Taking the Timberwolves Midseason Temperature

Fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves have been refilled with the desperate excitement and optimism they’ve been craving ever since they acquired Andrew Wiggins in a trade that ironically shipped away the second best player in the history of their franchise — Kevin Love. After adding pieces along the way — Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones, Kevin Martin, etc. — the addition of Karl-Anthony Towns has only made the hype bigger than you would’ve believed after the 2009 NBA Draft.

As the corner turned, and this season began, it really felt as if this could become the beginning of something special. However, the horizon hasn’t looked so bright after the passing of Flip Saunders, the replacement by interim head coach, Sam Mitchell, indefinite lineup combinations, and a lack of experience up and down the roster.

Behind the eyes of clueless basketball followers and Minnesota fans who’ve pulled their Kevin Garnett jerseys out of their closets from the early 2000’s, it may look as if this is the same old movie that they’ve seen from the Timberwolves before. However, when you take a closer look at how special this situation is, this season isn’t a lost season at all. In fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect when your two best players — borderline All-Stars — haven’t even reached the legal drinking age yet. The identity of the team is clear, which is something that the followers of the Wolves haven’t been able to say since Garnett was traded to Boston. There was always hope, but in the back of their minds there was always a lack of trust in the front office. Always a belief that “we’re the Wolves we’ll never be good”.

There is beauty in the process of growth. Those who truly understand the game, and truly understand what it takes to be good in this league, sit in their seats eagerly waiting for the Timberwolves to emerge from the murky waters of the NBA Draft Lottery. Where, yes, they’re on pace to add another top pick from the lottery to their insanely high level of talented, young basketball players. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve failed again, or have no sense of direction. I mean, they’ve selected the last two Rookie of the Year’s in back-to-back drafts (yes, technically they didn’t draft Wiggins and Towns hasn’t won yet, but that’s something no other team in the NBA can say they’ve essentially done before).

The Blueprint

There is no such thing as instant gratification in the NBA without acquiring an established mega-superstar for your roster. The only way the Timberwolves can grow is by having their young talent on the floor together learning from the experiences of playing together as a unit. They’re currently extending their own NBA record of years without seeing the playoffs (2004) which is longer than, ironically, the Golden State Warriors (1995-2005).

As the Timberwolves are preparing for a Wednesday clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s easy to look at their one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as a blueprint. In Durant’s rookie season he went 20-62 (.244). In comparison, Andrew Wiggins’ rookie season record was 16-66 (.195). The following season, after adding Russell Westbrook, the Thunder went 23-59 (.280). In only their second season together — Durant’s third season in the NBA — Durant and Westbrook broke out for 50 wins and haven’t looked back since.

Through 46 games this season, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Minnesota Timberwolves own a winning percentage of .304. If this stays true, the young talent has the Timberwolves on pace to breakout faster than the OKC Thunder did. Especially, if they can gain this experience while acquiring another potential star from a skilled 2016 lottery.

Not saying Wiggins and KAT are going to become the same caliber of duo that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are in this league, but they certainly have an opportunity to become potent. It’s also worth noting that Zach LaVine has the potential and jaw-dropping athleticism to become a hell of a guard in this league too.

The future is certainly brighter than it was even with Kevin Love and the once dazzling Ricky Rubio on the roster fighting for a playoff spot. While those teams won more games, it never felt as if they’d be good enough. Nobody believed they could make the playoffs, or make any sort of run with Kevin Love as your best player. They were stuck. David Kahn and Flip Saunders simply weren’t going to convince a sexy free agent to sign with Minnesota and the team was already too good to draft a franchise changing player. So, they dumped everything overboard and hit the reset button on what was an already frustrating rebuild.

This team has a different feel moving forward regardless of how many W’s they rack up together this season. They own two potential faces of the Western Conference/NBA. Rather than derailing the rebuilding process for another decade, they lucked out by plunging into the Wiggins/Love trade and out-tanked Philadelphia and Los Angeles for one season to be gift wrapped Big KAT. The unluckiest franchise in the NBA finally hit a break. 

