Culture of Hoops

Fixing the Minnesota Timberwolves in Ten Steps

So over my two and a half week Christmas Break (gotta love working at an Elementary School!) I found myself thinking about the Minnesota Timberwolves more than usual, and likely more than most non-fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves do on a daily or weekly basis. I can’t tell you exactly why this is the case, though there are three potential reasons that I suspect played a part in this.

Potential Reason #1: Most of the time it makes me really sad to watch the Timberwolves, and trust me, I’ve watched a lot of their games because I love it so much when I catch them on the nights that make me say “Ah, there’s that Timberwolves team that I bet to win over 45 games before the season started!” The problem is there have only been eleven of those nights so far. That’s a problem. It’s just an incredibly frustrating team. They play no defense, and poor Tom Thibodeau tries so damn hard on the sideline to get them to play hard defensively and they just never do. Thibs needs a hug, a drink with a lot of vodka, and a throat lozenge after almost every Wolves game.

Potential Reason #2: I had the chance to watch so much fricking basketball on my break (again, getting two and a half weeks off for Christmas because you work with children is delightful) and there was one common trend I seemed to notice … all of these young teams, and most of these young stars, they’re figuring things out quicker than we expected them to. Take the Bucks for example: Giannis Antetokounmpo (A.K.A. the Future of the NBA) and Jabari Parker are way ahead of schedule, in basically every way you could categorize schedules, and the Bucks are probably the 4th best team in the Eastern Conference because of it. Those two dudes, 22 and 21 years old respectively, play hard every single night, do shit few other guys are doing (I’m talking about everything that Giannis does on a basketball court, and Jabari’s post game, which is an absolute treat to watch) and most importantly, they know how to perform in close games.

Their game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks was a perfect example. The Bucks were down by 16 points in the second half and calmly chipped away at the lead, and then Giannis hit a game-winner at the buzzer that was a big Freak You to everyone at MSG. It was beautiful. Even better, after the game Giannis had this to say:

“This game was a must-win game. We needed this win, So thank God this one went in.” 

Just three nights later, Timberwolves Center Gorgui Dieng had this to say about Andrew Wiggins:

“Wiggins is a great basketball player. I talk to him a lot and he cannot pick and choose when he wants to play. We need him to play like this every night.”

Again, it’s just a bummer because Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are both 21 years old and were supposed to be the duo leading a surprise Playoff team this year. I’m not saying I’m opposed to what Giannis and Jabari are doing. I’m just saying I wish Towns and Wiggins were doing the same thing in Minnesota, and even though I can’t prove that they aren’t, I wish that Towns and Wiggins were wired like Giannis is.

Potential Reason #3: Perhaps my attention to the Minnesota Timberwolves is somehow subliminally related to the Prince Greatest Hits CD for my girlfriend got me for Christmas. It’s literally all I’ve been listening to in my car for the last two weeks (in case you missed the connection here, Prince is from Minneapolis). For the sake of my pre-season bet, I wish the Wolves were as good as Prince was. Their record would be something like 53 wins and negative 13 losses right now. Seriously, how good is this guy???

Anyway, in case you haven’t been able to tell, I want the Timberwolves to be good. More importantly, I want to help the Timberwolves be good. Even more important than that, I want to fix the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise as a whole, and I believe I’ve come up with ten simple steps to do so.

Step #1: Offer Philadelphia Zach LaVine, and in return ask for Nik Stauskas, a 2018 1st Round Pick with Top 5 protection (which becomes an unprotected 2019 1st Round pick if Philly lands in the Top 3 again next year), and Oklahoma City’s Top 20 Protected 2020 1st Round pick that Philly got in the Jerami Grant/Ersan Ilyasova deal. I’m inclined to believe that this is a deal that Philadelphia would accept. The Sixers are in desperate need of some perimeter scoring, and pairing LaVine with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, whatever the Sixers get in the eventual Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel trade, and potentially two more lottery picks in this years draft is one hell of a way to fast track this rebuilt that hasn’t shown to be at all speedy yet.

So the question you’re probably asking is “Why would you trade Zach LaVine instead of just waiting to see if he progresses along the same timeline that Wiggins and Towns do?” It’s simple … I just don’t know if he fits with Wiggins and Towns. And I know that an answer like that is hardly convincing; it’s just an eye test thing, and trust me, I’ve pondered whether or not Wiggins and Towns is a good fit too. LaVine just feels like the odd man out. A little more style than substance, always kinda free-styling offensively, dying for the offense to break down so he can shoot a contested jumper, and building a reputation that is based just as much on his prowess as a dunker, both in-game and in-contest, as it is the total package of his game. If you could get two 1st Round picks for him (and not have to worry about paying him a mini-max deal in two years), I’d do it. Right now.

