The Sober Increase in Timberwolves Expectations

The annual GM Survey conducted by NBA.com was published on Wednesday. For the second straight year, the Timberwolves were prominently involved.

Karl-Anthony Towns had the most votes (29%) for the distinguished superlative of “player that GM’s would sign first, if starting a franchise today.” Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks came in second, before perennial winner of the award, LeBron James, who only loses now because of advancing age.

Towns likewise won the “award” for the player most likely to have a breakout season. His teammate Andrew Wiggins finished 5th in that category. The imaginary trophies now too many to hold at once, KAT also finished first in the “best center in the NBA” category, edging out Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. Frankly, that one seems premature, or based heavily on projections of improved KAT defense in the season to come.

Projection is the key word when it comes to the Timberwolves and this survey, because that is where the Wolves truly crushed it this year. A whopping SIXTY NINE (eds. note: “Nice.”) percent of voters believe that the Wolves will be the league’s most improved team in the 2017-18 season. Relatedly, when asked to rank the top four teams in this season’s West, GM’s gave the Wolves the 5th most love.

Last year, the 5th best team in the West won 51 games.

Last year, the Timberwolves won 31 games.

[whips out calculator and performs some complex calculations]

That would be quite an improvement.

The reasons for Wolves optimism are clear:

They bring back Wiggins and Towns after another offseason of maturing and conditioning. Each stands to improve after a full season of Thibs under their belt. The Wolves also used cap space on veteran free agents like Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. While Teague-for-Rubio is arguably a wash or worse in value, it is easy to imagine the former fitting better into Thibodeau schemes and playing off of star wing players than Rubio, a less explosive passing wizard who tends to play his best when unshackled and freelancing. Gibson will provide an immediate and substantial boost to the starting group’s wretched defense. And Crawford is a savvy vet who — if nothing else — can help stabilize a second unit that has enough question marks in Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, and Nemanja Bjelica.

More significant than any of those moves, of course, was the trade of Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for Jimmy Butler. It seems fair to assume that the league GM’s view the Butler acquisition as a huge one for Tom Thibodeau and cause to expect better things from his team.

That word “expect” is important here, because it distinguishes this preseason hype from last year’s. Recall that in the 2016-17 GM Survey, the Wolves finished high in many of the same categories. Towns was already the top “player to start a franchise with,” and ranked second in “most likely to break out.” He was ranked the league’s 5th best center.

And in last year’s survey, the Timberwolves — just like this year’s group — were predicted by a majority of GM’s (56.7%) to be the league’s most improved team. This came on the heels of a conservative off-season in roster management — they drafted Dunn and signed cheap veterans like Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush in free agency — but an aggressive one in the coaching and management ranks: Glen Taylor lured Tom Thibodeau to Minnesota after his one-year sabbatical that followed his great run coaching the Chicago Bulls, and heading up the champion Boston Celtics’ defense before that. (Eds note: KORN FERRY!)

People were excited to see Thibs return to the sidelines and coach up a roster oozing with young upside. In predicting a big bump in Wolves wins like so many people did — [sheepishly looks down while raising hand in the air] — the incredible youth of the roster was lost and replaced by an eagerness to see Thibs coaching top-shelf talent.

Of course, after receiving all of that preseason hype the Thibs-led Wolves won just 31 games; 2 more than a season earlier under Sam Mitchell. Perhaps as disappointing as the record itself was how they went about losing so much: the Wolves had the 26th ranked defense in the league — something previously unthinkable under Thibs, whose reputation arises overwhelmingly from the defensive end of the floor.

The thing about last year’s Wolves hype is that it was centered around excitement and hope. People anticipated big improvement from within–they expected to see the same people immediately playing basketball at a higher level.

That type of buzz is both more fun and less serious than this year’s optimism, which is based on legitimate expectations for winning basketball.

The seriousness of this year’s version of Timberwolves hype is overwhelmingly a good thing–especially in this  market so deprived of success that it hasn’t seen an NBA playoff game since George W. Bush’s first term. That these Timberwolves (eds note: obligatory “barring major injuries”) are going to be not only improved but very competitive in the mighty Western Conference can be essentially taken as a fact. That’s the simple reality of pairing Jimmy Butler with Karl Towns, and surrounding the duo with capability at every position.

Put simply: The Wolves are going to be good, and that is a good thing.

But even if it’s a good thing, the seriousness of these increased expectations is a little bit sobering too.

For one thing, the Wolves had to say goodbye to Zach LaVine and break up the little “big three” assembled by Flip Saunders before his untimely passing. The Butler-LaVine swap is an obvious and huge win for the Wolves, but it’s a bummer to see a player to whom fans grew attached leave town before he reaches his prime. It would have been more fun for fans to see the Wolves succeed with LaVine than it will with veteran replacements.

For another, and related to the LaVine point, the experience of this team’s development will effectively skip that really fun inflection point where we see them grow into a competitive team. Think: 1996-97 and the first playoff team with Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett, or the pre-Rubio-injury portion of the 2011-12 season when Rubio and Rick Adelman arrived and had them playing above-.500 ball for the first time in forever.

There is something special about the rite of passage a young team experiences when it finally cracks .500. The Wolves were supposed to do that last year and instead of running it back and trying again, they’re effectively skipping a step by replacing young players with older ones. If they only win 41 games in 2017-18, it will be justifiably seen as a failure. Expectations are higher than that.

If this seems like nitpicking, I suppose that’s because it is. Like I said, the seriousness and legitimacy of these heightened expectations is a good thing. Winning is a lot better than losing, and we here are starving for it. But when the rest of the league, for the second straight year and for some significantly different reasons, are already anticipating a huge bump in wins, some of those wins will be less exciting than if they came more organically and from within.

These are good problems to have, if they are even problems at all.

 

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