The Big Three

Flip Saunders had a vision for the three pillars of howling fate — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine — and it certainly didn’t rhyme with losing a bunch of games, or even tanking for another superstar in the lottery. The organization is fed up with “next year”, as are the fans.

There is a reason Saunders gave up what at the time seemed like way too much in order to return Kevin Garnett to the franchise he started with. There is a reason he seeked out and found the old-heads of Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller. A veteran for each position of the future. They’d develop, teach, and polish these hopeful superstars until their 2015-16 82 game season had dried up. Anything after 2016 would become a bonus for the franchise as Saunders attempted to bend the image of developing a team in today’s NBA. You know, the old-fashioned way. No tanking. No funny business. Only teaching from raw experiences.

So far this has paid off. Especially for the young center who has emerged as one of the best two-way centers in the entire league — Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is clearly capable of playing basketball at a high level on both ends of the court. Towns committed to Kevin Garnett becoming his mentor as early as September.

“He’s my mentor,” said Towns, “Everything he knows, and countless years he’s been playing this game at a high level, [I am] just trying to garner information from him every day. Learn how to be a better leader, how to be a champion, just to be a true professional.”

Karl-Anthony Towns Rookie Season: 16.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 1.8 bpg 

Karl-Anthony Towns Per 36 Minutes: 19.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.2 bpg

Rookies who’ve averaged at least 16.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg: David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Elton Brand, Ralph Sampson, Dikembe Mutombo

Note: Towns is shooting a higher free throw percentage than anybody on the list (.854) which is important because free throw shooting is some of those player’s kryptonite and is one of the most underrated statistics in sports.

In my opinion, the most impressive quality of Towns isn’t his stifling defense, or viscous rebounding, but rather how skilled he already is on offense. Towns on the block can beat a defender with a series of post moves that is simply unfair to possess as a rookie. Jahlil Okafor is right there with Towns — maybe even a step ahead — but Towns has the complete offensive package.

Towns has the size, body control, athleticism, and potential to become one of the best players in this league someday. Towns will bang you down low with the jump hook, up-and-under, or the post fade. He can take you from the top of the key, or midrange, with his jump shooting, or ability to put the ball on the deck and blow past opposing big men. But to me, the most impressive thing in his scoring arsenal is his ability to use his elbows and shoulders. Towns will swing those gigantic arms of his around and through whatever tight space he wants with no regard for any defenders chin. A lot of rookies will do the opposite as they’ll come into the league and be pushed off of their spots and not be able to handle the physical contact. Towns craves that contact as he creates a lot of open space by using a violent, yet skilled upper-half combined with his strong base.

Andrew Wiggins Second Season: 20.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.8 apg

Andrew Wiggins Per 36 Minutes: 21.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.9 apg

As far as Andrew Wiggins goes, he’s exactly where you want him to be at age 20. He’s the top scorer on the team thanks to an above average post-up game for a wing player, lightning quickness, and craftiness around the basket — Euro steps, ripping his arms through on drives, and, of course, his patented spin move. Wiggins is currently one of the 19 players (15th) in the league that are averaging 20.0 points or more.

Andrew Wiggins is only one of nine players in the history of the game to average 20.0 points or more while being 20-years-old or younger. The others are LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Elton Brand, Carmelo Anthony, Tyreke Evans, and Kyrie Irving.

Obviously you’d want to see rebounds and assists at a higher clip than what he’s getting each night, but Wiggins is still learning the game. Almost everything he’s done in his career up to this point has been easy because of his insane athleticism. He’s always been far and away better than anybody else on the court and is now being challenged by his head coach, Sam Mitchell, to learn the game. 

As Wiggins is continuing to learn how to score in this league, he’s figuring out how to get to the charity stripe with an impressive 7.3 free throw attempts per game (8th in the NBA).

