By: Louie Vicchiollo - 9 minute read
Well Wolves fans, we are in the heart of the offseason. Summer League is over, free agency has virtually come to an end, and the NBA season is still 74 days away. After making the blockbuster trade for Jimmy Butler on draft night, and a quieter than expected free agency, the average Timberwolves fan excitement graph probably looks something like this.
Now, with the news of Andrew Wiggins working on a new contract it gives Wolves fans something to get excited about (or maybe not excited about, if you are in that camp) but once all the numbers crunch out and the contracts are set, what do we have to look forward to? Besides the fun offseason posts like this one from last year, casting the Wolves as “Parks and Recreation” characters, there isn’t a whole lot that goes on during the NBA off season. So, I propose we skip ahead, past the lull of the offseason, go right through the pre-season games, and we take a look at the 2017 – 18 regular season. What are some realistic goals that Minnesota fans can have for their new-look Timberwolves this year?
Goal #1: Have a Winning Record
It goes without saying that these last couple years have been hard for Timberwolves fans. With a record of 316 – 652 since the last time the Wolves had a winning season in 2005, there have been quite a few lows for Minnesota fans, and not many highs. The closest the Wolves have been to a winning season since 2005 was in 2014, when they went 40 – 42, still missing the 8th spot by nine games (this is the same year the Hawks made the playoffs with a losing record). After shipping Kevin Love out for Andrew Wiggins, the Wolves plummeted to 16 wins in 2015, which could give Wolves fans frightening flashbacks to the Kurt Rambis era of 2009 – 2011, when the wolves went 32 – 132 over two seasons. This rebuild was all part of Flip’s vision though; trading for Wiggins, drafting Karl-Anthony Towns, having assests ready for a blockbuster trade, and having a sucessful rebuilding phase. So here we are, the end of the rebuild, and the start of the new era with Jimmy Butler at the front with Wiggins and Towns at his sides, full steam ahead with Thibodeau as the conductor; winning at least 41 games should be a very realistic, very achievable goal for this season.
Goal #2: Make the Playoffs
While having a winning record and making the playoffs usually go hand in hand, this year in the Western Conference it might be a different story. This year the teams that make the playoffs from the West might need to win 49 games, a la the 2014 season. It has been 13 years since the Wolves have made the playoffs, and this season seems to be the year the basketball gods could bless Minnesotans with playoff basketball again. There seems to be three “categories” of teams in the West this year:
Category A: Definite Playoff Teams
Warriors, Spurs, Rockets
Category B: Should-be Playoff Teams
Timberwolves, Nuggets, Thunder, Trailblazers, Pelicans, Clippers, Jazz, Grizzlies
Category C: Non-Playoff Teams
Lakers, Kings, Mavericks, Suns
As you can see in Category B: Should-be Playoff Teams has eight teams with only five spots, and with Vegas giving the Timberwolves 46.5 for wins this season, they will be right in the mix for those five remaining playoff spots.
Goal #3: Top 10 in Offensive Rating
The Wolves didn’t go 31 – 51 last year because of their offense (although it is easy to blame the poor record on the three point woes), in fact the Wolves had a top 10 offense in the 2016 – 17 season. The Wolves had an offensive rating of 110.8, good for 10th best in the league last season and of the nine teams ahead of Minnesota in offensive rating, eight of them made the playoffs; Denver missed the postseason by one game. The Timberwolves did a lot of really good things on offense last year, including grabbing the 6th most offensive rebounds, shooting 8th best from the field, making the 6th most free throws and dishing out the 9th most assists. It should be a focus for Tom Thibodeau and crew to continue doing these things well, along with improving on the offensive areas of the game the Wolves don’t excel in.
