The Minnesota Timberwolves are the least successful NBA team of the 21st century.
It feels weird to read, because they have seemingly been on the cusp of something for so long — on the cusp of a championship with Kevin Garnett in 2004, on the cusp of the playoffs with Kevin Love, and now on the cusp of a successful rebuild with Karl-Anthony Towns. But that is as far as any of those teams have gotten: the cusp.
The Timberwolves have the longest active playoff drought in the league. They haven’t seen the postseason since their trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. The league’s most famously incompetent teams — the Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic, and the New York Knicks — have all earned playoff berths more recently. Even three teams that technically don’t exist anymore — the Seattle Supersonics, the Charlotte Bobcats, and the New Orleans Hornets — have all made it to the playoffs more recently than Minnesota.
All of these unfortunate facts just make their upcoming season more crucial.
Cleveland, Minnesota and Philadelphia have completed NBA trade call, source tells Yahoo. Kevin Love has joined LeBron James with the Cavs.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 23, 2014
The Timberwolves rebounded from the disappointing end of the Kevin Love era by flipping him for as good a package as you can ask for. They were able to get 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins in exchange for their franchise power forward. They also received the previous year’s number one pick, Anthony Bennett, a fact that will be forgotten to time given that he is already out of the league.
More importantly, the Wolves were bad enough the following year to secure the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and used it to select dream franchise cornerstone Towns. After Towns was named the unanimous Rookie of the Year, the Wolves took a big swing by bringing aboard acclaimed former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, giving him the duties of both head coach and team president.
Many expected Thibodeau to lead Towns, Wiggins, and the rest of Minnesota’s young core to the team’s first playoff berth in 13 years. But their 2016-17 campaign was ultimately a disappointment. The Wolves struggled to compete out of the gate, and ended up with a 31-51 record, improving by a measly two wins from the season before.
Which brings us to the summer of 2017, which will likely end up being remembered as the most crucial turning point of the Towns era in Minnesota, whether it be for better or worse.
Jimmy Butler is Minnesota-bound, and the trade grades are in.
One team earned an F. The other? An A+.https://t.co/p6kjRcp3ys (Insider)
— ESPN (@espn) June 23, 2017
Thibodeau and the Wolves kicked off the summer with one of the biggest moves in franchise history, cashing in the team’s three biggest assets outside of Wiggins and Towns — Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the number seven pick in the 2017 draft — in exchange for Bulls superstar Jimmy Butler.
The trade was undeniably a steal. Butler is one of the league’s top ten players by almost any measure. He is an elite scorer and defender who led one of the worst rosters in the league to 41 wins last year in Chicago. And while the three assets Minnesota gave up were their most valuable assets excepting their two best players, they weren’t exactly five-star assets.
LaVine is a monster athlete who put on two of the greatest dunk contest performances of all-time early in his career. But his ceiling as a player is pretty unclear. He does some undeniably impressive stuff on the offensive end, but he has virtually no defensive skills whatsoever. His consistency on offense leaves a bit to be desired as well.
Factor in his 2017 ACL injury, and it becomes safe to assume his highest ceiling is more Damian Lillard than James Harden. What’s more concerning is his floor, which after the injury could be as low as a below average rotation player.
As for Dunn, it’s unclear how long his NBA career will be after his disastrous rookie season. To be fair to the 2016 number five overall pick, Thibodeau is not the ideal coach for a rookie — he has a long history of prioritizing vets over developing young guys. Plus, his ridiculous intensity is probably tough to deal with for a guy in his early 20s.
But still, Dunn’s excellence on the defensive end couldn’t hide his complete lack of an offensive skill set. In his rookie year, Dunn averaged less than four points per game while shooting 38-percent from the field and 29-percent from three. His play making left much to be desired as well, averaging 2.4 assists and 1.1 turnovers per game.
Out of 468 eligible players, Dunn ranked 322nd in Value Over Replacement Player. He ranked 481st in Offensive Win Shares, and 445th in True Shooting Percentage. He was very, very bad in 16-17.
As for the draft pick, the Bulls used it to select Lauri Markannen, a player no one seems to think is going to be very good. If Minnesota had kept their pick, they could have drafted either exciting guards in Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, or packaged it with LaVine or Dunn to try and move up and draft Johnathan Isaac or De’Aaron Fox. But it’s pretty unlikely any of those guys would have ended up being better than Jimmy Butler already is.
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to criticize the Wolves for trading three assets who will never be as valuable as Butler.
