The Minnesota Timberwolves kick off the season less than a week from now – Wednesday, October 18th at 8:30 in San Antonio, to be exact. We’re getting you ready with a (nearly full) staff roundtable full of predictions, projections, hopes, and fears for the upcoming season. So sit back, relax, and enjoy part one of our two part series. (Editor’s Note: part two will be available first thing, Friday morning.)
Without further ado…
Who will lead the Timberwolves in points per game?
Lucas: Karl-Anthony Towns. He lead the team last year with 25.1 ppg (2,061 total points) and while his points per game may decrease a bit due to Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Jeff Teague needing to get their shots up too, I’d be surprised if it dipped below that of another player. I’d bet on Towns finishing between 22-24 ppg with Butler and Wiggins around the 19-22 range.
Andy: KAT. This team has a lot of scorers – some might argue too many – so the overall distribution should be pretty balanced between Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns. While Teague, Wiggins, and Butler are all primarily perimeter players, Towns is the only interior scorer on the roster. This means that he will have less competition for things like second-chance points; a category he finished second in the NBA (to Hassan Whiteside) in last year. Towns finished first in the league in overall “points in the paint,” with 14.1 per game. He won’t match his 25.1 PPG from a year ago – again, the Wolves scoring will be balanced – but he will eclipse the 20-mark and edge out Wiggins and Butler for the team lead.
Tim: Jimmy Butler will be the team’s best player and primary playmaker, but that playmaking will result in KAT being the leading scorer on the team. Towns showed at the end of last season, and even in the preseason of this year, that he has a newfound level of aggressiveness both in the post and on the perimeter. More importantly, he has learned to control that aggressiveness and avoid situations where he makes silly mistakes (with the exception of the fast break). After Towns? It’s a tossup between Butler and Wiggins, but it wouldn’t shock me if the team’s best player ends up third.
Bill: I’m going to echo the other guys and say it’ll be KAT. Andy brings up very good rationale with regard to second chance points and offensive rebounding. I also believe the team will feed off of him in post-up and pick-and-pop situations. So while there’s a good chance the Wolves will employ three 18 point scorers, KAT will top the bunch in points per game.
Patrick: To me, KAT is the most likely to lead the team in scoring, but Jimmy is the best player. As long as each is comfortable with that, we should be good.
Dr. LawyerIndianChief: Karl Anthony Towns. Watching preseason, it’s actually been kind of concerning seeing that he has added seemingly more tools to his offensive game. The paranoid in me wonders if this has come at the expense of focusing on defense (more essential), but I think we’re dealing with an embarrassment of riches with KAT. At any rate, I think his three point shooting is for real, and therefore that’s gonna up his scoring average.
Who will lead the Timberwolves in 3-point field goals made?
Lucas: The simple and probably correct answer is Towns, but I think the dark horse answer is Jeff Teague. Teague hit a career high 110 threes in 2015-16 during his final season with Atlanta, so there is a precedent of him hitting 100+ threes in a season. With one of his most important roles being “hit your open shots” and the opposing defenses cued on Towns, Wiggins, and Butler, I’d think it likely that he’ll have the opportunities. It’s likely that all he has to do is hit roughly 1.5 threes per game (equates to 120+) in order to lead the team. That’s doable.
Andy: Last year’s team was led by Zach LaVine who made 120 treys in just 47 games. Then he tore his ACL and was traded to the Bulls. So he won’t lead the Wolves in threes this year.
Wiggins finished second with 103 treys. KAT was right behind him with 101, and shot the lights out from downtown after the All-Star Break. Of the Wolves newcomers, Teague made 90 treys for the Pacers, Butler made 91 for the Bulls, and Jamal Crawford made 116 for the Clippers in 26.3 minutes per game. Since I doubt Crawford will play enough to contend for this one and I expect Wiggins to shoot more spot-up threes off of Butler’s passes, I’ll pick Wiggins slightly edging out KAT for the team leader in threes. Wiggins could probably lock this one up if he started camping out in the corners more regularly. He shot 32 corner threes in his rookie year, 30 in his second, and 31 last season. That amounts to 93 corner threes in three NBA seasons. For comparison, Klay Thompson took 180 threes in last season alone. Wiggins is a career 38.7 percent shooter from the corners, so there is no clear reason that he hasn’t found ways to get more shots from that money spot on the floor. Here’s hoping that with Butler doing more of the playmaking hard labor, Wiggins takes advantage with smart positioning and easier shots.
Tim: TAJ GIBSON. Okay no.
Butler, Wiggins, and Towns will all get their fill, but Jeff Teague might end up benefiting the most from his teammates, especially from deep. The other three are just as, if not more, known for their inside scoring ability as they are for their perimeter shooting. While Teague will get some buckets around the hoop, playing off three stars is going to give him lots of looks on the perimeter. The last time he was surrounded by stars like this was with the 2015-16 Hawks, which happens to be the year he took the most threes of his career (nearly 3.5 per game). The starting lineup has no true three-point marksman, so they might rely on Teague more than they should for that skill. Still, it’ll probably give him a good shot at making the most on the team.
