Not too long ago the Minnesota Timberwolves were the talk of the town. It was not for anything positive, to be sure, but the Wolves were interesting. Here was a team of mostly veteran rotation guys, a superstar, and two -- OK, not really, but I can still hoard a shack on Andrew Wiggins Island, right? -- potential superstars. The mixture of talent both in age and personality is what made this team intriguing and also terrifying. If things went well, Thibs’ Army could make the Western Conference Finals a couple of times; if things went poorly, they could miss the playoffs and basketball fans start to wonder if the Basketball Gods just really do not want nice things for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ever. Well, 2019 is almost here, Jimmy Butler is doing things in Philadelphia, the Wolves are giving 21 minutes to Definitely Not A NBA2K Create A Player guy in Jared Terrell, and they have lost seven of their last 10 games and sit at 16-19 in a crowded Western Conference where every team not owned by Robert Sarver is good.
But has anyone noticed? When the San Antonio Spurs traded away a superstar wing in Kawhi Leonard this summer, they received a pseudo-superstar, a solid rotation player and a heavily protected first-round pick. When the Timberwolves traded away a superstar wing in Butler this fall, they received two solid rotation players and no first-round pick. The Spurs obviously did better in their return than the Timberwolves, but Leonard is also a more valuable star than Butler, health and baggage issues and all, so the Spurs should have done better than the Timberwolves. If the playoffs started today, the Spurs would just miss the cut behind the Sacramento Kings -- just like we ALL predicted before the season -- and join the Timberwolves in the Lottery next summer. But the Spurs have won 7 of 10, and the Wolves have lost 7 of 10. Had defensive assassin Dejounte Murray not torn his knee to shreds before the season, the Spurs hovering around the 4 or 5 seed once again would not be all that surprising. If the Spurs miss the playoffs, they have an excuse. If the Timberwolves miss the playoffs, even after adding two solid starters for the price of one, do they have an excuse? How does Thibs spin the Wolves becoming the NBA-version of Ann from Arrested Development -- you always seem to forget she exists. Towns is averaging close to 21/11/3 and posting a PER of 22 and that has not matter for the Wolves in the slightest.
By trading Butler, the Wolves punted on realistically contending in the Western Conference for a painfully long time. Winning in the West is hard, and the Wolves, for a moment, had a top-10 player in his prime, a top-20 player nearing his prime, and a still-kind-of-intriguing top-300 player nearing his prime. If Butler remains happy, if Thibs keeps adding more veterans who can still play around their Big 2 ⅛ and they find that last starter to roll with Towns, Butler, Wiggins, and Jeff Teague in crunch time, things are good. This team, had Butler not gotten injured last winter, was on pace to win 50-plus games and we would be talking about Minnesota the way we talk about Oklahoma City. (Well, in theory, at least, as the Thunder have the best defense in basketball and Thibs’ teams haven’t sniffed that elite-level play on that end since arriving in Minnesota.) We know the Thunder can’t take down the Warriors, or even the 2017-18 Houston Rockets -- never forget! -- but they’re still a very good basketball team with some flawed starpower and a ceiling that a third of the league would still lust over. Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams is a really fun 3-man group -- when those three are on the flour together, they lead the league in PFD at 13.8 -- while Butler, Wiggins and Towns was equally as fun a season ago as those three maintained a +5.4 mark in the 25 minutes they played together every night. If you replace Butler with Robert Covington, which is what the Wolves did in their trade with Philly, the results are still positive, as the team has a positive plus/minus with Covington in that spot instead of Jimmy Buckets, who didn’t replicate last season’s success with Towns and Wiggins as they were a -4.7 on the floor together this season.
So what gives?
A lineup of Teague, Wiggins, Covington, Dario Saric and Karl Anthony-Towns should be enough to make the playoffs, even in the West. That five-man lineup hasn’t played together much this season, though. Instead, you’ve seen a bunch of different lineups because of injuries. Thibs has thrown out the two-point-guard look 12 times this season with Rose and Teague and the team is +13.2 per 100 possessions with that duo on the floor together with Towns, Wiggins and Saric. With Gibson in that starting spot instead of Saric, that unit is still in the positive, even if only slightly. Individually, Saric is +8.3 per 100 possessions in Minnesota. In Philly, Sarcic was a -7.7 per 100 possessions this season. You can parse through lineup after lineup and you’ll come to the same conclusion: If the Wolves could get away with just playing Teague, Tyus Jones, Covington, Wiggins, Gibson and Towns every night -- a utopia that Tom Thibodeau could believe in, except he would still probably have Rose in there instead of Jones -- they would be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they have to play Gorgui Dieng sometimes, Josh Okogie needs some run, Jerryd Bayless exists, and is that James Nunnally, too?!
That falls on Minnesota Timberwolves Czar Tom Thibodeau, though. Trading away Butler for two solid rotation guys would have had better results had he and general manager Scott Layden done a better job filling out the rest of the roster. It’s a long season and depth matters. Not even Anthony Davis putting together another insane, MVP-worthy season is enough to cleanse the sins of Dell Demps and his roster-assembling malfeasance of years past. Demps screwed Davis; Thibs screwed Towns. It is a tale as old as time in the NBA -- small-market team stumbles onto a superstar, gets antsy, doesn’t stick to a plan and 10 years later we’re all wondering how the hell it all happened again.
But that’s where we are in Minnesota. You’re not mad anymore, you’re just sad. We wanted the Butler and Towns and Wiggins experiment to work because they can’t do the KG era all over again, right? Right? Wrong. The team is now limited on the asset-front, Wiggins is going to make a gazillion dollars over the next half decade for Harrison Barnes-like production, and Towns will contend for a title as the second fiddle in 2026. So maybe the Wolves are getting a pass because what else is there to say? Well, other than “Please, please Karl-Anthony Towns don’t go away.”