The Minnesota Timberwolves are kind of in a time warp. Last season, they were expected to make a huge leap and become a playoff team, with some analysts suggesting they might win 50 games or more. Instead, they started 5-13, and only finished with an above-.500 record in one month of the season. By the end of the season they were firmly out of the playoff race, finishing 1-7 in April, extending their playoff drought to 13 years.
Perhaps worse was the regression seen from its young stars. Zach LaVine likely had the best offense season of the three, but his defense became a huge concern, and he wound up suffering an ACL injury before being traded. Karl-Anthony Towns suffered a notable sophomore slump, particularly defensively, which was shocking given the addition of Tom Thibodeau. And never has the debate over Andrew Wiggins' prospects as a star player been more vociferous, with Wiggins' potential still landing somewhere between Kobe Bryant and Rudy Gay.
Now, the Wolves are back on the hype train. The addition of Jimmy Butler has radically shifted expectations, and big things are expected of Minnesota this upcoming season, maybe even more so than 2016-17.
SportsLine has them projected for 46.5 wins, placing them fifth in the Western Conference.
But how will this Wolves team be different? Are there remaining concerns? And what does the revamped roster look like?
How does Butler fit?
It's easy to say the Wolves are going to fit around Butler, not the other way around. How will he benefit other players, and how will he benefit from them? Let's start with something that really stood out when looking at Butler's profile and play last season.
Butler's public identity is that of an ISO-heavy scorer who is one of the best tough-shot makers in the league:
Shots like this really highlight his versatility in creating and finishing shots:
Here, Butler actually looks away, telegraphing a pass, right up until the moment he launches over an unsuspecting Otto Porter:
That's crazy shot targeting.
So, yes, Butler's ISO tough-shot making is a key part of his value.
But it's not the whole story.
Consider the following: Via Synergy Sports, in individual offense (meaning when Butler either took a shot, got fouled or turned it over) he was in the 77th percentile offensively in the pick and roll. So he was really good at scoring out of that play. But Butler only averaged 5.5 assists per game, (7.5 per 100 possessions), despite being the focal point of the Bulls' offense. Some of this is because of Butler's usage rate (he had the 43rd-ranked usage rate league-wide, shockingly low, and his touches and time of possession were on the low end for star players).
So why didn't he make more plays for others?
It turns out he tried. Via Synergy, Butler had 566 passes out of the pick and roll last season, which was 48 percent of his total PnR (ending with a shot or turnover from him or who he passed to). The problem was that his Bulls teammates shot only 39.5 percent on those shots, for a 0.885 points per possession mark, in the 15th percentile of the league. This was extraordinary failure by Butler's teammates.
When passing to the roll man, the Bulls shot 35 percent, and were third percentile in points per possession. So 97 percent of the league was better at finishing off passes in the pick and roll from teammates than were Butler's.
The chief culprit was Robin Lopez. The big man is underrated in most aspects, with good touch and smart passing ability, as well as being a quality screener. But Lopez shot only 48 percent as the roll man with the Bulls, including only 43 percent in pick-and-pop situations.
Some of it was Butler's passing; he tends to deliver the ball quickly with simple reads without letting the play develop:
But most of it had to do with Lopez missing, or -- more often -- as a result of the Bulls' horrendous, spacing:
You see this a lot with Butler-Lopez pick and rolls. The opponent doesn't respect the outside shooting, so they collapse on Lopez, who is a good stationary passer, but isn't the kind of player to make those plays off the roll. Same thing with Bobby Portis, here:
Butler attracts quite a crowd with his scoring ability, as seen here:
But he wasn't able to take advantage of it.
Minnesota's big man had a 72.9 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jump shots out of the pick and pop last season, good for 90th percentile. Minimum 50 possessions, Towns had the best mark league-wide in those situations -- much better than Lopez (37th percentile at 43.2 percent) and Taj Gibson (31st percentile at 41 percent). Towns' numbers in every other scenario are not just superior to anything the Bulls had -- it's like comparing marbles to an XBox One.
That's one of many ways Towns fits with Butler. He's efficient in so many areas, and can take the load off of Butler while also providing him with more space and opportunities. So in short, a major weapon for Butler as a playmaker was entirely wasted last season, and he upgraded to an elite teammate in that regard this summer.
