Last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves got a lot of hype as an up-and-coming team which signed an established, elite coach who could help them return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Their failure to break out has a lot of people treading cautiously this year. It’s one of those fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you again type things that George W. Bush used to like to talk about.
In reality, the Timberwolves were better than their record indicated last year. Based on winning percentage, they were tied for 24th in the league. But based on net rating, they were just minus-1.0, good for 20th, and a mere 0.2 points behind the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks. Based on their “Pythagorean wins” at Basketball-Reference.com, they should have won 38 games as opposed to the 31 that they actually did.
That indicates that the issue is more of a “learning how to win” thing than a “talent” thing.
That’s why it’s specious to compare last year’s team with this year’s. The Wolves made moves to elevate in those two areas — specifically by adding Jimmy Butler.
Last season, Butler was arguably the best closer in the NBA when you consider his impact on both ends of the court. He was second in NBA.com’s “PIE” (an estimate of the percentage of positives played made on the court) in the clutch at 29.4, trailing only Russell Westbrook. However, he also shot a 63.0 true shooting percentage to Westbrook’s 56.9 and locked down the defensive side of things almost single-handedly.
He averaged 41.6 points 4.3 assists and 5.9 boards and 2.3 steals per 36 minutes and the Bulls were plus-11.1. Whether you consider that the “best” or not, it’s certainly an upgrade for the Timberwolves, who as a team were minus-14.3 in clutch situations last year, and went 15-30. They lost 19 games last year when they were within one score with one minute left in the contest and 30 when they were within five with five minutes or less.
That’s almost 60 percent of the games the Wolves lost that were winnable in the last five minutes and 40 percent of them that were within reach in the last minute. Adding Butler as a closer does huge things for that — it turns them from a clutch loser into a clutch winner.
And that turns the Wolves from a lottery team to a team that could contend for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets seem to have the top two seeds locked up, with the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs taking the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, but those two teams are a little more vulnerable. The Thunder’s big three is trying to figure out how to get everything to work. The Spurs will compete, but their roster is a little thinner this year than most, and Kawhi Leonard is already nursing an injury.
There’s a great chance that the Wolves make the jump this year that people expected last year, and then some. While Butler will be a big part of that, he won’t be the only one. His old teammate Taj Gibson, with whom he’s done many a battle with, will be joining him. That duo will add a level of toughness that the Wolves just didn’t have last year. Gibson has a workman’s tenacity that pays dividends. Gibson and Butler have only missed the postseason once in their careers.
The Wolves also added a tested veteran Jeff Teague to be the new point guard. Sure, he’s not going to be winning the MVP or anything, but he’s a solid two-way player who does a little bit of everything. He can spot up (54.3 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoots) pull-up (47.9 percent) or drive to the rim (9.7 drives per game). In seven seasons, Teague has never missed the playoffs.
Minnesota also signed Jamal Crawford, the three-time Sixth Man of the Year, who may be past his prime, but is still capable of hitting the 3-ball and creating his own shot. He’s also been in the playoffs seven times in the last eight seasons.
The Timber-Pups have what they lacked last season–fortitude, veteran leadership and the experience to know how to win in tough situations. That should elevate the game of rising stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who will benefit tremendously from the mentoring and on-court leadership of Butler and Gibson. That will be especially true on defense as both of the former Bulls are intimately familiar with Thibodeau’s schemes, having played in it during Thibodeau’s tenure in Chicago.
The on-court, in-game coaching will be huge as the veteran pair guide the young stars, both of whom have been offensive boons but defensive busts.
If you want to see the next young team that is going to take that giant step into playoff contender, this is your best bet. These aren’t year’s puppies; these are full-grown wolves, hungry for the playoffs and ready to devour the competition.
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