After winning 29 games and ranking 27th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, the Minnesota Timberwolves begin this season viewed as a team on the rise. With young talent such as reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, guards Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio and wing Andrew Wiggins, the expectation is that the arrival of head coach Tom Thibodeau will be just what this team needs to take off. But, there’s a need to temper expectations some for this group, as they haven’t experienced much in the way of team success.
To go from the draft lottery to the playoffs can be difficult, especially for a team with such a young nucleus. Add in the fact that key veteran influence Kevin Garnett announced his retirement from the game Friday, and Minnesota will have some adjustments to make in 2016-17. Garnett was a starter last season, but his most important responsibility was to help the young players understand what it takes to be successful in the NBA both on and off the court. With Garnett no longer in the locker room, 2016-17 will be a good indicator of just how much Towns and the rest of the Timberwolves’ young players learned from their season with Garnett.
Here’s a look at the roster:
Timberwolves Projected Starting Lineup
G: Ricky Rubio (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 8.7 apg) There were questions about what Rubio’s future with the franchise would be, given the development of LaVine and the drafting of Providence point guard Kris Dunn in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft. But Rubio remains a key part of the picture, and while he still isn’t much of a perimeter shooter Rubio is a valuable asset when it comes to the pick and roll game and his ability to find teammates in spots where they can be successful.
G: Zach LaVine (14.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.1 apg) LaVine, winner of the last two dunk contests, made 33 starts last season with veteran Tayshaun Prince getting 48 at the off-guard spot. LaVine’s steadily improved throughout his young career, developing into a player with a solid all-around game as opposed to one simply known for his dunking. And the good news for Minnesota here is that there’s still room for LaVine to grow when it comes to his offensive skill set. He’ll be a key cog for quite some time.
F: Andrew Wiggins (20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.0 apg) A frequent critique of Wiggins during his lone season at Kansas was that he was a bit too reticent to be a “superstar,” that he didn’t have enough “dog” in him. Outside of Towns, Wiggins may have benefitted the most from Garnett’s presence and this is why. Wiggins was more assertive offensively in his second season, leading Minnesota in scoring and shooting nearly 46 percent from the field.
C: Karl-Anthony Towns (18.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg) The retirement of Garnett means that Minnesota has some shuffling to do in the front court. Towns, who played the five last season, may be the best candidate to slide over as he’s capable of stepping away from the basket offensively. Towns shot 54.2 percent from the field as a rookie, and moving him over allows for Thibodeau to insert a defensively-inclined big man into the center spot.
C: Cole Aldrich (5.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) After spending last season with the Clippers, Aldrich returns to his home state where he’ll be asked to help a defense in dire need of improvement. Aldrich isn’t a prolific shot blocker, averaging just 1.1 blocks per game last season, but he’s a good defender who is rarely caught out of position.
Timberwolves Projected Bench
G: Kris Dunn (Rookie) Dunn was the best point guard and one of the best players in college basketball last season, averaging 16.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals per game. At 6-foot-3 Dunn has the size and wingspan to be a matchup problem on both ends of the floor, but there were times when he would be a bit too willing to gamble. Dunn will see time as a backup point guard, and there could even be occasions where he and Rubio share the backcourt.
G: Tyus Jones (4.2 ppg, 2.9 apg) Jones split his time last season between the Timberwolves and the Idaho Stampede of the D-League, playing in 37 games with the Wolves. This summer he played extremely well at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, earning league MVP honors as the Timberwolves won the championship. He’ll look to strengthen his position within the Timberwolves, but the team has both Rubio and Dunn capable of playing the point as well.
F/G: Brandon Rush (4.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg) Rush played in 72 regular season games for the Warriors last season, making 25 starts on a team that reached the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year. If anything Rush will fill a role similar to Tayshaun Prince last season, an occasional starter on the wing who can also help with the development of the younger players.
F: Shabazz Muhammad (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) After a rocky start to his NBA career, Muhammad has developed into a solid wing scorer off the bench. Muhammad shot 46.5 percent from the field in 2015-16, and his offensive rebounding rate of 7.0 ranked fourth on the team. However he has some strides to make defensively, which is where the arrival of Thibodeau should help him moving forward.
F: Nemanja Bjelica (5.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) The 6-foot-10 forward from Serbia saw action in 60 games last season, playing an average of 17.9 minutes per night. With his ability to step onto the perimeter and make shots, as well as in pick and pop situations, Bjelica will be a key figure on the Timberwolves’ bench this season.
C/F: Jordan Hill (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) A 6-foot-10 center/power forward, Hill played in 73 regular season games for the Pacers last season. His defensive rating of 102 was four points better than the lowest mark amongst the Timberwolves’ returning big men, with Towns and Dieng finishing the 2015-16 season with a defensive rating of 106.
C/F: Gorgui Dieng (10.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) Dieng produced the best season of his three-year NBA career in 2015-16, shooting 53.2 percent from the field and finishing with an offensive rating of 113. He’s proven himself to be a key part of the Timberwolves’ rotation, and that will once again be the case in 2016-17 even with the additions of Aldrich and Hill.
Other Players in Timberwolves Training Camp
G John Lucas III
F Toure Murry F Rasual Butler
F Adreian Payne
C Nikola Pekovic* (injured)
Minnesota will be down a man in the post this season, as they announced that Pekovic will miss the entire 2016-17 campaign due to a right ankle injury. The Timberwolves began camp with 14 guaranteed contracts, leaving Lucas III, Murry and Butler to compete for the final available spot.
Lucas is a veteran point guard, but with Rubio, Dunn and Jones all on the roster he faces an uphill battle to make the team. Murry’s a capable wing defender who did not play in the NBA last season after spending his first two years with three different franchises. As for Butler, he’s been around the NBA for quite some time and if he were to make the roster that would give Minnesota another veteran on the bench.
Timberwolves Coaching Staff
Head coach: Tom Thibodeau (First season; 255-139 career record.)
Assistant coaches: Andy Greer, Ryan Saunders, Rick Brunson
UPDATE (10/22): The Timberwolves waived Toure’ Murry and Rasual Butler.