With the 2015-16 NBA season tipping off Wednesday night, we made predictions on the season. Then Bill wanted to pick apart our predictions and see why we thought the way we do about this Minnesota Timberwolves season. That means it’s a roundtable kind of day!
Bill, Tim, Steve, and myself answered seven questions about our thoughts on the upcoming season. Why seven? I have no idea. That’s just what Bill came up with for the line of questioning. Let’s talk about some Wolves:
The lowest win projection among us was 23 victories, while the most optimistic prediction came in at 27 wins. (Note – that’s not negativity on our part; for what it’s worth, most analytical models fall somewhere in the 22-to-29 range.) Obviously, injuries could make the worst-case scenario very, very low, but let’s not think about that. Instead, how about we look at the opposite end of the spectrum: what’s your absolute ceiling on the Timberwolves’ win total, assuming everything goes right?
Bill: Assuming health and decent coaching? 35 wins seems like the absolute, pie-in-the-sky maximum. The Wolves just don’t have enough outside shooting to have a league-average offense, and the defense is very much a work in progress. Plus, their 2016 pick is top-12 protected; it’s hard to see them pushing for wins, and thus harming their lottery odds, late in the season.
Tim: I’m going to go full optimist here. The Wolves can go .500 if all goes perfectly.
This, of course, would require everything to go PERFECTLY, something that just doesn’t happen in pro sports. Ricky Rubio would have to shoot at a career-best efficient clip. Andrew Wiggins would have to take his next step to stardom. Karl-Anthony Towns would have to play like a Rookie of the Year. The list goes on, but health (of course) is the most important thing. It’s hard for everything to go right, but I’m going to go the optimist route here.
Zach: Tim, what? I don’t even…
Best-case scenario, I think this team gets like 32 wins. And even that seems pretty unlikely to me because the issues with this team are still very real. The majority of their faults last season could be chalked up to either the first year of a rebuild or a seemingly unending rash of injuries to an already thin roster. Even with avoiding injuries thanks to the direction of Arnie Kander this season and a mix of some veterans like KG, Prince, and Miller, we’re still looking at a very young core.
I think most people typically discount just how hard it is to learn how to win in the NBA without a ton of experience. I don’t think experience is everything, but learning how to manage road trips that aren’t going your way, muster the requisite focus on a back-to-back, or just consistently put yourself in a position to stage a comeback or close out a tight game is difficult. And it takes time. It takes trial-and-error. Even if I think last year’s team was much better than 16 wins, I’m not sure they were better than 25. And even with additions and this current roster, I’m not sure everything breaking right for them even means 35.
2016-17? Count me in for a really nice win total. I just think we’re a year away from that.
Steve: I’m right there with Zach regarding this team last year vs. this year. I don’t think a starting lineup of Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Young and Pekovic was 16 games bad, but I also don’t think they were going to make the playoffs like that. This is going to be a very up and down season, and probably even within games. They’ll look great for a quarter or part of one, but when the other team adjusts, they’ll have trouble keeping up because of how young the core is. I think something like 30 wins is the max.
Forecasting trades is a fool’s errand, because what you THINK will happen almost never does, and injuries can change everything in a hurry, but… what are the chances Kevin Martin is still on the team after 2:00 PM on February 18th (the trade deadline)?
Bill: Zero percent. The Wolves’ front office has been very shrewd about dealing away veterans over the past year, and there ought to be a market for a shooter of Kevin Martin’s caliber. The team that seems to make a ton of sense is Charlotte; they’re trying to win now, they need scoring, they could surround him with defenders to help minimize his lack of effectiveness on that end, and went to school in North Carolina. The NBA is all about players going “home” nowadays, right?
Tim: Not high. As it stands, maybe 10 percent. I think the odds of Martin getting dealt go up this summer, when his contract is down another year. But for now, the Wolves need Martin’s scoring.
Zach: 50-50. I’m not sure what to make in regards to the state of the team’s roster and how personnel decisions might be made over the course of this season. I think if the Wolves were to get offered even a heavily protected first round pick that is more likely to turn into two second round picks, Martin could be on the move by the trade deadline. But what are the chances he’s a commodity for a playoff team? Maybe a bunch of injuries (like what’s already happening) with New Orleans could create a need and a push to get a wing who can score?
