By: Eric Page
I think we can all agree that we liked what we saw from the Timberwolves starting five in the final month of the season last spring. Once Sam Mitchell settled on Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, there were moments that unit really gelled, and you could see the potential coming to fruition.
Unfortunately, those guys couldn’t play all 48 minutes. And when the Wolves went to the bench, it became glaringly apparent they had no depth. And you can’t win on a consistent basis without quality depth, especially if you’re bringing Adreiane “Payne-ful to watch,” Greg Smith, and 73-year-old Tayshaun Prince into the game.
So, I was curious to see how the Wolves, under new coach and team president Tom Thibodeau, would approach this offseason, knowing they have a very solid, young core—and future All Stars in Wiggs and KAT—but next to no one to provide relief. I think some Wolves fans expected at least a medium-sized splash in free agency and were underwhelmed by the signing of Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill, and Brandon Rush. But I think those three players together go a long way toward solving the Wolves depth issues and also each bring unique experience to help develop the team’s young core.
Think about it. What were the last two teams in the NBA to successfully do what the Wolves are attempting to do in becoming a contender organically through drafting and developing elite young talent? Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka; and Golden State with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli, and Harrison Barnes. By bringing in Aldrich and Rush, Thibs is bringing a piece of the OKC and GSW cultures to the Wolves. That’s huge. Those guys were with those organizations when they made the transformation from mediocre to good to great. Some of that is going to rub off.
In Hill, the Wolves got a proven big man with starting experience. He can score and rebound and defend. And like Aldrich and Rush, he has been to the playoffs.
So, I got thinking about the depth of this year’s Wolves vs. the 2015-16 version, and, man, I’m really excited. Let me note here that I write this without knowing or really considering how much Kevin Garnett will play this season. In my mind, anything the Wolves get out of KG from here on out is a bonus, and he’ll provide his greatest impact off the court. Back to why I’m excited …
Think back to early last year when you had Kevin Martin and Andre Miller logging significant minutes, or late in the year having to hold your nose when Payne-ful was on the floor along with Smith, then very unsteady rookies Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones and the wildly erratic Shabazz Muhammad. And I’m sorry, Prince was a nice player a decade ago, but he just can’t play anymore.
Now think about a bench rotation that includes Kris Dunn, Jones (the MVP of the Vegas Summer League version), Bjelica, Muhammad, Rush, Aldrich, and Hill. That’s a 12-man rotation Wolves fans should feel pretty good about. Here’s why:
Dunn is going to end up being the steal of the 2016 Draft, and, according to a poll of his peers, he is the best positioned player to win Rookie of the Year. Regardless of the hardware he takes home at the end of the season, Dunn is positioned to make an immediate impact in the Minnesota backcourt. He has shown he’s mature on the floor, can create for himself and his teammates, and has the potential to be an elite defender in the NBA. He has to improve on his outside shooting, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him playing starters minutes early in the season.
Jones showed what he’s capable of while leading the Wolves’ Vegas League team to the championship game and earning MVP honors over the summer. Jones doesn’t have to be the MVP of the team during the regular season, and he probably won’t see much more playing time per game than he did last year, but he only appeared in 37 games. He should improve on his 36-percent shooting, particularly from beyond the arc, where he made only 30 percent of his shots last year.
Like many European players do when adjusting to the NBA, I expect Bjelica to take a big step in his sophomore season. It would be nice to see his 3-point shooting up over 40 percent (38 last year), and he needs to be able to play better, more physical defense. Bjelica showed signs last year, and I expect him to be more consistent in his second season in the league.
Rush is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter who can defend. That’s two areas the Wolves were sorely lacking last year. Having won a championship and been a starter in the league, including 25 games last year with the Warriors, he’ll provide leadership for the young players and bring some poise to the second unit. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a valuable asset off the bench.
Aldrich isn’t going to have to play a lot of minutes, but when he’s on the floor, he’ll be a reliable presence in the middle to give KAT some rest. Aldrich is a career 53-percent shooter and elite shot blocker at the rim, and he makes his free throws. He’s a huge upgrade from Smith.
Two years ago, Hill started 57 games for the Lakers and averaged 12 points and 8 boards a game. He’ll be a solid frontcourt scorer and defender who I’d expect to play around 15 minutes a night. Hill brings a toughness the Wolves really need, especially on the defensive end.
Now, I don’t expect Thibs to have a 12-man rotation all season, but he’ll have plenty of options early in the year to find the right mix behind what is sure to be an improved starting five. Most people are predicting the Wolves will finish with anywhere from 38 to 43 wins, and you have to believe with added depth and experience that sort of improvement is within reach.
Follow Eric Page on Twitter at @WolvesTake.
Email Eric at WolvesTake@gmail.com.