Bill: Aw, rats. When I asked this question, I thought I’d be the super sneaky one who got to argue for the dark horse, Jeff Teague. I guess Lucas and Tim are way, way, way smarter than I thought they were. (Turns to the camera with a self-satisfied grin.)
But really, I do believe it’ll be Teague. Wiggins and Butler may end up being number 1 and 2 on the team in drives to the paint per game, with Karl setting picks, Teague spacing out to the wing, and Taj camped out in the corner. Sure, Teague will get into the ballhandling mix at times, but the primary offensive concept will call for Jimmy or Wiggins to create. And since corner threes are a defensive focus, I expect Jeff Teague to lead the way in this department.
Patrick: KAT. (Is there anything he can’t do?)
Dr. LIC: I really hope it isn’t KAT. In fact, if it isn’t Teague that suggests to me that the machine isn’t working how it is supposed to. Given that Thibs runs an offense that allows Jimmy and Wiggins to act as drive-and-kick ball-handlers, and given the type of attention that KAT will command, Teague should be more open than Trenton Hassell on a Sunday afternoon! (that’s an expression). If he isn’t hanging outside the three-point line, it will be a travesty.
Lucas: If we go by what the local reporters are saying, probably Aaron Brooks (the idea is that Brooks doesn’t come to Minnesota if he isn’t promised a significant role). However, if we go by what was seen in preseason, probably Tyus Jones. I think Jones proved last year that he deserves a shot as the primary backup point guard and Brooks, who is familiar with Thibs’ system and coaching style, isn’t a terrible contingency plan. All the Wolves need from Jones is for him to hit an open three or two and competently control the offense. That’s not a large ask and he’s proven he can do that fairly well in the opportunities he’s been given.
I think another interesting question is who gets more point guard minutes: Brooks or Jamal Crawford? While he’s mainly a shooting guard, Crawford has played some point guard in the past and we even saw him play some during the preseason while Jones was on the court. I’d take Brooks, but it might be close (since we know how much Thibs loves to utilize his bench depth).
Andy: Tyus, and I doubt this one is particularly close. He improved radically from his overwhelmed rookie season to his sophomore campaign that saw him lead the entire team in “net rating” (plus-minus per 100 possessions). Jones is still young and has the reputation of a gym rat that dates to his high school days when he was always rated as the best point guard in his class, nationally. From Year 1 to Year 2 his stats jumped up significantly in shooting percentage, three-point percentage, and assist-to-turnover ratio. The “eye test” was a lot friendlier to his defense, as he became a noticeably good “team defender,” even as he remains a liability against explosive opposing point guards. (Eds note: most NBA point guards cannot defend explosive point guards one-on-one.)
Aaron Brooks can dribble the ball up the floor, enter it to the wing, and play half-decent second-team defense. He is an adequate backup point guard option. Jones figures to be a little bit more than that this year, and his huge improvement should only continue as he will not turn 22 years of age until May 10, 2018 (!).
Tim: Based on the preseason, it’s pretty clearly Tyus. In the first game, Tyus took backup duties in the first half, and Brooks in the second half. In the following two games, it was all Tyus all the time. Brooks didn’t play in the NBA last year, and while he probably had the chops to, it is probably (in part) because he has lost some of what made him dangerous early in his career. Tyus is in the lower tier of backup point guards in the league, but he is solid. For now, that’s what they’ll have to roll with.
Bill: It should be Tyus, and it had better be Tyus, to be perfectly frank. As Andy pointed out, he’s got upside and pedigree. As Tim pointed out, he got a lion’s share of the preseason minutes. And as I say, the Wolves should find out what they have in him. Give him 40 games of 15-20 minutes as the backup point, then evaluate the situation. We know what Aaron Brooks is, and while Thibs is all in to win this season, I certainly hope he is prudent enough to see that Tyus is the right answer here.
Having said all that, my final answer for the question is “Other – Kirk Hinrich.”
Patrick: I’ll go with Brooks. Thibs seemed uncomfortable with Jones last year, despite Jones’ solid play, and Thibs seems to “trust what has worked in the past” more than some coaches. Brooks isn’t all bad, and a crafty vet mightn’t be the worst thing to have behind Teague.
Dr. LIC: As the resident Tyus-skeptic, I hope it’s Brooks, but both are insufficient defenders and the PG (lack of) depth simply terrifies me if anything happens to Jeff Teague. The pluses of Brooks are that he is a legitimately good three-point shooter and he thrived under Thibodeau’s system in Chicago. That’s about it though, and that seems to be enough to get him more burn than the very short-leashed Tyus.
Where will Minnesota finish in Offensive Rating (last season, they were 10th overall)?
Lucas: I think 10th is probably about right. I think the Wolves’ spacing issues may be a bit overblown (all of the starters shot above 37% on catch-and-shoot threes last year), but it’s not like they have a dangerous sharpshooter that opponents can’t leave open on the roster now that LaVine is gone. They will live at the free throw line (Butler, Teague, and Wiggins all posted free throw rates of .345 or better last season, with Butler and Teague hovering closer to .500), which will make up for some of their three-point shooting woes and, overall, the main players on the roster are pretty efficient scorers. I’m not sure how I see them finishing outside of the top 12.