In the past, Martin has pouted a bit when he didn’t get his way on a losing team, but it was also when he wasn’t as mature as he is now. After everything that’s happened? It wouldn’t shock me to see him embrace the veteran mentor role, regardless of whether or not he starts consistently, and finds himself on the move next summer when the team can recalibrate where they are, who is doing what, and where the next step leads them.
Steve: If Kevin Martin is moved, I feel like it’s going to be because he wants it that way, much as it was with Barea, Brewer and Williams. The Wolves didn’t get back much value for those guys because those moves were done to get veteran players on teams they wanted to be on. It’s not the sexy asset-for-asset kind of trade that drives the league, but it is the kind of thing that happens all the time in a league that’s as much about relationships with agents and other teams as it is about putting together a winning roster.
All that said, I think it’s likely that Martin basically wants out at this point. He came here to play for Adelman, who left, and I think he was buying into Flip’s vision of the team, but that’s obviously up in the air now. If he wants to wait out the market this summer, I can see him sticking, but I can also see him on the move if a team like Oklahoma City or Cleveland want a shooter for instant offense. I’ll peg the chance he’s still here as 20 percent.
There were very few clean sweeps in any category, but one thing we agreed upon was Adreian Payne as the Wolves’ Least Valuable Player. He’s got some intriguing physical tools, and the team gave up a protected future first to get him. Is he salvageable? Or have you already seen enough?
Bill: I wanted the Wolves to draft Adreian Payne with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 Draft. I thought he was NBA-ready and still possessed a ton of upside. I was wrong, and I’m sorry. Yes, I’ve seen enough.
Tim: I was fine with the trade when it happened. Payne was lottery talent coming out of Michigan State, and the Wolves got him for a lottery-protected pick. I didn’t mind it. But despite the physical tools that got Payne drafted, he doesn’t seem to know how to use him. I think there’s a small shred of hope for him still, but it’s fading fast.
Zach: I think it’s wrong to make snap judgments on players based on a very small amount of info, even if it looks like a lost cause. Development is a tricky thing, especially for big men, and familiarity breeds success with NBA experience. At the same time, you can’t just put an overmatched player on the court over and over without the merit of earning minutes, and hope things click.
I wanted the Wolves to draft Payne because I think the tools and athleticism are exactly where the NBA game is headed for big men. However, it’s a bit alarming the Hawks gave up on him so fast and it appears from what we’ve seen after one year that he’s not great with making quick decisions on either side of the floor. When he gets to go off instinct, I think you see results, but those players don’t work much anymore. They need understanding on the floor. Maybe that comes with time. It apparently came with time in his years at Michigan State.
I’m not writing him off after a bad, chaotic rookie season. I’m also not terribly optimistic either.
Steve: There’s a chance that as this team rounds into shape that Payne will find the right slot off the bench where he can be productive. As everyone’s said, he has the physical tools. That, however, means being very patient with him, and they already cut bait on Anthony Bennett. If Payne is somehow still here in a couple years, it’ll be because he’s become a sneakily solid player against other teams’ second units. If he’s not, it’ll be because he largely is what he looks like right now: a jumble of instincts poorly matched to his physical talents.
Shabazz Muhammad’s name comes up a bunch as the Wolves’ “best role player” and “breakout player,” and not just by the four of us. True or false: he’s in the starting lineup by the end of the season.
Bill: False. He may start the occasional game due to injuries, but the coaching staff really likes him as a bench scorer, and it’s hard to see him improving enough defensively to take over a starting role this season. I do expect him to be a dynamite sixth or seventh man, though.
Tim: True, but it will be late in the season. I don’t expect Tayshaun Prince to be the long-term starting small forward, and Muhammad’s play last year gives me hope that he can earn a starting spot. On top of that, the mismatch possibilities between him and Wiggins are all too intriguing.
Zach: False. I think he will start at various points in the season, but I think it will be by necessity due to injury. We’re at this point with young guys where they have to start to show us what they can do. For some reason, people believe Shabazz Muhammad has earned a starting role or is good enough to be a starter on this team. I still need to see it from him consistently, starting with defense.
He has bad habits, as do many young players, and I don’t believe in rewarding those bad habits with big minutes or the starting role. I want him to develop gradually and if he proves he can stay in front of guys then give him the job. He hasn’t shown that yet, and we’re not terribly sure how much of a team game he has on offense. Guys like that make perfect Sixth Man scorers. I think that’s what he is right now.
