Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors, right, defends against Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the first half in an NBA basketball game, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
Today’s team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 record: 31-51
Who’s new: Jimmy Butler (trade), Jamal Crawford (free agency), Taj Gibson (free agency), Jeff Teague (free agency).
Who’s gone: Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn
The lowdown: Year One of the Tom Thibodeau Experience was a 31-51 dud, as the young Wolves struggled to find consistency or an ability to stop anyone.
There’s some gentrification going on with Minnesota’s basketball franchise, as a perennial loser — save for a segment of the Kevin Garnett years — feels good enough to bark and sell, ahem, wolf tickets. (That’s an old-school expression for you youngsters.)
Guess what? The Wolves got Butler. Maybe you’ve heard. And there’s more. Not only did the Wolves fortify themselves with veteran leadership, but the veterans they fetched can still play a little, and in the case of Butler, a lot.
And so, the blending of the Wolves, with the wise joining the young, was completed in the biggest summer splash the Wolves have felt in a while, if not ever. Remember, this team hasn’t made the playoffs in 13 years, the longest streak in the NBA.
Butler brings instant credibility along with some nasty defense, a gift he honed under the leadership of Thibbs when both were in Chicago. Butler is a late-bloomer to this star business, but he’s one of the better two-way players in basketball, capable of shutting his man down (and he usually checks the other team’s top guy) while dropping 20-plus on the other end. His work ethic is something the young roster can emulate, especially on defense, where the Wolves were atrocious last season, to put it mildly.
Also, Butler has played alongside stars before — Derrick Rose in the MVP year, Dwyane Wade (old, but still) last season — and so Butler knows how to play unselfishly, which will win him points in the locker room with Andrew Wiggins (who’s chasing the big contract) and Karl-Anthony Towns (a big man who likes touches). The Wolves couldn’t do much better than bringing Butler to this group, although to be fair, he did have a run-in with the youngsters in Chicago last season, but give him a pass because the Bulls were crummy.
Crawford, the Sixth Man King, is speeding towards 40 but stays in great shape and can still get rolling with the jumper when he’s not streaking in the other direction with it. Again, he’s a low-maintenance vet who brings a sunny personality and therefore should be a solid fit.
Same goes for two others: Teague and Gibson. Teague is one of the more underrated point guards in the game, someone who doesn’t make many mistakes, can shoot from deep (though not in heavy doses) and looks for teammates. Gibson is a worker bee in the paint, doing it with elbow grease and a grunt, exactly the type of player Thibbs like, exactly the type of player the Wolves need near the rim.
Of course, getting these players came at a price. Minnesota dumped Rubio’s salary on the Jazz to create room; Rubio was a good soldier and clever passer who couldn’t shoot and therefore became a liability offensively. If that wasn’t enough, the Wolves also parted ways with Rubio’s backup; this time last summer Dunn was being hailed as a possible rookie of the year choice. Yet his growth was alarmingly slow, he never supplanted Rubio in the starting lineup and his jumper was spotty at best.
Minnesota decided the cost wasn’t too steep because, in addition to getting a more reliable player in Teague, the Wolves are high on Tyus Jones, the 21-year-old who may eventually be the starter at the point in a few years if not earlier.
Finally, the Wolves sent LaVine to the Bulls in the Butler trade. Would Minnesota have made the trade if LaVine didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury? Maybe. But because he did, and because he isn’t expected to return to action until mid-season at the earliest, the Wolves decided the cost wasn’t too steep at all for Butler.
Yes, training camp is still a month away, but the Wolves appear to be the most improved team in the NBA on paper. If you safely assume that Wiggins and Towns will take another leap in their development, it’s not far-fetched to believe the Wolves could have two or maybe three All-Stars next season, even in the very talent-rich Western Conference.
Mostly, the veterans are expected to bring some stability and poise to the club, none of which was a trademark of the Wolves last season. Butler can take charge in a tight game and relieve Wiggins of that pressure. Both Butler, Crawford and Teague can juice a club that was among the worst three-point shooting teams last season (20th out of 30). And the decision-making of the vets can only help the Wolves in certain situations and rub off on the kids and produce more wins.
This might be the team that Thibbs can mold into his own personality, while allowing for individual creativity. Yes, there’s still room to improve, and no, nothing happens overnight, and true, there might be a transition period with all the new faces.
Still, there’s an understandable sense of enthusiasm for Wolves basketball. The Wolves won 31 games last season. They can improve that by 15 and nobody would blink. If they can confirm all the suspicions and follow the lead of the newcomers, then the revamped Wolves could find themselves in meaningful games come spring. Next stop, the playoffs.
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