Step #2: Shop Ricky Rubio at the deadline, even if it means getting nothing of real substance back in return. Rubio is on the books for the next three seasons at $14+ million per year. I want to be able to spend that money elsewhere, and I want Kris Dunn getting as many minutes as possible for the next three months so I have a better idea of what I have in him than I do now.

Dunn has shown the occasional flash of being a competent starting Point Guard in the NBA, and that’s really all you could expect from a guy playing 17 minutes per game in his Rookie season. We need to bump that figure up. Best case scenario is Dunn comes into his own and establishes himself as the third guy in the pecking order behind Wiggins and Towns. The most likely scenario is Dunn plays exactly how you’d expect an average Rookie point guard to play, and the Wolves at least know what kind of asset they have. And if Dunn sucked, or didn’t even move the needle forward right away, that’s fine. The Wolves don’t want to win this year.

Step #3: Bad news guys … the weekend after the All-Star Break Karl-Anthony Towns is going to start dealing with a bout of knee tendinitis and have to miss four weeks. A week later Andrew Wiggins is likely to sprain a pinkie finger on his shooting hand and he’ll be out for the next two to three weeks. Damn it, as soon as Wiggins came back he sprained an ankle. Oh, all of the sudden we’re done with the 2016-17 season and Minnesota went 23-59, worst record in the Western Conference. What a bummer.

Step #4: Ensure Tom Thibodeau that you aren’t going to pull a Chip Kelly on him and fire him after his first year with the team. Make him feel very comfortable. Take him out to dinner. When he gets to the restaurant, tell him how handsome he looks. Buy him lots of those vodka drinks he surely loves. Encourage him to buy a house in Minneapolis. Make him feel special.

Look, Thibs is a keeper, and he’ll play a big part in the progression of both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Even though we haven’t seen him do it this year, I’m convinced that Thibodeau will be the one to get those two to play defense and maximize their all-around potential. That’s why you paid him all of that money and gave him all of that power. Don’t lose a proven coach like that because you can’t help yourself from making a knee jerk reaction to a season where ridiculously high expectations weren’t met.

Step #5: If you haven’t been able to move Ricky Rubio yet, test those waters again. I mean, why wouldn’t teams be rushing to trade for six-year Point Guard who can’t shoot from anywhere on the floor? While you’re at it trying to unload Rubio and his collection of bricks, investigate whether any teams are willing to bite on Nikola Pekovic‘s expiring contract. Better yet, nudge Pek, 31 years old, towards retirement.

Again, it’s not a certainty that Minnesota can get either of these things done by late-June. With the rising cap figure it’s less likely now than it was ten years ago that you could move Pekovic to a team that wanted to clear cap space the following summer. Still, it’s worth trying. Once upon a time Pekovic was regarded as an up-and-comer, routinely mentioned with Ricky Rubio (still a youngster then who we thought could eventually develop a jumper … that didn’t pan out) and Kevin Love as one of the marquee building blocks in Minnesota. Now he’s just a big, non-basketball playing, angry-looking Montenegrin that is rumored to co-star in Taken 4 (there is no truth to that rumor) as the main body guard for some slimy looking Eastern European mob boss that sells American girls.

Step #6: Nail the draft. This is a must for any small market team trying to contend for a title. There is no other way to do it. Oklahoma City hit the jackpot three years in a row with Kevin Durant (#2 pick in ’07), Russell Westbrook (#4 in ’08), James Harden (#3 in ’09) and then they even nailed their Serge Ibaka pick to boot (#24 in ’08). Three years after they picked Harden they were in the NBA Finals. Sure, OKC is a historical outlier, but the bottom line is you need to draft well, and that means you need to be smart and you need to get lucky. Let’s look at Milwaukee again:

Khris Middleton (#39 in 2012)

-Giannis Antetokounmpo (#15 in 2013)

-Jabari Parker (#2 in 2014)

Malcolm Brogdon (#36 in 2016)

Thon Maker (#10 in 2016)

Sidebar: Go ahead and laugh at me about Thon Maker’s inclusion in that group. I’ll bet anyone that five years from now we’ll be saying things like “I can’t believe Toronto picked Jakob Poeltl one spot before Thon Maker!” Just remember, I was backing Hassan Whiteside back in 2010 when nobody had any idea who he was. If there is one thing in life that I’m good at, it’s figuring out which tall skinny sons-a-bitches are eventually going to excel at basketball.

Back to the important stuff, the Wolves need to nail the 2017 Draft because they are out a 2018 pick at the moment (that is, unless they made that LaVine deal I put on the table a thousand or so words ago). I haven’t watched nearly enough college hoops this year to make a call yet on who the Wolves should pick. If you aren’t in love with Kris Dunn by the time June rolls around, maybe you just try again with what is supposedly a stacked Point Guard draft class (from what I’ve seen, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith and De’Aaron Fox all look promising, and Lonzo Ball, although unconventional, appears to be a solid prospect).

