Minnesota Timberwolves: Is team poised for a stronger 2019-20 season?by Pierre Monceaux August 24, 2019 0 comments
With a whole new coaching staff and a deeply revamped roster, the Minnesota Timberwolves look to bounce back this upcoming season
One year after their first NBA Playoffs appearance in 13 attempts, the Minnesota Timberwolves finished the 2018-19 season with an underwhelming 36-46 record. Fans were quick to blame it on then-coach Tom Thibodeau and star Jimmy Butler, who left the team 10 games into the season. Butler was sent to a championship-contending team, the Philadelphia 76ers, in exchange for forwards Robert Covington and Dario Saric, along with point guard Jerryd Bayless, the latter two having already departed the Timberwolves’ roster. Coach Thibodeau was eventually fired two weeks shy of his 61st birthday in early January 2019, making room for Ryan Saunders who took over as interim head coach.
A stacked Western Conference
Pundits credit the Minnesota Timberwolves with anywhere from 31 to 43 wins next season, with 33.5 being the number most commonly tossed around, much to the fans’ chagrin. Though this is possibly the result of being a small market team which chronically struggles to make a name for itself, let alone make it to the playoffs, it has more to do with the arm’s race that happened in the Western Conference over the course of the summer. The Warriors, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz are set to maintain their hold on the top five spots this upcoming season while the Lakers, Clippers and possibly the Pelicans, Mavericks, and Kings (don’t discount the Spurs) are all shooting for a better 2019-20 season.
A new coaching staff
The Timberwolves, however, have been far from inactive this offseason, starting with the front office and coaching staff. After spending 17 years in Houston — including the last seven as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations — Gersson Rosas was hired by the Timberwolves on May 3 as their new President of Basketball Ops. This was followed by the confirmation of Ryan Saunders as head coach on May 20, and by the hiring of Sachin Gupta, also a former staff member of the Houston Rockets, as the team’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations on June 30. These appointments are significant in that they anchor the Timberwolves’ management strategy as one heavily based on analytics going forward.
Two high-quality assistants were then brought on board, starting on June 19th with David Vanterpool (Associate Head Coach), the former Blazers’ Assistant Coach who played a prominent part in the growth of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, followed on June 25 by Pablo Prigioni (Assistant Coach), a 2004 Olympic Champions who played for the Rockets in 2014-15 and served as Assistant Coach for the Brooklyn Nets last season. Other additions include Kevin Burleson as Player Development Coach, the promotion of Brian Randle to Player Development Coach, and the naming of Jason Hervey as Quality Control Coach.
A slew of new players
What amounts to a clean sweep of the managerial structure was met with an almost equally deep reshaping of the roster. The most significant departures include defensive-minded Taj Gibson (PF) and Tyus Jones (PG), as well as scorers Derrick Rose (PG) and Anthony Tolliver (F). Luol Deng (F), James Nunally (SF), Cam Reynolds (SG) are also gone along with two-way player Mitch Creek (SF) and the aforementioned Bayless and Saric. Returning to the team are centers Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, small forwards Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, and Keita Bates-Diop, and guards Josh Okogie, Jeff Teague, plus two-way Guards CJ Williams and Jared Terrel.
After a busy offseason, the roster, which Rosas announced should not be considered final until the start of training camp, includes the following newcomers: guards Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Tyrone Wallace (not guaranteed), rookies Jaylen Nowell (42nd pick) and Jarrett Culver (6th pick), and forwards Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh. Added to that list are two-way players Kelan Martin (SF) and Jordan McLaughlin (PG).How much will these young pups strengthen the Timberwolves pack? Let’s crunch some numbers and see.
Four stars return
If it is safe to assume that Karl-Anthony Towns will continue on his upward trend, what is to be expected of Andrew Wiggins over the next eight months? With numbers declining over the last two seasons, Wiggins has hopefully hit rock bottom and is poised for a rebound season. He enjoys a long lasting relationship with Coach Saunders, he will be assisted in his (re)development by assistant coaches Vanterpool and Prigioni, and he has had plenty of time to recover from the Thibodeau/Butler drama — or should we say, trauma.
