more often than the Wolves ideally would have liked with LaVine injured, and showed his best days are probably behind him.
Aldrich gave the team capable play behind Towns and Dieng, as a defense-focused big man. With Nemanja Bjelica’s emergence, Aldrich’s role was lessened as the year went along, and Minnesota played a three big man rotation of Towns, Dieng and Bjelica.
Hill played in just seven games and had no on-court impact, but was said to have pushed Towns and Dieng in practice. For minimal cost, that is probably a worthy investment of resources for Minnesota.
In-season, the Wolves added Omri Casspi after he was waived by New Orleans, following being traded there in the DeMarcus Cousins deal. Over what amounted to an extended 13 game tryout, Casspi gave Thibodeau a look at a tough-minded wing that can shoot the ball.
Heading into the summer of 2017, the Wolves have another high lottery pick, currently sixth pre-lottery, and lot of cap space. Rush, Casspi and Adreian Payne (after his 4th year rookie scale team option was declined) are all unrestricted free agents. Rush could be brought back on a cheap contract to continue to play the mentor role and provide emergency depth. Casspi may have found himself a home, as Minnesota can use a versatile forward who brings the toughness that Thibodeau loves. Payne is probably on his way out of town and possibly the NBA entirely. He may need to rebuild his value in the NBA G-League next year.
Shabazz Muhammad is a different story. Once seen as a promising prospect, Muhammad has developed into a solid rotation player, but isn’t the 20 PPG scorer some hoped he would be. In a market that doesn’t have a lot of scoring available, Muhammad’s price tag could push past a point where the Wolves are comfortable matching.
Before Minnesota deals with any of their own free agents, or attempts to sign anyone else, they’ll create a large chunk of their cap space by undertaking the process of removing Nikola Pekovic’s contract from the books. As Pekovic has now not played in over a year, the Timberwolves are eligible to apply to have him removed due to medical retirement. Doing so will free up $11.6 million to be spent elsewhere. It is a sad end to a once promising career for Pekovic, but a necessary one for Minnesota to continue to improve.
In free agency, the Wolves are looking for 3&D wings who can complement the core. In addition, they may need someone to start at one spot if LaVine isn’t ready to go right out of the gate. Given that Minnesota is like to have north of $24 million to spend, they can be in almost any conversation for players. They could pursue big name free agents like Gordon Hayward or Danilo Gallinari. A notch below, but no less good of a fit would be players like J.J. Redick, James Johnson or Thabo Sefolosha. If the team wanted to wade into the restricted waters, they could craft max or near-max offer sheets for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Otto Porter or Tim Hardaway Jr. Other good fits, who should come slightly cheaper are Andre Roberson, Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic.
And the massive amount of cap space they have available makes the Timberwolves an attractive trade partner. Not only can they take on a big salary player like Jimmy Butler or Paul George in a deal, but they might be able to absorb a bad contract either Chicago or Indiana would like to shed. No matter what, the Wolves are coming away from the summer with a new piece or two on the wing.
The draft should be somewhat instructive, as Minnesota has been linked to anyone from Jonathan Isaac to Lauri Markkanen to Malik Monk. All would fill various needs and provide the Wolves with additional depth. Who they draft could help guide their free agent targets, as the depth is relatively good up front and at point guard.
The Wolves other big decisions will drag into late summer or early fall. They need to decide on contract extensions for Wiggins and LaVine. Wiggins is a lock to be signed to a max extension as co-franchise player alongside Towns. LaVine is another story. Coming off the torn ACL, Minnesota will have to commit to signing him around the same time he’s making a return to the court. That could lead to the Wolves dropping their offer and if it drops too low, it might be best for LaVine to test the free agent market in 2018. Minnesota would retain match rights, as he would be a restricted free agent.
The Timberwolves were a popular pick to push for the playoffs in 2017, but fell a little bit short. With a full year under Thibodeau, another infusion of talent and continued development from their young core, they’ll be a playoff team in 2018. And once they hit the postseason next, it won’t be 13 years before a return engagement. If anything, it might be a decade or more before they aren’t in the mix at the top of the Western Conference.
Guaranteed Contracts (10): Cole Aldrich, Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng, Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Jordan Hill
Potential Free Agents (4): Omri Casspi (UFA), Shabazz Muhammad (RFA), Adreian Payne (UFA), Brandon Rush (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap (1): $1,360,305 (Kevin Martin)
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #6
Maximum Cap Space: $35,068,968
Projected Cap Space: $24,242,363