While Wiggins was at Kansas there was concern for his confidence, or if he had a motor. As the questions have rolled over into the NBA, it’s obvious that Wiggins doesn’t have an aggressive, killer-instinct yet. It’s possible he goes through his entire NBA career as a relaxed, play-with-my-actions-not-my-emotions mentality, but so far it has led to many questions about the young star’s confidence. In my opinion, Wiggins seems to be stepping into his jump shots as of lately with an abundance of confidence in himself compared to where he was only a couple of months ago. As long as Wiggins plays in attack mode, he’s a special player. Not everybody is going to be LeBron James. Sometimes you have to sit back and remember that he’s only 20-years-old.

Against the Cavaliers this season, Wiggins has come out in attack mode immediately. Wiggins is aggressive and shows confidence in his jump shot. When he puts the ground, it’s a decisive one or two dribble jumper, or head down and is getting to the rim. He’s able to have this kind of success on most nights that he chooses to be in attack mode because his first step is second to none in the NBA.

When Wiggins plays against Harden and the Rockets, he was aggressive, but showed a little more of his passive side. He took some questionable jumpers and didn’t explode to the basket as much as he can. His transition defense was lazy, but that could also be because James Harden is a machine at drawing fouls. Against Harden he played on his heels for most the game — which carried over to his defense — while showing flashes of his attack mode. That being said, he still managed to score 28 points. When Wiggins puts it together next year, or the following season it’s going to be scary.

The goal is for Wiggins to find how easy his strengths can be in this league so that he can harness them together as an advantage for his teammates. I believe James Harden is the best distributor in the NBA that isn’t a point guard. Harden is ungodly good at drawing a double team and finding the open teammate, or dishing the little, nonchalant pocket pass on the pick-and-roll. The dream is for Wiggins to develop into different version of James Harden because a lot of similarities are there between them.

Zach LaVine Second Season: 12.0 ppg, 3.2 apg, 3.1 rpg

Zach LaVine Per 36 Minutes: 18.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.8 rpg

Zach LaVine has had the toughest path of any of the players on Sam Mitchell’s roster. As he has played for him for roughly three months, Zach has seen every single scenario a player can during a season. Mitchell has been very hard on Zach, but said, “he will become a much better player because he’s going to have went through the fire”.

LaVine has shown huge improvements from last season, but hasn’t exactly gotten the minutes he might deserve to back up his intentions. As a player that has mostly benefited from the injuries of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin — and balled when given the opportunity — I ask, why not pass him the torch?

As a guard, Zach has great size and obvious athleticism that can change a game. Only a few days ago against the Cleveland Cavaliers he scored a very impressive 21 points and 6 assists. I thought Zach looked extremely comfortable on the court and reminded me a lot of Russell Westbrook during that game.

LaVine similarities to Russell Westbrook: Great size, blazing speed, plays fearless while on offense, underrated creator — GREAT jump passer and drop off bounce passer — quick trigger, and is a one man transition. 

I fully believe if given the appropriate respect and minutes he (probably) deserves, Zach LaVine can become a star in this league for reasons more than the Dunk Contest. 

What I Would Do Next…

A franchise that has been poisoned — horrible luck, failed improvement strategies, David Kahn — finally has a sense of direction for the first time since Garnett bungee tied the state to his back in 2004. It’s time to get serious.

If you want to let Mitchell coach the rest of the season with his out of date offense, that’s fine. But when next season rolls around, the coach I’d hope to see patrolling the Timberwolves bench is………………….. Scott Brooks!

I believe Brooks is the perfect coach to lead the Timberwolves because there are so many similarities between them and the Thunder. He’s amazing at developing young talent, knows how to manage superstars, and has had a roster similar to this one before. The most important part of Brooks coaching style is that he encourages players to play their brand of basketball.

Brooks isn’t the long-term answer, but he’s great at fixing situations and improving at rapid rates. He’s what I consider the Jim Harbaugh of the NBA. You don’t want him around for a long time, but you’d certainly love to have him while your organization is down.

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