The Minnesota Timberwolves look to continue building their base of young players but must find a reliable No 2 option to support All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns.
2018-19 record: 36-46, did not qualify for the playoffs
Key additions: Jarrett Culver (Draft), Jake Layman (trade), Jordan Bell (free agency), Shabazz Napier (trade)
Key departures: Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Dario Saric
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The Wolves qualified as one of the bigger disappointments of last season, taking a step back from their playoff berth the previous season and seeing little to no growth among their young, reliable players. It is always alarming when development hits a speed bump, and the Wolves studied the tea leaves and figured something was amiss. Chief among the concerns was the stagnation of swingman Andrew Wiggins.
Andrew Wiggins and Towns on court during a game against the LA Clippers
Once considered the co-saviour of the club and lavished with a max contract a year ago, Wiggins drifted and regressed in almost all areas: shooting, defense, impact and especially motivation. He simply did not radiate the intangibles a young player needs to become a star, and there is realistic fear within the franchise that Wiggins, 24, will be nothing better than a support player.
On most nights, Minnesota mainly relied on Karl-Anthony Towns and the big man delivered more often than not. He led the club in scoring (24.4 points per game), rebounds (12.4 per game) and blocks (1.6 per game) and shot 40 per cent on three-pointers. Still, he could not carry the club alone.
Derrick Rose scored a career-high 50 points as the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Utah Jazz
The Wolves also received a bounce-back season from Derrick Rose, who had a magical moment with his 50-point game in October against the Utah Jazz. Rose followed with three 30-point efforts and inspired hope that his hardship from injuries was finally in the past. He was a much better fit for the Wolves than Jimmy Butler, who was mercifully traded after 10 turbulent games.
In return, the Wolves received Dario Saric and Robert Covington, both decent pick-ups, from the Philadelphia 76ers. Still, the club’s troubles were problematic, and coach Tom Thibodeau paid the price. He was fired after 40 games and replaced by Ryan Saunders, son of the late Flip Saunders, who still holds the team’s record for games won. The Wolves initially responded positively from the change but soon relapsed and never seriously challenged for a playoff spot.
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Since Thibodeau was also the club’s personnel chief, the Wolves immediately conducted a search for a basketball operations leader once the season ended, yet another sign of instability by a franchise that has reached the playoffs only once since 2003-04.
The Wolves entered the summer of 2019 cloaked in uncertainty, which is rather normal for them. It is just that team owner Glen Taylor and Wolves fans figured the dark days were finally behind them, only to get an untimely visit last season. Which meant changes were coming.
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Taylor hired Gersson Rosas to lead the next era, and it was a decision that was applauded in NBA circles. Rosas, unlike Thibodeau, brings front-office experience, having served 16 seasons with the Houston Rockets where he was tutored by Carroll Dawson and Daryl Morey, both respected GMs.
One of the first decisions was to retain Saunders as coach. This was not an automatic decision as Saunders came to the job last season without any prior experience. Yet he held respect in the locker room, came from a solid bloodline and by keeping him, the Wolves maintained some sense of stability. Rosas and Taylor agreed that Saunders deserved more than a half-season.
Learn more about Timberwolves’ draft pick Jarrett Culver
Next, the Wolves moved up five spots in the Draft, sending Saric to Phoenix to do so, to get Jarrett Culver. The Texas Tech guard, who boasts a mature game and decent shooting range, appears NBA-ready in terms of intelligence, toughness and size. Culver will compete with last year’s first-round pick, Josh Okogie, for the right to start at guard.
Curiously, the Wolves saw the loss of not one, but two point guards when Rose signed with the Detroit Pistons as a free agent and the Wolves declined to match the Memphis Grizzlies’ $28m offer sheet for fellow back-up guard Tyus Jones. They added the journeyman Shabazz Napier as a replacement, but Wolves will at some point have to look to upgrade the position significantly.
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The other two additions were designed to improve the club’s front-line depth. The athletic swingman Jake Layman briefly flourished with the Portland Trail Blazers last season before losing ground in the rotation. Jordan Bell had a reasonable role in the Golden State Warriors’ rotation the last two seasons, but failed to show improvement which led to diminished minutes. Both are still young and come cheap, so there is not much risk in giving them a second chance.
What Rosas did not do was trade Wiggins. That in itself would have been welcomed by Wolves fans, who have grown impatient and frustrated with him.
Wiggins finds a team-mate during a Timberwolves-Clippers regular-season game
Wiggins would have takers on the market despite a contract that will average nearly $30m the next four seasons. However, the return for Minnesota would be rather disappointing. Given the choice, Wiggins stays for now.
The greater concern for Rosas is Towns and the potential for the All-Star center asking for a trade. Suddenly, this is becoming commonplace among elite players around the league who do not see progress with their current team. Towns, therefore, is the most likely candidate, from an outsider’s perspective, to ‘pull an Anthony Davis’.
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In the meantime, the Wolves hope to keep adding to a young base to build assets. That might mean more trips to the Draft lottery, a place the Wolves once thought was finally in their rearview mirror instead of staring them in the face.
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Powell2daPeople
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