But while having a player like Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the biggest blessings a franchise could ask for, it also complicates things. Thibodeau and the rest of the Wolves’ front office have the luxury of knowing exactly who their most important asset is. But they don’t have the luxury that Sean Marks, general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, or new Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk have.
When Schlenk or Marks make a move, all it needs to be is smart. As long as it is a smart move in a vacuum, they come out looking good. Thibodeau on the other hand has a much different responsibility. Every move he makes needs to improve the Wolves’ chances of keeping Towns once he becomes a free agent. Even though Towns is still on his rookie deal, a smart franchise would spend every day focusing on making him the happiest Minnesota Timberwolf of all-time.
So while the Butler trade certainly notches the ‘smart’ box, the move doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And while the trade certainly makes the team better, it’s hard to say it gives them a better chance of winning a championship with Towns — and therefore it’s hard to say it gives them a better chance of making Towns one day retire in Minnesota.
The greatest advantage the Wolves had in the current NBA landscape was their youth. Towns is 21, Wiggins and LaVine are 22, and Dunn is 23. Players can’t be expected to even come close to their prime until 25. That means four years for Towns of pure growth and minimal expectations. Most importantly, it meant the Wolves would be aging into their prime right when the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James – wherever he may end up — are aging out of theirs.
Trading for Butler, a 27-year-old firmly in his prime with only two years left on his deal, changes all of that. If they miss the playoffs this year – which is absolutely on the table — a young franchise on the rise suddenly turns into a franchise in chaos. One misstep, and the talk of trading Wiggins, Towns, or Butler will begin.
Beyond that, the former Bulls forward’s fit with Minnesota’s current roster is questionable at best. Butler and Towns are an outstanding fit — which at the end of the day, is the key factor — but the fit with Butler is much more concerning for Wiggins, a guy who plays the same position as the team’s new star and is already struggling to develop as it is.
The good side is that Wiggins will have less responsibility on offense, giving him the opportunity to focus more on what he does well instead of trying to be something he isn’t. But that also means he will have the ball less, giving him less opportunity to develop into the type of killer scorer they need him to be. It also means Wiggins will need to become a lockdown defender in order to be worth the max extension he is looking to get, and his defense has been shaky through his first three years.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 30, 2017
As for filling out the rest of the roster, the Wolves had the luxury of cap space after their trade with the Bulls — and the trade that sent long-time Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz. They used it to underwhelming results, bringing in three veteran free agents: forward Taj Gibson, and guards Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague.
Gibson is a solid big man who had been a teammate of Butler’s for the three-time All-Star’s entire career up until he was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year at the trade deadline. He will help the Wolves in obvious ways, strengthening their defense and rebounding. He is a decent signing who the Wolves got for two-years, $28 million, a perfectly fine contract.
Three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Crawford on the other hand is about as bad as free agent signings get, even considering his small two-year, $8 million deal. The former Los Angeles Clippers guard is a truly awful basketball player at this point in his career. He ranked 460th in VORP in 2016-17, 271st in OWS, and 289th in TS%. Overall, the Clippers were 13.7 points better per 100 possessions with the shooting guard on the bench than they were with him on the court. There was simply no reason to sign Crawford over superior players who got comparable deals like guards Ian Clark and Shelvin Mack, or forward Omri Casspi — who finished last year with the Wolves.
“Jeff Teague has committed to Minnesota” pic.twitter.com/g2f0jEMzFJ
— Ryan Lund (@Ryan_Lund) July 1, 2017
After finally pulling the trigger on the long-discussed Rubio trade, Minnesota found his replacement in Teague. This is another fine signing, though it is still unclear why the Wolves were so set on trading Rubio. His fit with their new-look roster could have been a bit rocky considering how much he needs to hold the ball to be impactful. But he is an excellent passer whose shooting showed improvement last year.
Regardless, Teague is a solid playmaker and scorer, and a good enough shooter to help out. And while his three-year, $57 million deal isn’t quite consistent with the two-year timeline the rest of the team’s veterans are on, the former Indiana Pacers guard has a player option after the second year, meaning if the ship is sinking in Minnesota — or if he feels he can get more money elsewhere — he can bail.
Minnesota took a big swing this offseason and completely altered the trajectory of their team. This season’s roster is under a heck of a lot more pressure than expected. If the team gets off to a rocky start, Wiggins could be the scapegoat — especially if he doesn’t get his extension done before the season.
While the fit isn’t perfect and the conference is loaded with teams trying to make the playoffs, Butler dragged a miserable roster in Chicago to 41 wins last year. It’s reasonable to expect much better now that he at least has Towns to work with.
Final Grade: B