Timberwolves Offseason Report: It’s Thibs’ World

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2016/17 Record: 31 – 51 (13th in the Western Conference)

2017/18 Salaries: $100,861,759 (Over The Cap Team) – full MIN salary cap situation – here.

Incoming Draft Picks: OKC ’18 1st (15-30), MIA ’19 2nd

Outgoing Draft Picks: ATL ’18 1st (15-30), POR/CLE ’19 2nd

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I wonder if this was the moment when Thibs realised he could acquire a top 15 player for an injured guard, mid lottery pick and a – so far – 2016 draft bust. The whole world assumed Proach (President and Coach…right?) Thibodeau would try to acquire his favourite former player in Jimmy Butler. It’s just that no one expected him to be gift wrapped so neatly, especially given how his relationship with the Bulls seemed tense at best when it finished. But here we are. Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are all on the same team.

It stands to reason that Coach Thibodeau didn’t love the outcome from his first season coaching the Wolves. Thibs is known as a maniacal workaholic who detests losing, which the Wolves did plenty of. Despite excellent growth from Towns and continued flashes of greatness from Wiggins, it never really came together like many thought it would. The defense was still bad, the losing from ahead still continued. President Thibodeau took one look at the roster and likely said “it’s my time now”.

The offseason acquisitions all scream Thibodeau, particularly given two of the players have previously played for Thibs in Chicago. While there are questions about fit and depth, you can clearly see what President Tom has acquired for Coach Tom to work with. There is a clear blueprint for what the team will look like.

Taj Gibson is the ultimate Thibs player, the guy who made Carlos Boozer virtually redundant approximately five minutes after Boozer signed his huge FA deal with the Bulls in 2010. Gibson is a bit of a throwback Power Forward; solid post defender, decent midrange jump shot (career 39% from 10-16 feet), no nonsense attitude and a tireless worker. Gibson was routinely used in crunch time in favour of Boozer by Thibs when they were both in Chicago, and retained that role when with OKC last year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thibs move Gorgui Dieng to the bench, or have Gibson in the closing line up.

But does Gibson really fit, or is he just someone Thibs is familiar with and likes? The Thunder showed no significant difference on offense or defense whether Gibson was on or off, and actually had slightly better effective field goal and true shooting percentages with Sabonis on the floor compared to Gibson, per nbawowy. Those numbers hold steady for Chicago too. Plus, Gibson is a total non factor from three-point range, taking just 35 for his career, making just 4. For his career, Gibson has taken roughly 18% of his shots from beyond 16 feet. The crowded Wolves offense isn’t getting much spacing from Taj.

Jamal Crawford should provide spacing though. The flammable guard is the sort that Thibs has always had to come off the bench or pinch hit if D-Rose someone goes down. Crawford will instantly be the best shooter off the bench – 1.05 points per possession as a spot up shooter per nba.com. Not only that, he is a respected shot maker and can work as a secondary creator, even if it is generally for his own offense.

Take a closer look at the shot chart though and you see that Crawford is only average from three – likely due to the high number of attempts off the dribble. Only 18.9% of his shots came from catch and shoot scenarios. At this stage of his career, he will need to play more like Jason Terry to maintain his efficiency, particularly with his defense down the toilet. Crawford ranked 92 out of 93 Shooting Guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking, one spot below Andrew Wiggins.

The most hit or miss acquisition though has to be Jeff Teague. Rubio should have been a Thibs guy – plays hard, is unselfish, can defend, a true floor general. But the negatives for Ricky (cannot shoot, at all) basically meant he didn’t fit with the Wolves core. Ultimately, Thibs banked on the speed, shooting and pick-and-roll ability of Teague to be a better fit next to Wiggins and Towns, not to mention Butler.

Despite a slightly down year in Indiana, Teague still bested Rubio across a number of advanced categories, including VORP, Net Rating, Pace, eFG and Win Shares. Whilst some wanted a bigger Point Guard who didn’t need the ball as much to be effective a la George Hill, Teague plays at the pace the Wolves want to move at and is only 28 years old.