OR you can make this sort of Godfather offer to Washington:

Kris Dunn, Nikola Pekovic’s expiring contract, 2017 1st Round Pick, Philadelphia’s 2018 Top 5 Protected 1st Round Pick, and Oklahoma City’s 2020 1st Round Pick for John Wall

So let’s pretend that this is how it plays out (because clearly, this is a fictional and hypothetical work at this point), that means heading into Free Agency, the Wolves will have the current players under contract:

Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Cole Aldrich, Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad

Those nine players would cost the Wolves roughly $76.75 million for the 2017-18 season, and that leaves them with about $25.25 million in cap space to play with heading into Free Agency.

Step #7: Be smart when you enter Free Agency. The Wolves need to remember that they are going to have to pay Andrew Wiggins AND Karl-Anthony Towns in the upcoming years (plus now John Wall), so you can’t splurge on guys that aren’t truly splurge-worthy. Not that they will have a ton of money for splurging anyway, the plan for Minnesota should be to find a few steady veterans to fill out the rest of the roster; guys who still bring capable game to the table, but aren’t going to upset the ego of the team or come in and try to take shots or shine away from the Wolves new trio. I’m thinking the Wolves should gravitate towards former Thibs guys (the Taj Gibson/Nikola Mirotic variety, not Derrick Rose … never Derrick Rose), or guys who can come in and either shoot three’s (Minnesota is in the bottom half of the league in three-point shooting this year) or play defense (the Wolves are 5th worst in Defensive Rating) or ideally do both.

As I mentioned before, I’d take a look at Gibson and/or Mirotic, both of whom have come off the bench for Thibodeau before. I would consider a veteran wing defender like P.J. Tucker, and then I’d look to add a little scoring punch on the perimeter with a guy like Sergio Rodriguez (37% from three), Jodie Meeks (41%) or Ian Clark (42%). Or you could re-sign Nik Stauskas (38%), who once again was acquired in the fake trade that sent Zach LaVine to Philadelphia.

So let’s pretend Gibson takes a little less money than he could get elsewhere to play for Thibs again, and P.J. Tucker decides to come aboard and start at Small Forward and then you are able to re-sign Stauskas for a reasonable price. That means Minnesota’s ten man rotation would look something like this:

Starters: John Wall, Andrew Wiggins, P.J. Tucker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng

Bench: Ricky Rubio, Nik Stauskas, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjeclica, Taj Gibson

Is that a roster that makes a deep postseason run right away? No it’s not.

Is that a roster that makes the Playoffs the following season? Definitely.

Is that a team that could push towards a Finals run in three to five seasons if you keep Wall, Wiggins and Towns together? I think so. Especially if Wiggins and/or Towns makes the leap we expect them to. Speaking of which …

Step #8: We need to send Andrew Wiggins to the Tough Gym in Los Angeles and do whatever you have to do to make sure he comes into the next season with the Eye of the Tiger. Seriously, the dude is so fricking talented and because of that, it’s especially infuriating to see him drift in and out of games so frequently. There’s no other reason why a player with those physical tools could go from scoring 8 points one game to 41 points the next.

Karl-Anthony Towns is Minnesota’s best player and that will most likely remain the case for the duration of the Towns/Wiggins partnership, and that’s fine. Ideally Towns will continue progressing and continue to look like some sort of creation of a lab geek who idolized Kevin McHale, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan. If KAT does progress in that fashion it takes a hell of a lot of the pressure off of Wiggins, but why should Wiggins shy away from that pressure? Why shouldn’t he be saying to himself, “Man fuck Giannis, fuck Porzingis, fuck Anthony Davis, fuck the Warriors, fuck the Cavs … the NBA could belong to us!”

Step #9: Drop the “Timber” … just Wolves. It’s cleaner. The Minnesota Wolves. And frankly, I think the Timberwolves name is a little discriminatory to other types of Wolves, like the Tundra Wolves, Red Wolves, Coyotes (which are a smaller wolf hybrid), Big Bad Wolves, etc.

Step #10: Change the team colors to Purple, Black and White (a less blue shade of purple than the Kings) and embrace the fact that you are playing in a city that is home to one of the most talented musicians ever. Blast Prince music throughout the arena. The Kiss Cam would take on a whole new meaning, and Purple Rain could be the home announcers catch phrase whenever the Wolves heat up from downtown. Seriously, all it takes are these ten simple steps and a licensing agreement with Prince’s people and basketball will once again be relevant in Minnesota. Let’s go crazy and party like it’s 1999!

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