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The newest era of Timberwolves basketball is upon us. The Wolves ushered in a new culture this summer, led by the hiring of Gersson Rosas as the team’s President of Basketball Operations, making Ryan Saunders the full-time Head Coach, and giving Karl-Anthony Towns the reigns of the franchise. Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler are finally in the rearview mirror. It was the first step in a series of changes to repair an organization that was left at rock bottom after the events of the last two years.
With all that said, it’s time to get into the 2019/20 Timberwolves Season Preview. We will go through different “team award” categories and make predictions along the way for what could be in store for the new-look Wolves.
Most Valuable Player:
Devan: Karl-Anthony Towns
I mean, this is an absolute no-brainer. If Karl-Anthony Towns stays healthy, he will far and away be the best player on the team, and a selection on an All-NBA team. In both of the last two seasons, Towns has averaged over 20 points per game and 12 rebounds per game, while shooting over 50% from the field and at least 40% from three. The only other player to hit those marks in a single season in NBA history? Larry Bird. I’d say that’s some good company.
The big topic of the offseason for the on-court version of the Wolves has been playing through KAT. Ryan Saunders has talked repeatedly about using KAT at the top of the key and letting him orchestrate the offense, potentially similar to how Denver’s offense revolves around Jokic. With that, Towns will most definitely see a spike in assists, but also turnovers. The point is, Towns is going to touch the ball and touch it often. He is going to have the chance to put up record offensive numbers. Couple that will less fouls on defense, and he will find himself having another career year.
Leighton: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Wolves go as Towns goes. He is the undeniable best player on this team and his off-season program has been impressive. With improved ball handling and fitness, we may see the best version of KAT yet. If he can harness his ball handling skills, it adds a whole new element to this Wolves offense. Here’s another year of 20+ points and 10+ rebounds for big KAT.
Defensive Player of the Year:
Leighton: Robert Covington
Covington brings an element that is sorely missed for this team. His defensive intelligence, paired with his athletic ability, creates a lethal combination for a defender. He can legitimately guard the 2-4 position at a high level and allows for the best defensive players to all be on the floor at the same time. A lineup of Okogie, Culver, and Covington defending the 1-4 positions will be fun to watch this year.
Devan: Robert Covington
Another obvious selection here. In the 22 games Covington was healthy last season, the Wolves posted a 12-10 record. If the Wolves are going to make any kind of run at the eight seed in the Western Conference, RoCo will be a big part of it, in large part due to his defense. The highlights speak for itself, but Covington is one of the best defenders in the entire NBA.
When Covington was on the court last season, the opponents were held to a full 7 points less per 100 possessions. Additionally, KAT said it himself early in training camp. Towns noted that when Covington is on the court, everything feels more smooth, and the big fella is not as worried about defending the rim, because he knows nobody is getting past RoCo. That kind of security blanket is important on any team, and even while playing the four on a typical night, Covington should still match up with the opposing team’s biggest threat.
Devan: Shabazz Napier
I think a lot of people undervalued Minnesota’s participation as the third team helping facilitate D’Angelo Russell to Golden State and Kevin Durant to Brooklyn. Sure, it was not flashy, but Rosas acquired two guys in Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham, who figure to play big roles off the bench this season. With Jeff Teague having an injury history over his tenure in Minnesota, Napier figures to get a lot of run at point this season. Napier is a career 35.4% shooter from three, something the Wolves do not do well. So, the Wolves will need Napier to be aggressive and knock down shots. There are a number of ways I could have gone with the breakout player, but I am confident in Napier’s ability to orchestrate the second unit and be a big impact shooting the ball, along with being a great team defender, similar to Tyus Jones over the years.
Leighton: Naz Reid
What we saw from Naz Reid in the Summer League was real. Naz Reid is a legit NBA player, and he will eventually overtake Gorgui Dieng for the backup Center minutes. Reid is a skilled big man who excels out of the pick & roll game. His vision and shooting stroke allow for him to play with Towns if necessary. He’s got an NBA body and NBA skill set. Reid will be a fun 10-15 minutes a night to watch for Wolves Fans down the stretch. He’s part of a young core to be excited about.
Leighton: Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague is not the answer at Point Guard. If it wasn’t obvious before, it will be soon. Saunders is creating a culture of ball movement, dribble penetration, and high percentage shots. Teague fits the dribble penetration, but the other 2 criteria are out of his depth. With the collection of talent on the Wolves, they need more of a distributor who is a hard nose defender. Not a score-first type guard. Teague’s inability to feed Towns and create shots for others has been frustrating and it will come to a head this year. If he’s not traded by the deadline, I will be shocked.
Devan: Josh Okogie
This was the hardest category for me. I wanted to choose Jeff Teague, but I have a suspicion that Teague is going to be valuable this season if he stays healthy. I wanted to choose Andrew Wiggins, but how much are we really expecting? So, I went with an uncommon choice: Josh Okogie.
Now, I love Okogie. The effort and intensity he plays with on defense is next to none, and I still love him as a player. But, I think people are expecting too big of a jump in year two. Okogie is not going to miraculously learn how to consistently shoot the three over one summer. Hopefully Okogie will be more under control on offense, which would be a success, but I do not see Okogie making a huge leap this year.