All of this is designed to supplement the latest Big Three in a league swimming in them. To say that Thibs swindled Chicago out of Butler would be an understatement. It’s still incredible to think that Thibs somehow convinced Chicago to swap First Round picks in the stacked 2017 draft. (Side note, Justin Patton could be important when he enters his 3rd year in the League. If he grows, he could make retaining Gibson unimportant, or provide a cheap replacement for Dieng if keeping him is too expensive with extensions for Towns, Wiggins and Butler on the cards).

Jimmy Butler instantly becomes the best player in ‘Sota. His development as a play maker should allow Thibodeau to run Teague or Wiggins as an attacker in weakside ball-screen action. He also means that Wiggins no longer has to defend the best perimeter scorer night in and night out. His leadership and connection to Thibs should trickle down to the rest of the squad. Minny were lacking a lead-by-example-with-a-track-record guy last year, potentially a reason for so many losses in close games.

There are questions of spacing still, but great players find a way. Butler was in the 92nd percentile as a catch and shoot threat, and he should have many more opportunities to play off the ball with Towns and Wiggins needing touches. Wiggins, Towns, Dieng and Teague all shot over 35% from three last season. More dynamic talent should be able to create better looks. Ultimately, talent wins out and when you’re giving up an injured Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for a top five two-way talent, you do that every day of the week (and twice on Draft-Days).

Ultimately this will be one big litmus test on not just the moves the Timberwolves made but on the organisational structure itself. For a brief moment there it looked like the President/Coach model was going to become all the rage, synergy and what not. But with coaches Mike Budenholzer and Doc Rivers both relinquishing their dual titles to focus on coaching, one must wonder if it is possible to be truly effective at both, and if teams should make use of it in the future.

Draft night was the watershed moment where Thibs said “no more fucking around, we are going to play hard and win NOW”.  It’s Thib’s World, we’re all just living in it. Party time, excellent!

Projected Starting Five:

 

Projected Depth Chart:

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Overall Grade: A-

2017/18 Prediction: 47-35

You would assume the lineup will take time to coalesce, particularly when integrating a new point guard and establishing a new pecking order with an alpha like Butler and two young studs used to getting plenty of the rock. There is also the risk of  someone getting injured due to minutes/training/trying to fight Thibs in practice. But once this baby starts humming, it will be a scary sight to behold. Welcome to the Postseason!

tyus jones wolves

Player To Watch: Tyus Jones

The emergence of Jones as a somewhat dependable back up enabled the front office to offload Kris Dunn in the Butler deal. Now entering his 3rd year, Jones has the back up Point Guard role by default. Jones improved his net rating by 12 points from his Rookie to Sophomore years in the NBA, and also increased his three-point percentage to 35.6. The Wolves will need Jones to continue to take care of the ball, make open 3s and generate more points than he gives up. There is no alternate option.

Four Key Questions:

1. Can Wiggins become an all around player?
Wiggins’ game has felt a lot like white bread in his first three years: empty calories. He can score the ball, but doesn’t rebound, generate points for others or defend anywhere near competently enough for someone with his athletic tools. Butler should free Wiggins to be a finisher rather than a creator, and hopefully expending less energy on offense (28.8 usage rate last season) will free him to be more attentive on defense. Wiggins is going to get a max contract, but this isn’t the 90s anymore: points per game is not enough. Time to get some nutrients into his skill set.

2. Will the bench be deep enough?
As it stands Thibs has provided 11 players on the roster with a guaranteed contract. One of them, Patton is out indefinitely with a broken 5th metatarsal in his left foot. Thibodeau has a penchant for playing his main guys major minutes, and any injury to the wing or back court could prove devastating.

3. How much will Towns improve defensively?
Karl-Anthony Towns was many things during the 2016/17 season, but Rim Protector was not one of them. Towns gave up 59.3% shooting inside 6 feet, even Mason Plumlee only allowed 52%. For the Wolves to turn the corner into an elite team, they need to be better on D. That has to start with the phenom in the middle.

4. Is there enough shooting?
No one on the current roster shot over 38% from the land of plenty last season. Jamal Crawford made the most threes per game at 1.5 last year. The three best players on the team are at their best when attacking the paint. Someone is going to have to step up and make some jump shots.


Info courtesy of:
Basketball Reference
Basketball Insiders
Real GM
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