During the 2016-17 NBA season, headlines will be dominated by Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors on a daily basis. However, having a super-team doesn’t guarantee a championship; just look at the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. Everything can change and anything can happen in the NBA. A team can implode, the injury bug could strike, or a team simply might not play to its potential. In this Last Word On Pro Basketball series, we’ll break down which two key factors will determine the fate of each NBA team in the upcoming season.
In this edition, we’ll look at the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Two Key Factors to a Successful Minnesota Timberwolves Season
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a young, exciting, up-and-coming team. Many people have recently compared them to the 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder. In a recent @LastWordHoops Twitter poll, 61 percent of voters said that the Wolves are the young team that they’re most excited to watch:
NBA fans: which young team are you most excited to watch this season?
— Last Word on Basketball (@LastWordHoops) October 11, 2016
It’s a given that Minnesota’s young core will improve this season. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, and Gorgui Dieng are all extremely talented, and all four seem to have the work ethic and humble character that will help them develop their game. But it’ll take more than just development for the Wolves to have a successful season. The Wolves will have to improve as a team, starting on the defensive end.
First Key: Thibs Working Defensive Magic
Last season, the Wolves were the fourth-worst team in the league defensively, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. In order to make the playoffs, they’ll need to be miles better. Fortunately, Minnesota’s new head coach Tom Thibodeau is known to be a defensive mastermind. He was the key to the elite Boston Celtics defense that fueled their 2007-08 championship run. He then led the Chicago Bulls to a top five finish defensively in four consecutive seasons, from 2011 to 2014. Thibs may have his work cut out for him with this young Wolves team, though.
LaVine is a subpar defender, losing track of his man constantly. Wiggins has the tools to be elite, but he was average at best last season. Towns and Dieng are both already good defenders, but they still need work. Nemanja Bjelica, who Thibodeau reportedly loves, is a terrible defender. Ricky Rubio is solid defensively at point guard, but Kris Dunn, who may take over Rubio’s spot at some point during the season, is just a rookie.
Besides the individual problems, the team simply needs to become smarter and more aware on the defensive end. Players need to know when to help and when to stick to shooters. Additionally, improvement on pick-and-roll coverage will be crucial. Thibodeau will bring some much-needed discipline to Minnesota. If he can turn around the wretched Wolves defense and bring them close to the top ten on that end, the team may be able to sneak into the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
Second Key: Trading Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio is a quality player. He’s an excellent defender and rebounder at his position, and he’s an elite passer. But Minnesota drafted Dunn for a reason. If the Timberwolves had Rubio in their future plans, they wouldn’t have drafted an NBA-ready player at his position. In fact, if Rubio is traded, Dunn may become the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. At this point in time, there’s simply no reason for the Wolves to hang on to him. Anyway, Rubio is 26 years old. Wiggins, LaVine, Towns, Dunn, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones are all 23 or younger. It just makes more practical sense for the Wolves to move on from Rubio and find a trade partner.
Looking at the on-court product, trading Rubio is still the most logical course of action. While it’s nice to have a pass-first point guard like Rubio, the Timberwolves need shooting. Minnesota ranked in the bottom five in three-point percentage last season, and they made less total three-pointers than every team other than the Milwaukee Bucks. While the number of makes will certainly increase now that Sam Mitchell is no longer there to stop players from attempting threes, the efficiency still needs to improve. Rubio is a notoriously bad shooter from all over the court. He’s a career 31.8 percent shooter from downtown, as well as just 36.8 percent from the field overall. When Rubio is on the floor with Wiggins and two true big men, Minnesota’s spacing can get really cramped. The Wolves should let Dunn take over the floor general duties, as he’d be a much better fit.
Dunn shot 37.2 percent on threes in his senior year of college – a solid number, despite the closer arc. He attempted 3.4 per game, more than Rubio has taken in any of his NBA seasons. Sure, the college three-point line is significantly closer than that of the NBA, but it still proves that Dunn isn’t afraid to shoot. He’s at least a willing shooter, and as a 22-year-old rookie, he certainly has time to develop his shot.
If nothing else, Dunn presents a scoring threat, stretching 20 or more feet from the rim. Rubio just doesn’t have any intention to score when he gets the ball, making it easy for defenses to back off of him and focus extra attention on stopping Wiggins and Towns. At 26 years old, it would be shocking if Rubio suddenly changed his game drastically enough to fix Minnesota’s spacing problems. If the Wolves finally trade Rubio, they can get some good assets in return, while handing the reigns to Dunn and letting him run this young squad.
This Timberwolves team is far from a finished product. Their young players still have a ton of room to grow, and that’s what the upcoming season will entail. But for any young team, player development is to be expected. Minnesota will only have on-court success if Tom Thibodeau can begin to fix the defense in its entirety. Additionally, the Wolves will need to make a big decision in order to consider this season a successful one. The front office must find a reasonable trade offer for Ricky Rubio – which should be on the table – and decide to finally pull the trigger. Only then should the 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves season really be considered a success.