Andrew Wiggins Outlook:
I want to go all in on Andrew Wiggins again, but I just can not do it to myself. I have done it the last couple seasons, and I have been burned. I want to believe the new system will help Wiggins succeed, but does a coach preaching shooting threes and attacking the rim really matter? Rookie Wiggins was angry. He would throw down massive dunks at the rim and look aggressive on the drive. Since then, he has countlessly gotten stripped on the way to the rim, and too often tried a finger roll above the cylinder. I want Wiggins to succeed, and I will be one of the first to sing his praises if he has a good year, but I do not think much will change, besides his misses coming from outside the arc, compared to the mid-range.
Update: Is it bad that I wanted to change my Andrew Wiggins outlook after his new haircut?
Leighton: Sneaky Good
I’m going all in on this year for Wiggins. It’s literally now or never. Minnesota has made no secret of adding wing talent (Okogie, Culver, Layman) and Wiggins has be motivated. Add that to being left off the top 100 NBA players list and you create a Wiggins explosion. To put this into perspective, he was left off of a list that means that he isn’t even the 3rd best player on ANY NBA TEAM. THERE ARE ONLY 30 TEAMS IN THE LEAGUE! Wiggins has always had all the tools and this is more of a bet on Ryan Saunders than anything. If Wiggins can up his offensive efficiency, he can be a huge asset this season. Trading his 20-foot mid-range fadeaways for corner 3’s and more shots in the paint will instantly raise his value. Plus playing defense with Culver and Covington (who are above average defenders) will help the defensive side out as well. I’m betting on a 18+ PPG, 6+ RPG season BUT with a much higher efficiency rating.
Wolves Season Goes Well If:
Leighton: The Wolves pick up their defense
The Wolves ranked 24th in defensive efficiency last year, and if they move to around league average, they will have a solid season. They were top 12 in scoring last year, and if Saunders can get this group to defend at an average level, they will be competitive. My vision is Wiggins filling in the role of the #2 scorer and Culver emerging as a 30+ minute player a night. An end of game lineup with Wiggins, Covington, Teague, Culver and Towns has a nice mixture of athleticism and experience to help them win games.
Devan: Jarrett Culver shows elite potential
Most people are not expecting the Wolves to make the playoffs. So, that shifts the focus to developing the right system under Saunders and developing the right players into that system. The Wolves are clearly really high on Jarrett Culver, and rightfully so. Culver has great two-way potential, and we already saw flashes of Culver as the main ball-handler on the court in the preseason. I think a big indicator of the season will be the development of Culver and his co-existence with KAT for the future.
Wolves Season Goes Poorly If:
Devan: Towns struggles as the main facilitator
As I previously mentioned, Towns is going to be asked to do a lot on offense this season, including handling and orchestrating the offense. Towns has shown the potential to do this, but can he be the main facilitator at the top of the key on a consistent basis? Well, the Wolves are betting on it and so am I. But, if Towns struggles with turnovers and efficiency creating offense with the defense centered in on him, that would be considered a hiccup in the development of this new Wolves way.
Leighton: Towns + Wiggins don’t improve
We have seen the recipe of this team with this roster. Solid offensive production mixed in with stupid shot taking and poor defense. Towns and Wiggins both need to ascend into the roles that they are meant to fill. Towns showed an acumen for defense in college, and that has all but disappeared in the pros. I’m not asking for him to become Anthony Davis, but at least being on time with his defensive rotations would instantly improve this team. As for Wiggins, I just need to see the effort on a nightly basis. He’s going to have to opportunity to allow him to succeed on both sides of the ball. Whether or not he decides to buy in or mentally check out (again) is completely up to him.
What I’m Looking For:
Leighton: Growth from the supporting cast
The Anthony Davis situation has me spooked. Mainly because I can see a very similar correlation between those Pelicans rosters and the one currently constructed around Towns. I want to see Towns lean on these guys for help. Can he trust Layman, Culver, Okogie and Covington to consistently knock down shots? Will Wiggins, Teague and Dieng pick up their defensive effort? Do the Wolves have enough here to keep Towns happy? I like the core of this team but there needs to be significant growth from these guys for the Wolves to make a good pitch for Towns to stay long term.
Devan: Keeping KAT happy
Everyone knows it. Karl-Anthony Towns is the face of the franchise, and the Wolves need to do whatever possible to keep him happy. That does not mean we can go into a dreaded tank year in and year out. That does not mean we can be complacent when looking to upgrade the roster, thinking all we need is KAT. Now, it does not look like Gersson Rosas is going to sit on his hands, and even with Towns just signing a long-term deal, the clock is always ticking on one of the top big men in the NBA.
The Western Conference is no joke. Making the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference would be a huge accomplishment, but a daunting task, which almost nobody is expecting. Developing the right system around KAT, while identifying the players that fit in that system will be a key to the season, and maybe even Andrew Wiggins will want to join in on the fun? This season is truly all about setting up future years.
I think this would be a monstrous achievement for the Wolves in the loaded West. So, I do see progress coming for this team, but it won’t be enough to make the playoffs. A step in the right direction this year.