Goal #4: Top 20 in Defensive Rating
Want to know the reason why the Wolves did go 31 – 51 last season? Defense. The Wolves had the 27th rated defense in the league last year at 112.0, giving them a net rating of -1.2. They allowed opponents to shoot 47.5% from the field, the third worst percentage in the league. With the additions of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, along with Wiggins and Towns improving on the defensive end, the Wolves should be able to be in the top 20 teams for defensive rating. Trading Zach LaVine will help as well, as his career defensive box plus-minus is -2.5. As of now Shabazz Muhammed isn’t on the Timberwolves roster, and if it stays that way it will help on defense; of qualified players last season, Shabazz had the third worst defensive rating, and the worst defensive box plus-minus out of 271 qualified players. Tom Thibodeau is known as one of the premier defensive minds in the NBA, and getting the Wolves to the top 20 in defensive rating this year should be a realistic goal.
Goal #5: Top 20 in Rebounding
Remember just a little bit ago when I said the Wolves grabbed the 6th most offensive rebounds in the league last year? They still ranked 25th in total rebounds. Now, getting into the top 20 for rebounding is a function of a couple different things, the first, is continuing to crash the offensive glass. If the Wolves can stay in the top 10, or even jump into the top 5 for offensive rebounds that will make getting into the top 20 for rebounding much easier. The issue with rebound lies on the defensive end of it, where the Wolves ranked 29th last season, grabbing just 0.3 more rebounds per game than the last ranked team, the Dallas Mavericks. Improving the defense overall will help the Wolves get more defensive rebounding opportunities, especially if their opponents don’t shoot almost 50% from the field. Adding Jamal Crawford to the team won’t help rebounding either; of the 271 qualified players, he had the lowest Total Rebound % at 3.3%. Making teams miss more shots and staying aggressive on the offensive glass can help the Timberwolves get into the top 20 for rebounding.
Goal #6: Two NBA All-Stars
With Zach LaVine gone, Timberwolves fans will need something else to cheer for during All-Star Weekend. Minnesota hasn’t had a player in the All-Star game since Kevin Love in 2014, and getting two players there this year should be a goal for the franchise and the fans. Jimmy Butler has made it to the All-Star game the last three years, Jeff Teague was an All-Star in 2015, and between the duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, getting two players to the 2018 All-Star game should be very doable for the Wolves. While at the end of the day having players in the All-Star game doesn’t mean anything, Minnesota fans should want their team to be represented and have someone to cheer for in the exhibition matchup.
Goal #7: Two All-NBA Team Selections
Just like being selected to the All-Star game, being selected to the first, second, or third All-NBA teams doesn’t mean much at the end of the day (besides contract effects per the new CBA), but it should still be a goal the Timberwolves set for themselves. Making an All-NBA team is a direct measure of how you performed during the season, compared to the All-Star game which is more of a popularity measure (cc: Kobe Bryant 2013-2016). This goal is more indicitive of two players, as opposed to the four in the All-Star game goal, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. Butler made All-NBA Third Team last season, and Karl was controversely left off of that same team, with DeAndre Jordan getting the nod instead of him (don’t get me going). While it might be wishful thinking to include Wiggins with KAT and Jimmy, for now I’ll stick to those two.
Goal #8: Top 20 in Attendance
That’s right Timberwolves fans, I’m looking at you! Well, us. I’m looking at US! Last year the Target Center was the second least crowded arena in the NBA, beating out the Denver Nuggets for last. Of the 19,356 seats in the Target Center, only 14,809 of those seats were filled on average. Jumping into the top 20 would mean 90,000 more fans need to come to the 41 home games next season, or about 2,200 more fans a night. Having 17,000 fans in the arena compared to the 14,809 will make a huge difference, and it is a very realistic goal for the franchise. With all of the moves being made and a new look roster, jerseys and arena improvements, getting into the top 20 for attendance should come to fruition this season.
Goal #9: Win the Divison
Before you say anything, let me ask you a question…
I mean really Wolves fans, why not set a goal of winning the division? What team in the Northwest has a better core than Wiggins-Butler-Towns? Russ and PG13? Jokic and Millsap? McCollum and Dame? I’ll take our core any day of the week. This is the first time since the Kevin Garnett era that Minnesota fans can say with a straight face that the Wolves can win the division. Now of course there is a lot more that goes into winning the division than our core players, but taking everything into consideration it is still realistic to believe the Minnesota Timberwolves can be Northwest division champions for the first time since 2004.