We may like Shabazz more than we like Martin, but he’s simply not as good as Martin is yet and we shouldn’t pretend he is.
Steve: I really really really want the lineup that gets the most minutes this season to involve Wiggins and Shabazz playing together because it creates so many weird matchup problems and opportunities. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any rush to get him into the starting lineup right away and — as it is with LaVine — I think there’s value in playing him in shorter, more controlled stints as a way to manage his development.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Garnett and Ricky Rubio each received votes for Wolves’ defensive player of the year, and the case could be made for each of them. There are a few talented defenders on this team; where will the Wolves end up ranked in points allowed per possession? (They were dead last in 2014-15.)
Bill: If they get all the way up to 25th, that’d be a victory. If they’re in the top-20, somehow, that’d be a monumental achievement. I’m guessing Garnett’s (and to a lesser extent, Rubio’s) on/off splits are going to be incredible. The question is, how healthy are those two? The more they play, the better the Wolves will be.
Tim: Not much higher. Somewhere between 25th and 30th. Garnett is a huge impact defensively, just by the way he talks, but last year’s impact only came with KG on the floor. It will also help to have Ricky (my pick) back full-time, but ultimately the Wolves collectively are too young to be a fully competent squad on defense. But between Rubio, Wiggins and Towns, there is hope down the line. Darn you, youth.
Zach: I’m with you guys. I think there’s reason to be optimistic in improvement, but there are different levels to what we can expect in that department. Even if the starting unit figures it out, the bench will probably be a disaster defensively. A lineup of Miller, LaVine, Muhammad, Bjelic, and Dieng sounds fun for both teams. We’re not sure how much KG will be able to give the Wolves. If healthy, we know Rubio makes a difference but he won’t fix them completely.
I’ll be optimistic and say 24th. Last year, that meant giving up 105.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s an improvement of about 4.5 points. That’s a big leap, but that’s an attainable goal.
Steve: Last year, they basically could not defend at the most basic level. With so many young guys playing together, almost any defensive breakdown led to a basket. There were no failsafes. Any of LaVine, Williams or Martin allowing his man into the lane forced Dieng to rotate and left an undersized Young to defend and rebound. It wasn’t a recipe for success.
If Towns can be a backstop, I expect their numbers to tick up, but they’re still too raw to really become a strong defense this season. If they can get up to 25th, that might show that they’re starting to develop a defensive chemistry that could be very good with Rubio, Wiggins and Towns anchoring at different spots on the floor.
Briefly defend your pick for the team’s MVP.
Bill: Ricky Rubio has made such a huge difference over the past four seasons; when he is on the floor, the Wolves are a somewhat competent team, and when he isn’t, they aren’t. Andrew Wiggins may still be a year or two away from being the true MVP of the Wolves, ditto for Karl-Anthony Towns. For now, Ricky is the stabilizing force who makes them better at both ends.
Tim: I struggled mightily between Wiggins and Rubio. I wanted to with Rubio because of the team’s history of looking better with him on the floor, but I went Wiggins because I think his scoring is going to be irreplaceable this season. It’s a close one between those two for me, and I can hear arguments for both.
Zach: Over the course of his entire career, Ricky Rubio has been the difference between the Wolves being a punchline and the Wolves being competitive. Even with improved depth, I don’t see why that would change. They need ball movement and they need to be good in the pick-and-roll. He does both of those things. They need to be able to stop people at the point of attack. At the very least, he slows them way down. I don’t think he’ll be their best, but he’ll be their most important.
Steve: I went with Wiggins because I think we’re going to see a big leap for him, even with how good he looked at times last year. A tremendous load was heaped on him right from the start and he handled it well. How much better is he going to look with a little less heavy lifting to do thanks to Towns and the return of a healthy Rubio? Add in a full NBA offseason and some good experience playing for Canada and I think we’ll see the kind of jump that traditionally bars sophomores from consideration as Most Improved Players league-wide.
Even if the Wolves miss the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season, the longest active drought among the major American sports… this is still going to be a fun season, right? Right? RIGHT?!?
Bill: Right. Let’s do this.
Tim: The Wolves, despite their faults, will dunk sometimes. Dunks are fun. I enjoy fun.
Zach: Watch your head, big men. There’s a bounty on it.