— I’m suspending my hiatus from blogging to post a little 2015-16 Minnesota Timberwolves preview column I put together for Howlin’ T-Wolf, a blog I’ll be contributing to this season. Hope you enjoy it! —
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs in 11 years. Let’s get the negativity out of the way: that streak — by far the longest in a league where more than half the teams qualify for the playoffs — is unlikely to end this season.
But the good news is that in the wake of failed rebuilding projects centered around Big Al Jefferson and K-Love, franchise boss Flip Saunders seems to have finally steered the organization onto the right track for long-term success. Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are both stud cornerstone players that should serve as building blocks for years to come.
That’s a huge turnaround compared to two years ago, when David Kahn put together a Love-led roster that was designed to win immediately but mostly didn’t, in part because the talent on the roster was limited and in part because the team had exceedingly bad luck in close games.
While the Wolves’ future now looks bright, the short-term outlook is murkier. Perhaps the biggest question heading into this season is whether Ricky Rubio — one of the cornerstones of that failed 2013-14 Love-led roster — will still be part of the organization’s long-term plans next summer, or maybe even as soon as this season’s trade deadline.
Rubio is clearly a brilliant offense playmaker and has shown sustained flashes of being a disruptive force on the defensive end, but injuries and consistently gawdawful shooting have kept him from realizing his potential. (The 4-year, $55-million extension the 25-year-old signed last year kicks in this season.)
Do the Wolves have two franchise cornerstones on the roster, or three? The answer to that question depends in large part on whether Ricky can finally shoot at even a mediocre level, stay healthy, and have the sort breakthrough season Wolves fans have been patiently waiting for since he was drafted in 2009.
Assuming Rubio emerges, one can put on rose-colored glasses and almost see the Wolves contending for the playoffs this season. Rubio-Martin-Wiggins-KG-Towns is an intriguing five-man unit both offensively and defensively, and Bazz, Giorgi, and Tyus (or Andre Miller, depending on how NBA-ready Tyus proves to be) provide solid depth and youth off the bench.
But interim coach Sam Mitchell seems intent on subjecting Wolves fans to another season of having to endure watching Zach LaVine pound the ball and hoist bad shots, and it’s hard to foresee Tayshaun Prince thriving as a starter at this point in his career. Nemanja Bjelica clearly has talent and has shown flashes this preseason, but the Alexey Shved experience taught me a tough lesson — it’s not wise to get overly excited about skilled Euro players before they prove it on an NBA floor during the regular season for a sustained stretch.
I love the narrative of KG’s homecoming as much as anybody, but at this point simply staying healthy is an accomplishment for the 39-year-old once known as The Big Ticket. And Pek… anything they get out of the injury-prone Montenegrin during the last three years of his contract (the team still owes him roughly $35 million) will be a bonus.
Combine those questions with the fact that the Western Conference is once again stacked, and a playoff berth is probably too much to expect this year. That said, I do think the Wolves will easily exceed their Vegas over/under of 25.5 wins. I have them slotted for 33-49, which would be more than twice as many victories as the 16 games they won last season, and think they’ll get there on the strength of Andrew Wiggins’s development (it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a borderline All Star this season) and the best campaign of Ricky Rubio’s career.
A low-30s win total is nothing to write home about, but it’s progress, and the long-term outlook of the franchise hasn’t looked as bright since the days of the KG-Marbury pairing. It’s so bright, in fact, that as soon as next year Wolves fans may no longer have to wear rose-colored shades to foresee the team’s first playoff berth since George W. Bush’s first term.
— Image credit: TonyTheTiger