The Minnesota Timberwolves will have a completely different look on the court next season, and they’re probably not done yet making roster moves.
It all started with the big trade on NBA Draft night, sending Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick to Chicago for Jimmy Butler. But the moves were far from over. The Timberwolves have since dealt Ricky Rubio and signed Jeff Teague in free agency. They’ve also signed Taj Gibson to help Karl-Anthony Towns in the post.
And let’s not forget the young corps that the Timberwolves will have returning. It’s a group right now that includes Andrew Wiggins, Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones. The front office has sent a clear message to the team and the fans: It’s not OK anymore to not be a playoff team.
Here are four signs the Timberwolves are finally changing direction, and why it will create excitement at Target Center this season.
The Timberwolves put the league on notice on NBA Draft night that they were serious about making a playoff run when they put together a package to acquire star guard Jimmy Butler. No longer is there a disconnect between what’s expected on the floor and how to execute it. Sure, it’s great to have a top-15 player who scores 24 points per game. It’s also great to have the same player lock down the opponent’s top offensive player.
But the real value in acquiring Butler is an intangible. It’s his relationship to Tom Thibodeau, and Butler’s leadership that will translate to the product on the floor. Butler knows what Thibodeau expects, how to get it done on the floor and maybe most importantly translating it to his new teammates. He said as much in his introductory news conference. He’s the voice for the players when the yelling from Thibodeau gets tiresome. The Timberwolves haven’t had a leader like that since arguably Kevin Garnett. Towns is on his way, but he’s still young. Wiggins isn’t that type of vocal leader and prefers to let his play do the talking. Butler is exactly the all-around player the Timberwolves needed with Thibodeau.
It became clear pretty quickly that Ricky Rubio was never going to flourish the way Thibodeau wants to approach basketball at the NBA level. His defense and court vision are great. But teams didn’t have to defend Rubio in the last four minutes of a game. He wasn’t willing to take a big shot, and he missed the few times he did. The NBA game right now requires that the point guard be at the very least a threat to score, especially from the perimeter. Rubio has never been that threat consistently, and probably never will be.
Enter Jeff Teague, who spent seven seasons with the Atlanta Hawks before playing point for the Indiana Pacers last season. The Timberwolves signed him in free agency after he averaged 15.3 points per game last season and shot 44 percent from the floor, including 35.7 percent from the three-point line. He’s averaged at least nearly 15 points per game for the last five seasons. Teague will require to at least be guarded in late-game situations. The Timberwolves lost several close games last year simply because teams knew they didn’t have to guard Rubio.
It’s great to have a guy like Butler be a team leader between Thibodeau and the rest of the players, but it always helps to have more than one guy who can do it. The Timberwolves signed power forward Taj Gibson to a two-year, $28 million contract in free agency. He played in Chicago for eight seasons before playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. Gibson has averaged more than 10 points per game in four of the last six seasons. But he’s more known for his rebounding, defense and physical play in the post.
Gibson will help defend inside with Towns and Dieng, and plays with a toughness that should inspire teammates to play harder.
Development of Returning Players
Bringing Teague, Butler and Gibson to Minnesota will give the Timberwolves a huge boost. It should also take the load off some expectations for the corps of the young players returning. Wiggins, Towns and Dieng will still put up their numbers, and Tyus Jones should get more of an opportunity to show what he can do on the floor.
The sky is the limit for the Timberwolves this year. With the additions and the development of players coming back, it should be an expectation to be a playoff team. And the front office likely isn’t done making moves yet. The Timberwolves still need more shooting. We also haven’t even touched on draft pick Justin Patton, who should make some contributions once he gets healthy.
The Timberwolves are changing, and they’ve sent a message that now is the time to bring life back to Target Center. It’s time to end the playoff drought, and it’s time to be in relevant conversations again as a dangerous team in the NBA.