The stars certainly are aligned for Wiggins to improve on both ends of the floor and be the prolific scorer he once was — the scorer who averaged 23.6 PPG in 2016-17 while shooting 45.2 percent. Failure to do so will no doubt put him right back on the trading block, a place he became familiar with during the past month of July. Assuming that injuries don’t plague their season again, Jeff Teague, who missed a career-high 40 games for the Wolves in ’18-’19, and Robert Covington, who played 35 games (not a career-low) last season, including 22 for Minnesota, should return to their usual form. Teague provided much-needed help to the offense (12.1 PPG with 42.3 FG percent and a career-high 8.2 assists) and “RoCo” contributed on both ends, with a career-high 14.5 PPG and 2.3 steals as a Wolf.
Old versus new
And now for the “piece de resistance.” Let’s answer the question on every Timberwolves fan’s mind: how do the new Wolves stack up against the old ones? Quite well, surprisingly enough, when considering the fact that the team had to replace such crafty players in Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, to name a few.
As an experienced power forward accustomed to getting lots of minutes (24.1 MPG) and rebounds (6.5 total per game), Gibson’s role should be filled by Noah Vonleh. The five-year veteran is 10 years younger, weights an extra 18 pounds (all muscle at 250 pounds total), and produces more rebounds (+1.2), blocks (+1), and steals (+0.1) per 36 minutes. His only downfall is in scoring: 11.9 per 36 minutes (-4.2). Vonleh had career highs in virtually every statistical category and played 25.3 MPG while in New York.
Statistics also favor Jordan Bell over Anthony Tolliver. Nine years his junior, Bell is one inch taller (6-foot-9) and trimmer at 224 pounds. Thanks to his impressive athleticism, he tops Tolliver in rebounds (+0.7), blocks (+1.6), steals (+0.3), and assists (+2), with the latter having the upper hand solely in scoring by a margin of +0.7 (all per 36 minutes).
During his third year in Portland, Layman finally got decent playing time with 18.7 minutes per game. That wasn’t quite enough to develop his game to the point of matching the forward whose shoes he’ll need to fill in Minnesota: Dario Saric. One inch shorter (6-foot-9), Layman falls short in rebounds (-2.3), points (-1.1), blocks (-0.7), steals (-0.1) and assists (-0.8) per 36 minutes. Assistant coach Vanterpool will no doubt continue developing his game as they work together for the fourth straight year.
In terms of guards, and although they will need to make up for the loss of significant talent, the Timberwolves have once again found worthy suitors. Entering his sixth season, Shabazz Napier will substitute for Tyus Jones as backup PG. During his last season with the Nets, he bested Jones in points (+8.6), rebounds (+0.6) and blocks (+0.5), with Jones unsurprisingly topping him in assists (+0.4) and steals (+2.3). Rookie Jarrett Culver will face the steepest uphill battle as he tries to live up to sixth man Derrick Rose. Still, the sixth overall pick’s second college season averages compare favorably to Rose’s 2018-19 stats. Per 36 minutes, Culver managed 20.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 1.6 steals and 4.1 assists. That gives the 20-year-old the advantage in rebounds (+3.5), blocks (0.3) and steals (+0.8), while points (-3.2) and assists (-1.6) remain in Rose’s favor.
Ready for action
We should also mention Naz Reid, the 19-year-old undrafted rookie at LSU who checks in at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. With his physical attributes and long shooting range, he should see some playing time before long. He looks like a potential end-of-bench substitution for Luol Deng whom, though in college, he beat last year in points (+3.6), rebounds (+2.8), blocks (+0.2) and assists (+0.9) per 36 minutes.
The bottom line is the Minnesota Timberwolves quietly had a very decent offseason and are actually one of the deepest teams in the NBA to start the season. Wolves fans should be looking forward to their home season opener on October 27 against the Miami Heat.