Andy: I think they’ll finish about 4th, after the Warriors, Rockets and maybe one more team like the Cavs or Thunder. Last year, there wasn’t much separation between 4th (Clippers at 110.3) and 10th (Wolves at 108.1). I think the Butler and Jamal Crawford additions along with the Kris Dunn subtraction will improve the Wolves overall offensive rank quite a bit.
Tim: The Wolves are an improved team offensively. They still aren’t a three point shooting team, but weren’t last year, either, and still finished tenth. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t move up this year.
Bill: I think they’ll be about the same. They need more shooting, but they’ll get to the line and be plenty efficient. And one of Wiggins/Butler/KAT ought to be on the floor at all times. I’ll say 7th.
Patrick: Good question. I honestly don’t know. Somewhere in the middle.
Dr. LIC: If I can recall correctly, there was a good intensive analytics piece out there showing that the Wolves’ offensive success last year was largely driven by an unusual amount of free throw attempts and offensive rebounds/putbacks. Given the addition of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, I would say those two statistics would continue to be high. Given also that the Wolves haven’t really lost any offensive firepower otherwise, I would expect them to remain 10th. The Thunder will replace the Clippers in the top 10, but otherwise I expect last year’s top ten to hold.
Lucas: It probably goes without saying that the Wolves’ improvement on defense will be one of, if not the most, important factors for whether or not the Wolves make the playoffs. It also probably goes without saying that Wiggins’ and Towns’ continued development will be the key to the Wolves defense improving. We know Butler and Gibson will bring it every night, Teague and Dieng have the ability to be net neutrals depending on their matchups, and the bench will be…not great, so it’s on Wiggins and Towns to take the next steps and become at least slightly below average on defense. That’s not likely to happen overnight and those two are still extremely young. I think the defense improves (it can’t really be worse), but I’d be skeptical about a leap into the top half of the league. I think a finish in the 17-19 range should be realistic and, let’s be honest, that’s still a huge leap (for reference, that would equate to a Wolves’ jump in defensive rating from 109.1 to 106.4, according to NBA.com/Stats).
Andy: This one is harder to project because they have so many great things going for their defensive potential – an elite coach, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson – but they were so horrendous at defense last season. Karl Towns’s stated confidence that he has Thibs’s system figured out and that he will just play on instincts this year is more worrisome than reassuring. I’m not convinced that he understands how bad he and most of his teammates were on that end of the floor, compared to the teams that play defense well. I’ll predict the Wolves to finish 15th in total defense. That’s a massive improvement, but will probably have more to do with Thibs, Taj, and Butler than the returning core.
Tim: As the two above me allude to, not only is this a more complicated matter, it’s far more confusing. The Wolves added Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, and now have Gorgui Dieng off the bench. On paper, those are your three best defenders in the rotation this season. That means that two of the best three defenders are brand new additions to the team, in replacement of guys that were undoubtedly minus defenders (LaVine, for example) last year. The hope, of course, is that Gibson and Butler help teach Towns and Wiggins better methods to defend. This, in turn, would likely catapult them into a much higher ranking. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen.
Bill: 15th, but that still feels optimistic. Jimmy and Taj will help, but I’m still very concerned about KAT. I don’t think he’s capable of anchoring a top-10 defense yet.
Patrick: Again, I think somewhere in the middle. (This kind of outs me as expecting the team to be improved yet average this season.)
Dr. LIC: I am highly concerned about defense and can’t think of a single bench player who excels on D–Gorgui is obviously the only player who scores well on advanced metrics. Given that Rubio-for-Teague and Lavine-for-Butler seems like a wash, Taj Gibson seems like the only evidence for a boost. And then the hope is that Butler and Gibson’s presence lights a fire under Wiggins and KAT to get their numbers back to those glorious few minutes when the played alongside KG. All things considered, I’d hope they could get up to 20th in the league.
Who do YOU want taking the final shot in a close game?
Lucas: Jimmy Butler. Butler had an insane usage percentage – to the tune of 43.1% overall, and it only increased as the clock wound down – in clutch situations last year (the game within five points or less with five minutes or less remaining) and he still managed to boast an effective field goal percentage of 52.2% and a true shooting percentage of 59.7%. His clutch time 3FG% of 38.5% last year was nearly two percentage points higher than his overall 3FG% (36.7%). Butler is a bonafide star and only gets better as the buzzer nears. He should get the majority of the final shot attempts.
Andy: Karl-Anthony Towns, after Jimmy Butler sets him up.
Tim: It’s going to be KAT for a number of years. Might as well get him used to it now. If he’s doubled, get Jimmy Butler the ball in time to make a play.
Bill: Give the goshdarn ball to goshdarn JimmyButler and get out of the goshdarn way.
Patrick: If Butler isn’t taking these shots, the terrorists have already won.
Dr. LIC: Andrew Wiggins. Nine times out of ten, I think the ball WILL go to JimmyButler for free throws, but I want Wiggins. He has an underrated ice cold streak to him in these situations.