(Editor's Note: We kick off our annual NBA team-by-team league preview today, starting with a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves from staff writer Peter Sampson. Tune in tomorrow for a look at the New York Knicks.)
Minnesota Timberwolves 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record - 16-66, No. 5 Northwest Division, No. 15 Western Conference
Roster Additions: Karl Anthony-Towns (rookie, No. 1 overall), Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince, Namanja Bjelica (rookie, free agent), Damjan Rudez, Tyus Jones (rookie, No. 24)
Roster Subtractions: Chase Budinger, Gary Neal, Robbie Hummel
Special Note: Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders is on leave to undergo treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma. Assistant coach Sam Mitchell will act as head coach on an interim basis.
When you're on the bottom, there's nowhere to look but up, right? After following the worst team in the league last year, record-wise, Minnesota fans are optimistic that the 2015-16 season will represent the beginning of their return to respectability.
Of course, Timberwolves fans had reason to be optimistic before last season as well. Though the team's only star player, Kevin Love, had been moved to Cleveland after it became more than evident he wasn't going to be returning to Minnesota at the end of his contract, a solid core of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Thaddeus Young, and Nikola Pekovic being joined by #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was enough to generate optimism for improvement.
Hopes were dashed almost immediately, as starting point guard Ricky Rubio seriously injured his left ankle five games into the season, and the Timberwolves opened the year losing 16 of their first 20 games. Shortly thereafter, Kevin Martin went down with a broken wrist, and Nikola Pekovic suffered a serious ankle injury. Coach Flip Saunders was forced to give young players Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammed (who went down with an abdominal injury himself) substantial playing time.
After shipping off veterans Mo Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Corey Brewer before the trade deadline, it was clear that Minnesota would continue to operate in acquisition mode for at least another season. With the lack of experience and continuity, Minnesota struggled on both sides of the ball, but were particularly atrocious on defense, ranking dead last in the NBA in defensive rating (112.2), eFG% allowed (.537), and defensive rebound percentage (71.6%).
Amidst all of the chaos, 2014 1st overall pick Andrew Wiggins put together an excellent rookie campaign. Whispers about how the constant losing and poor culture would affect the gifted young wing player were quieted as he demonstrated consistency and poise on his way to winning Rookie of the Year honors.
Wiggins is able to operate in isolation, the pick and roll, and, over the course of the season, showed an ability to back his man down in the post when matched up against a smaller shooting guard. Already an above average defender, Wiggins needs to focus on reducing his turnovers and increasing his field goal percentage.
Only 19 years old, Wiggins is already on his way to becoming a future star. Minnesota needed another franchise player to pair with him for the next decade, and with the worst record in the league, the Wolves won the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, selecting University of Kentucky center Karl Anthony-Towns.
Towns is projected to be an outstanding NBA center. Already an elite shot blocker and very good rebounder due to his size and length, Towns has demonstrated a soft touch around the basket and shooting range that extends out to the three point line.
Also just 19 years old, Minnesota believes that by adding Towns, they have a duo that can develop into a feared tandem within several years. With the unselfish and tentative shooting Rubio running the point, expect these two to get all the shots they want in 2015-16.
The Wolves also made an excellent under the radar signing, adding 2014-15 Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica. A 6'10" "point forward", Bjelica can play either the 3 or the 4, and is effective bringing the ball up the floor to give the offense a different look, most importantly when the need for shooting takes Ricky Rubio out of the game for several minute stretches. Bjelica shoots well from the 3 point line for his size, and provides Minnesota with a jolt of young defensive rebounding to go along with Towns.
The final young big that Minnesota is pinning its hopes on is F/C Gorgui Dieng. The second year player from the University of Louisville averaged 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 30 minutes a night last year, really taking off after Pekovic went down for the season with his ankle injury. Dieng has excellent footwork on the block, able to use a pump fake to maximum effectiveness. Additionally, Dieng is a solid shot blocker. Look for Dieng to continue his success as the first big man off the bench, playing both PF and C.
Recognizing that this young depth is meaningless without some veteran leadership to show them the ropes of the NBA, Minnesota added 39-year-old PG Andre Miller and 35-year-old SF Tayshaun Prince to the roster, which already features 39 year-old-PF Kevin Garnett. Before his leave of absence, Flip Saunders indicated that Garnett would start, but it is unlikely that he will contribute with heavy minutes.
It is also doubtful that Miller and Prince will see much meaningful floor time. With Ricky Rubio back and presumably healthy, Zach Lavine showing he's deserving of PG minutes, and #24 overall pick Tyus Jones needing some developmental time, it's unlikely that there will be anything other than blowout minutes left for Miller. Expect Prince to be stuck behind some combination of Wiggins, Kevin Martin, and Shabazz Muhammed, who, before his injury, was finally showing why he was once projected to be a top 3 lottery pick.
Instead, Miller and Prince (and to a lesser degree Garnett) will make their major contributions during timeouts, off the court, in practice, etc. A team needs to learn to win, and these veteran presences will be counted on to do the teaching while the young talent develops around them.
What's going on with Anthony Bennett, who's already considered a spectacular bust as the #1 overall pick in 2013?
Bennett could still develop into a decent rotation player with some consistency, which he has failed to show thus far in his career (interestingly, Minnesota has the last three #1 overall picks on its roster). While he has the physical tools to be semi-productive, Bennett is dangerously close to not having his rookie option picked up (a near certainty) and possibly ending up with a third team in the near future. Will Bennett be able to take advantage of what minutes he does get this season?
Look for the Timberwolves to struggle early as they look for an identity. They have no clear cut on-the-court leader. Rubio is essentially the quarterback of the team, but he missed the majority of last season, while Wiggins, Dieng, and (to a lesser degree) Muhammed developed chemistry without him. Additionally, they are without their head coach and GM Flip Saunders, at least for the early portion of the season. Interim coach Sam Mitchell will be running the same system from an X's and O's standpoint (four corners, pick and roll), but a coach feeds into the identity of a team, and the Timberwolves just recently found out that their coach will be unavailable in order to fight a personal battle of undetermined length.
As Wiggins takes the second-year jump and Towns is integrated into the flow, a third breakout supporting player will be the key ingredient to start turning things around, whether that is Dieng turning into a double-double machine, or Muhammed continuing the torrid scoring rate he demonstrated before going down last year.
This isn't to say the Timberwolves are going to sniff the playoffs, especially in the loaded Western Conference, but look for them to be next season's version of the 2014-15 Utah Jazz, in that they will be the team that gels after the All-Star break, and that no one wants to play.
As the youngsters develop chemistry together, Minnesota will continue to push harder to move Rubio, Pekovic, and Martin to contenders that are willing to listen to trade offers, and will ultimately succeed in moving at least one of them. Minnesota will be looking for draft picks or young pieces in exchange for any of the above mentioned players on the trade block. They may need to settle for taking back a bad contract as well, but Minnesota will be active on trade market this season.
Ultimately, after 11 straight seasons missing the playoffs, any improvement is reason for Wolves fans to celebrate. 2015-16 could be the season that fans point to and say "That's when they turned the corner".