The mightiest beast sits atop the Western throne, an already historical force who only grew in strength and title glory with the signing of Kevin Durant. Yes, I’m talking about the Golden State Warriors. But the quest for Western supremacy remains a battle, perhaps more so, as other teams attempt to claim the top spot that many assume belongs to one team.
Chris Paul flocked to James Harden and the Houston Rockets with playoff success on his mind. That pairing could become a devastating offensive factor. In spite of a quiet offseason, the San Antonio Spurs remain a massive threat to conquer the conference. They will be hungry following the hand they were dealt last season in the form of a Kawhi Leonard injury.
It doesn’t end there. Paul George joined the conference after Oklahoma City shocked the NBA with an admirably excellent move. Jimmy Butler all of a sudden has the Minnesota Timberwolves appearing to be a quality squad. With new stars entering the conference and every team circling the Warriors on its schedule, the West will provide fascinating drama all season.
Let’s break it down with takes from Tyler Birss and Mike Cortez of H&H.
The Timberwolves have received a fair amount of hype for its upgraded roster – do you buy the noise or is Minnesota once again destined to miss the playoffs?
I only buy the hype to a degree. Jimmy Butler is a major pickup and I’ll take Jeff Teague over Ricky Rubio solely because Teague is at least a shooting threat. Teague is no awesome shooter, however, Rubio’s shot was so busted for Minnesota that he essentially became that one dude everyone would leave open in pickup games at their local gym. Zach LaVine is a loss for the Wolves in terms of offensive firepower and athleticism. For a Tom Thibodeau team, though, LaVine’s horrid defensive skills were never an ideal fit. All of my points sound positive and definitely are – the Wolves have greatly improved this offseason. So why am I only buying the hype to a degree?
In a word – spacing. Teague, Butler, and Andrew Wiggins are all capable shooters depending on the spot, but none of them are known for shooting. Teague is a 35.5 percent career shooter from deep, Butler is 33.7 percent, and Wiggins is 32.9 percent. Karl-Anthony Towns is surprisingly a better long range threat than some of them at 36.1 percent on threes in his brief career. None of those numbers pop out as special or dependable.
Within the framework of today’s NBA, missing this many opportunities to drill a three puts Minnesota considerably behind rosters who can consistently score from this distance. When I saying “missing this many opportunities,” I mean that the Teague/Butler/Wiggins trio will often pass up threes since it’s not their game, and when they do take them, fans won’t exactly be exceptionally confident in the end result.
Envision the 2016-17 Chicago Bulls for a comparison – Rajon Rondo was a horrible three-point shooter, Dwyane Wade was a poor long-range shooter, and we’ve already discussed Butler. Any basketball fan knows how Chicago’s season turned out. The point remains even though Minnesota has a better overall roster and Teague/Wiggins aren’t quite that atrocious from distance. In other words, modern NBA teams will struggle when its guards and small forward can’t hit threes.
That doesn’t mean Minnesota is destined to fail. From a talent and grit standpoint, I like this roster. We must also remember that last year’s seven-seed in the West was a 43-win Memphis Grizzlies squad and the Portland Trail Blazers landed in eighth with 41 wins. While beasts roam near the top of the conference, the West has lost a measure of depth in recent years. This is made even more true by the backwards steps taken by the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz this offseason, the West’s fourth and fifth seeds of 2016-17. An opening exists in the middle of the conference, and the Wolves made enough additions to seize it.
Against a team such as the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, I anticipate Minnesota struggling. They simply lack the shooting weapons that those teams possess. But no one is banking on the Wolves winning the championship. This question is simply seeking whether or not the Wolves will be a legitimate squad during the coming season, and I firmly feel that they will be. Minnesota landing sixth in the West seems completely reasonable.
Using its toughness to push say a Houston Rockets squad in the first round before eventually losing is entirely possible. In other words, the Wolves won’t become a Western force in 2017-18, but they will be a playoff team who has a strong regular season. Minnesota’s shooting will hold them back, yet these offseason moves will nevertheless propel them forward. They remain flawed but have improved.
I bought into the hype last season and I’m doubling down this season. The source of my irrational confidence in the Wolves? Karl Anthony Towns. He’s already one of my five favorite players to watch as well as a top five big man at just 22 years old. He has taken strides in the right direction each of his first two seasons, both as a player as well as a leader. Now that Jimmy Butler is in the mix KAT has a veteran he can rely on to serve as a mentor and second-in-command.
On paper they look like a playoff team. How that team plays out is something completely different. The key to this playoff-drought-ending puzzle is Andrew Wiggins. While KAT has gotten better exponentially, the Wiggins evolution has been sporadic. His offensive game has started to come together, but at the cost of his defense. As a rookie his defensive potential looked limitless, now we are wondering if he can guard a stationary cone. If Wiggins can score like a top-flight wing and competently defend then the Wolves become an immediate threat.
The time to win in Minnesota is now. Towns will be ready to answer the call as will Butler. If Wiggins can get his act together that is a solid core with a nice group of complementary pieces. Jeff Teague can shoot, Gorgui Dieng can pull down boards, and Taj Gibson is a reinforcement off the bench. This team is built to get into rock fights and score in the halfcourt, skills necessary to succeed in the playoffs.
In terms of where they fit in the West, they will slot where OKC did last season. Towns is good enough to win some games on his own and will be an unstoppable force against any opponent not named Denver. Against the elite Butler will be tasked with corralling Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard, but will need help from Wiggins. If Tom Thibodeau can get these guys to buy in on defense the birth of something special in Minnesota can begin this season.