Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves Are Ready to Party Like It’s 2010
This summer started off with a bang for the Minnesota Timberwolves when they acquired Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick (Justin Patton) of the 2017 NBA draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the No. 7 selection (Lauri Markkanen). In many ways, this is the summer for the Wolves, who now have the third banana to pair with their other two young stars. They’ve warped time and sped up the process, hoping they’ve put themselves in position to contend.
But when you make the decision to put yourself into the thick of the playoff mix, you still need to pull off adequate ancillary moves. Adding Butler gives them another part of the foundation—another star beside Karl-Anthony Towns. Building on top of that rock-solid core can be just as important to fostering the best possible outcome for your team.
Head coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau’s first move after acquiring Butler: dealing Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz in exchange for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick. The trade made sense on the surface. Rubio has been in and out of the rumor mill for months, but the lack of interest around the league made him hard to deal. With the Jazz looking for George Hill insurance and players Gordon Hayward liked, it made the move a palatable one for both parties.
Now in need of a point guard, the Wolves went to work fast. Whispers of Jeff Teague being a possible solution began before free agency even started. Those whispers grew to roars when Marc Stein reported the parameters of a deal around 9:30 p.m. EST. And those roars grew to outright defiance when ESPN confirmed the deal before midnight:
This Just In: Jeff Teague has agreed to a three-year, $57 million deal with the Timberwolves. https://t.co/GZh3ia5ja5
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 1, 2017
Tampering aside, Teague agreed to a three-year, $57 million contract with a player option for the third year. The fit is fine. Teague has started to become a more reliable and willing three-point shooter, hitting 37.6 percent of his shots from deep on catch-and-shoot opportunities last year. His quickness should stay relatively intact for the life of the deal. But he won’t advance the Timberwolves, and his game doesn’t match up perfectly with the ball-heavy hand of Butler. Regardless, the case for Teague is arguable and makes some semblance of sense.
The real concern comes on the heels of the Taj Gibson contract.
His deal is not an albatross at two years and $28 million. He is not a bad basketball player; the case could be made that he’s a good one. The problem lies with how the Wolves decided to allocate their cap space.
Remember how this was the summer? That was meant quite literally.
Wiggins will be eligible for a max contract next summer that should wipe out any cap space in the immediate future. Both he and Nemanja Bjelica have holds that carry the Timberwolves well over the cap, and it doesn’t seem likely that owner Glen Taylor will pile up luxury-tax bills adding on to this team. And let’s not forget that Towns is extension-eligible after next season.
So this was the summer, and these were the moves the Wolves settled on. Settling is sometimes okay, and getting quality players shouldn’t be admonished. But this was the time for them to go for it, and after seeing the deals agreed upon, you have to raise your eyebrows at the strategy the organization executed.
Kyle Lowry may not have been completely available, but taking yourself out of the running before midnight is a poor basketball decision. Paul Millsap was clearly shopping around and agreed to a deal that was more than manageable if the Wolves were willing to acquiesce. Patrick Patterson took the discount in free agency, and he was the perfect piece to play power forward for the team. Seeing those deals shouldn’t be a gut punch to the Wolves; it should be a knockout blow to their disillusionment of what the market was and will be. Even if you don’t agree that the big fish (Lowry and Millsap) made sense from an age and money standpoint, the Wolves’ cap space could have been used similarly, but for better fits.
Hill signed the same deal as Teague, except he has a partial guarantee in his third year, which could be a huge bonus for the Sacramento Kings. The age and injury concerns surrounding him are legitimate, but having a guard who can play off the ball with usage-heavy stars while spacing the floor would be incredibly valuable to the Wolves. His two-way play during the playoffs would have been a great boon, considering the elite talent at the guard position in the West. But they opted for Teague, and doing so at the onset of free agency on a market-rate deal with better fits available never made a tremendous amount of sense.
Gibson’s arrival was troubling on similar, if not identical, levels.
The Wolves never seemed to exhaust their options in looking for a better fit. They instead signed a player who leans into Thibodeau’s old ideologies, without leaving themselves the versatility to adjust to an opposing team’s smaller lineups. Gibson’s shooting limits his offensive ceiling, and by taking fewer than 15 percent of his shots from beyond 16 feet, he doesn’t spread the floor enough at the power forward position.
Gorgui Dieng’s extension last year led many to believe Thibodeau would continue implementing a two-big system that clogged the lane and forced Towns, more often than not, to drift beyond the three-point arc. Indeed, the head coach relied on playing the two together for over 2,000 minutes during the season, and now they’ve added another power forward who can’t shoot beyond the paint. (Though, to Dieng’s credit, he has gradually increased his three-point volume and cleared 43.4 percent shooting between 16 feet and the three-point line in each of the last two seasons.)
And this brings up that pesky little thing called spacing. After the dust has settled, we see a roster that houses its best shooting presence stationed at center, and that player also happens to be one of the premier post players in the NBA at the age of 21. The Wolves needed to add contributors who can defend and shoot to generate optimal results, and they’ve failed.
Let’s turn to Nylon Calculus’ Nicholas Sciria, whose whole Twitter thread on the topic is worth reading:
The Wolves are a hot topic these days, so let’s talk about their personnel. Their 17-18 starting lineup produces a 13.3% Spacing Rating.
— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) July 6, 2017
Shooting equips teams to better handle roster turnover. The Wolves are going to have some growing pains while figuring out how to make the pieces all fit together, and they’ll need reps to work through it. That takes time. And time comes at the expense of wins. Ask Russell Westbrook how much fun it is to drive crowded lanes; it’s no coincidence Thunder management let Gibson walk in order to pave the way for Patterson.
Of course, this may all work out.
The idea of improving the 27th-ranked defense with quality stoppers is smart. But expecting all the new pieces to coalesce perfectly on offense without the benefit of breathing room seems a bit unrealistic. (Moving one of the best defensive point guards in the league on a cheaper, shorter deal to sign a more expensive one contradicts that line of thinking, but I digress.)
Gibson may be the greatest teacher of all. Thibodeau could cultivate a bruising powerhouse, and the team may shoot up to a top-10 defense while remaining an elite offensive unit. But they gave themselves fewer outs to do that. Though the offensive creation from their superstars should allow for a very high floor, suffocating ball-handlers with little room to work won’t make their lives any easier. Adding C.J. Miles would soften some of these issues, but money is an issue there.
The Wolves will be a good team this season, but in a jacked up Western Conference, failing to optimize your squad figures to be a grave mistake. Thibodeau thinks his style can reign supreme in a souped-up era, and it can’t.
This was the summer for the Wolves to vault themselves to another level, and perhaps they did. But if it turns out they’ve failed, it’ll be clear why.
Follow Thomas on Twitter @Trende19.