Each of the last four years, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been my dark horse pick in the Western Conference. I’m not a complete fool, I never thought they would win the conference, but I figured it was almost a certainty that a team with that sort of talent would find a way to contend for a middle seed and surprise some people in the process. For the last four years, I’ve been wrong.
In the 2010-11 campaign, the Wolves finished a dismal 17-65. The next year was slightly better, as they managed 20 wins in the strike-shortened season, finishing 26-40. 2012-13 was a slight decrease in winning percentage with a final record of 31-51. This past season, the team was a mere win away from finishing .500. Still, winning 41 games in the Western Conference doesn’t quite qualify you as a contender (it actually leaves you in 10th place).
As disappointing as falling short of the playoffs is, solace has to be found in the fact that winning 41 games is exponentially better than winning 17. The team is moving in the right direction as their young talent morphs into a group of solid NBA players. But are they solid enough and will they stick around long enough for this team to actually contend in the ferociously tough Western Conference?
Before looking at the future, it’s worth looking at the specifics from this past season. The Timberwolves had one of the highest-powered offenses in the league, averaging 106.9 points/game, good for third in the NBA. That offense was helped greatly by the 24.0 assists/game, which ranked them fifth in the league. They also were sixth in rebounding, pulling down 44.7 per game. So how was this team only the 17th best in the NBA? You don’t need to look any further than their atrocious defense, giving up a whopping 104.3 points/game. Yikes.
There were some definite bright spots for the team, the obvious one being Kevin Love who had yet another phenomenal year. His 26.1 points/game and 12.5 rebounds/game further solidified his spot among the league’s elite. Rookie Gorgui Dieng was one of the hottest players in the league over the last month of the season, which he kicked off with a 22-point, 21-rebound game against the Houston Rockets. Ricky Rubio continued his solid play at the point, leading the team in both assists and steals. But there still needs to be some major changes if this team is going to somehow turn into a contender.
I suppose it’s impossible to talk about whether players will stay with a team without considering the coach. Unfortunately for the Wolves, they don’t currently have one. Rick Adelman announced an early retirement this offseason, meaning Minnesota is stuck joining the hordes of teams in need of a leader. Plenty of candidates have been brought up, but the two that interest me the most are Fred Hoiberg and Sam Cassell. Neither of them have any experience as an NBA head coach, but they’re both intelligent and talented at what they do. Another perk, they’re young and exciting, which is the main thing that Adelman was lacking. I could write a full article on what the potential coaches might bring to the table, but I think I have to give the edge here to Hoiberg. Many more defensive-minded coaches might come into Minnesota and try to alter the team’s style of play. The result could very likely be a team that is simply mediocre on both sides of the ball. While they do need to get better on defense, I think they’re better off with a coach who will embrace the offense-first mindset. Hoiberg has shown with Iowa State that he can do just that.
Fortunately, they don’t have to worry about many players leaving through free agency quite yet. The only player with the potential to make an impact who will be a free agent is Dante Cunningham, and considering he spends about as much time under arrest as he does on the court, I don’t think they’ll be sad to let him go. The major question as it pertains to free agency is whether to trade Kevin Love who will be a free agent in 2015.
While I have no way of saying what Love is thinking about his future, I’d say there’s almost no chance he’s wearing the blue and grey come 2016. He’s one of the premier players in the league, and nearly every big market team has to be interested. There have been rumors about a deal with the Bulls. Chicago isn’t likely to pursue that deal if they can land Carmelo Anthony, but if not, the Wolves should definitely pursue that deal. If they’re able to bring in Taj Gibson, one of Chicago’s two first-round draft picks and the rights to Nikola Mirotic, there’s no reason why that’s not a great deal for Minnesota. There’s no word as to whether Chicago would be willing to part with that much, but bringing Love into their lineup is definitely appealing.
Still, assuming they’re unable to get enough to make moving Love worthwhile, with a few small pieces, the Wolves have a chance to be a serious contender next season. The problem they’ll face is that they won’t really have any cap space to work with. $66,454,320 is already tied up for the 2014-15 campaign. So even with the projected cap increase to 66.5 million, anything they do is putting them further into the luxury tax.((from CBS sports))
So how does a team improve and find a way to contend without any money to spend? Well the obvious way is the draft. For me, Minnesota’s biggest need is a solid backup guard. Their three main big men make up a formidable core, and while you’d like them to be a bit better at defending the paint, there aren’t many ways to improve that rotation without doing a drastic overhaul of the team. At guards, the team has Rubio and Kevin Martin, but off the bench production was limited. Barea was capable, averaging 8.4 point/game, but they need someone more dynamic. That more dynamic player? Michigan’s Nik Stauskas. He averaged 44% from beyond the arc last season and he was the go-to scorer for one of the top teams in the NCAA. The addition of Stauskas would further bolster this already stellar offense. Though if the team is looking for some defensive help at the same position, Gary Harris from Michigan State would be a wise pick. He may not be as versatile on offense as Stauskas, but he’s better defensively and is far from a liability when it comes to scoring.
I’m getting back on my usual pony and saying that the Minnesota Timberwolves are my dark horse pick for 2014-15, assuming they keep Love around. They’ve got talent, a quality draft position, and the possibility to let a fresh new coach mold this team. It may be cold 11 months of the year in Minneapolis, but things are going to be getting hot in the Target Center very soon.