So what's the bad news?
This is easier in bullet points:
- Remember Gibson listed above? Yeah, he's on the Wolves now, so that same problem may repeat itself. Now, Gibson will help the Wolves in a number of ways (which we'll get to) but that same spacing problem is going to be there.
- The Wolves were dead last in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions last season, and 20th in 3-point percentage. They added Jamal Crawford, but that's about it for spacing. Butler shot a decent 36.7 percent last season, but isn't a dead-eye shooter and he'll have the ball most often. Jeff Teague may be their best space provider, but it's still going to be an issue, even if the Butler-Towns combo is impactful.
- The bench is still full of question marks, with mostly young guys.
- Then ... there's the Wiggins issue.
Wiggins is the biggest question on this team
Wiggins occupies a very divided space among analysts and fans. The talent is undeniable. The style is familiar, and ... retro. He's a high-usage, low-efficiency player who doesn't defend, pass or rebound at a high level. Everything he can be is tied up in potential. If he becomes a better shooter, if his defense comes around, if he suddenly develops a playmaking instinct that has never revealed itself, he has the raw talent to be something special.
The biggest issue: Wiggins' game is built off being a pure scorer in an era where those players are less valuable and harder to build around than ever. Wiggins is at a crossroads. He has to decide if he's going to be ball-dominant, or if he's going to help his team win.
Off the dribble, Wiggins had a 36.6 percent effective field-goal percentage, 31st percentile. In catch-and-shoot situations, he boasted 56.1 percent effective field-goal percentage, 72nd percentile. More important, he's great at both hand-offs and off-screen situations:
Wiggins can knock down that 3 off the hand-off, a play set that is being used more and more. It's also something he can use with Towns or Butler. If he's able to find Gibson for the short baseline jumper (a Gibson special) while driving off those hand-offs, that's a building block that could make him very effective next year.
His most valuable stuff was on cuts and in transition. It's here that he'll miss Ricky Rubio (traded to Utah this summer):
Wiggins' game can go one of two directions. If he continues to veer toward being an off-dribble scorer, he's going to struggle with Butler on board, taking up possessions Butler needs for rhythm. But if he embraces a role, he's going to flourish. There will be more spacing with Butler on board, more cuts available. And while Teague isn't quite the same lob artist Rubio is, he can still get the ball where it needs to go.
There are only two ways this season can go for Wiggins: he adapts and thrives, or he stagnates and suffers.
What needs fixing?
The Wolves did fine guarding guys straight up. They have long, athletic defenders who can contain, and they'll only be bolstered by the addition of Butler.
Their problems have been mostly on communication, especially in pick-and-roll situations. The Wolves gave up the third-worst points per possession mark at the rim on non-post-ups last season, via Synergy.
They get caught out of position routinely, and they consistently struggle with helping the helper. They wound up missing the extra rotation. Their defensive rating skyrocketed with Towns on the floor. Going back and watching their defensive clips, you get a sense that teams targeted Towns on the perimeter, getting him away from the rim, and Gorgui Dieng and the other Wolves forwards couldn't compensate.
That's where Gibson is going to help. His awareness will cover for more of Towns' liabilities.
The other problems for Minnesota came from spot-up situations. The Wolves, in brutal fashion, were ranked 29th in the league on what were determined as "guarded" catch-and-shoot situations, via Synergy, while league average on unguarded shots. Teams rained down over them because their defenders were always a half-step late. Most of these were late closeouts.
At the same time, fixing all these problems may be too much, even with the addition of Butler and Gibson. Towns gets caught out of position often on the perimeter, and Wiggins gets caught on screens consistently.
You can expect the Wolves to improve defensively next season, but a big jump may not be in the cards.
HOW TO REACH 46 WINS
The Wolves' offense should be even better than last season, when it was ranked 10th in the league. Even if it takes a step back statistically, it may give them a better chance to win against good teams, especially given their 7-10 record in games decided by three points or less.
Defense is going to determine whether they surge to fourth to sixth in the West, struggle in the bubble range or once again fail to reach the postseason.
A team with Towns and Wiggins as its two best players disappointed last season. A team with Butler as its best player disappointed last season. Will the combination of the two stars mean they get where they need to go? The blueprint is there, but it's going to take execution to make it in a stacked Western Conference.