Are the Wolves Ready to Run With the Wild West?

The Wolves selected Providence senior guard Kris Dunn with the no. 5 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, then brought in two centers and a wing during free agency. Is Minnesota still a year away from jumping into the Western Conference playoff pool, or is new coach Tom Thibodeau ready to lead this pack to the postseason for the first time in over a decade?

Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett’s MVP season back in 2003-04, and they’ve only won 40 games twice since that semifinal loss to the Lakers. For a franchise that has remained 12th or worse in its conference in 10 of the last 11 years (with the exception being a 10th-place finish in 2013-14), losing has become the norm inside Target Center (unless we’re talking about the legendary Lynx or mediocre Wild).

Things are about to change, that much is mostly certain. However, how quickly the Wolves make moves up the food chain from exciting cellar-dwellers to playoff and eventually title-contenders remains to be seen. Dunn and sophomore Tyus Jones dominated in Summer League, but how soon can a rookie point guard be expected to make a positive impact against NBA competition, and where does Jones fit in the crowded backcourt? The right role (perhaps off the bench) could afford Dunn the freedom to make and play through mistakes while running the show.

I’m all about a three-guard lineup featuring Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn with Andrew Wiggins at the 4 and KAT holding down the fort at the 5. Given how many big men are on the roster though, this probably won’t be happening in the near future. This makes projecting the starting lineup a tough task. Four of the spots are probably set in stone barring a Rubio trade. Gorgui Dieng may have the inside track on the fifth, but several players might end up fighting for a starter’s role. Besides health, Thibodeau’s ability to put plus-lineups together will be the most pressing factor in where the Wolves wind up come April.

The wildcard in this starting five conversation has to be Nemanja Bjelica, the sharpshooting stretch-4 who’s a terrific theoretical fit alongside Towns, and especially in a situation that already has two less-than-stellar outside shooters in Wiggins and Rubio. On the other hand, while Dieng is very skilled, particularly as a passer, he doesn’t space the floor on offense, nor does he protect the rim well enough to willingly take Towns away from it. KAT is arguably the most polished center to ever enter the league at such a young age. He is going to do most (if not all) things better than the majority of players on the court. Still, lacking both the ability to shoot threes and slide your feet on the perimeter would be a deal-breaking combo for me in choosing KAT’s frontcourt mate.

This is why Minnesota wasn’t all that smart to sign Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill. Aldrich is coming off a fantastic campaign in Clipper-land, and it’s possible he fills the role of backup center impeccably because of his ability to protect the rim. Aldrich by himself isn’t a bad signing, but doubling down with Hill just doesn’t add up. Perhaps this is a good indication that Dieng won’t be retained next summer when he enters restricted free agency, or maybe there’s even a deal in the works. Either way, having four big men, three of whom are not unicorns with guard skills, seems exorbitant and harmful.

Brandon Rush, the team’s final free agent signing (one year, $3.5 million), will provide depth on the wing along with Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad’s ideal role may be at the 4, where he can use his speed against a little bit slower players without sacrificing much in the strength department, but with so many big men it’ll be tricky finding Bazz minutes at the 4. Like Dieng, Muhammad’s future with the Timberwolves is unclear due to this being the last year in his rookie deal. Adreian Payne is another player who will be fighting for his NBA survival, as Minnesota has a team option for his contract next summer and he hasn’t shown us much.

One thing that hasn’t been questioned since Kevin Garnett returned via trade is leadership, and Towns appears more than ready to take on that responsibility. Nevertheless, Garnett may retire, and it won’t be easy for this team to gel when so many of the players may be thinking about their next contracts and then rolling their eyes at their respective roles.

There’s not a five-man group that sticks out as being ready to win basketball games during crunch time. The excitement is clearly building up. The Timberwolves have as bright a future as any team in the NBA, yet they remain a longshot to sneak into the playoffs. By most reasonable standards, five or 10 more wins should be seen as a huge success in a Western Conference where the overwhelming majority of clubs improved on paper.

Minnesota didn’t make a splash in free agency this summer, but they have done their part to remain flexible going forward. Sometimes good stuff happens overnight, but most great things take time. Here’s to hoping that the fans of Minnesota somehow savor what could be their last trip to the lottery over the next decade. 13 years after Kevin Garnett won the MVP and led the Wolves to within two games of the NBA Finals, Karl-Anthony Towns will receive his first MVP trophy while leading Minnesota back to the Promised Land that is the playoffs.

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