The Timberwolves’ rebuild has been an ongoing process now for almost ten years. The last time the team made the playoffs was 2004, behind then-28 year old MVP Kevin Garnett. Since then, the Timberwolves have had just one winning season, zero playoff berths, and have experienced front office failures in both the draft and free agency that leave outsiders scratching their heads. Is the rebuild working, or is it a lost cause?
Minnesota is a really young team. When looking at the average age of NBA rosters, they rank somewhere in the middle with an average age of 27.6. But if you look at the roster, no one in the team’s long-term plans is above the age of 30. Garnett is on his farewell tour and looking to transition into a front office or coaching role with the ‘Wolves; Andre Miller, amazing as he is, looks to be on his last legs at age 39; Tayshaun Prince is 35 and long-removed from his prime days with the Pistons; and Kevin Martin, at 32, has just two years left on his deal and will become a valuable trade chip next season.
Meanwhile, the remaining core of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, and sidekicks has an average age of approximately 23 and a half – which would qualify as the second youngest roster in the league, trailing only the Sixers’ fledgling collection of rookies and D-Leaguers. However, the Timberwolves’ youthful core has significantly more talent than that Sixers squad. Led by Wiggins and his rapidly developing offensive game, the ‘Wolves have jumped out to a surprising 4-3 record and currently sit at 5th in the Western Conference.
The Wolves’ core of Wiggins, Towns, Rubio, and LaVine looks to give opposing teams fits for years to come. Towns already looks at home in the NBA, with five double-doubles in his first seven games. Additionally, he has a PER of 22.1, which leads all rookies. He’s also shown that he can score efficiently in the NBA, with a True Shooting Percentage of .548, and he’s knocking down 91.3% of his free throws.
Wiggins’ offensive game has expanded over the offseason, and he’s displayed an eagerness to shoot jump shots early on in the season. Wiggins is scoring 19.8 points per game this season, up from 16.9 last season. His increased scoring has come from an increased use of pull-up jump shots, which make up about a third of his shots this season, per the NBA’s Sport VU Player Tracking System. He’s also upped his shot attempts per game from 13.9 to 17.8 and getting to the free throw line 6.5 times per game, indicating greater aggression on the offensive end and greater shouldering of the scoring burden.
Rubio is the perfect point guard to play with this young core: as one of the longest tenured players on the roster, his job will be to lead the team and get the ball to each of his offensive weapons in the best position to score – something he does extremely well. Rubio’s assists per game average has increased to nine per game, while averaging 13.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and cutting his turnovers per game down from three to two. He’s averaging a double-double per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference, and the adjustments he’s made this year to his game have increased his PER from 15.2 last season to 21.5 this season. Towns and LaVine are shooting above 50% following a pass from Rubio, while rookie Nemanja Bjelica is shooting an ungodly 66% following a pass from Rubio, including 75% from three (Sport VU).
The Wolves’ bench units are equally intimidating. Gorgui Dieng has been solid at backup center, providing defense, rebounding, and the ability to knock down the midrange jump shot. Shabazz Muhammad has shown the ability to come in and provide an offensive spark off the bench. He also showed flashes of the offensive game he was expected to have coming into the 2013 Draft, and Minnesota will only hope his game will continue to develop.
The Not so Good
It’s tough to understand what direction this franchise wants to go in. Coming off a 16-66 season, it’s obvious that championship aspirations aren’t realistic this season. With the last two #1 picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the ‘Wolves hope that they’ve found their stars of the future, and now just need to put the pieces around them to win. However, the pieces they currently have around their stars leave one questioning what the plan is.
The Timberwolves’ young core has tons of potential, and obviously needs time to grow. This glaring need for experience is exactly what makes the team’s starting lineup so confusing: why does Tayshaun Prince start for this team? Starting LaVine at shooting guard and sliding Wiggins to small forward would allow a team that has no championship aspirations anyways to gain some valuable experience and develop skills that they don’t currently have. Garnett’s sentimental farewell tour in his 20th season presents another issue. Garnett clearly thinks of Minnesota as home; after all, it is where he got his start out of high school. And the organization obviously sees him the same way.
However, Garnett still starts, despite only playing 15.5 minutes per game and averaging 2.3 points and five rebounds in those contests. Sentimental value aside, starting Garnett takes away valuable minutes from younger players who need them. Adreian Payne, who was traded from Atlanta to Minnesota midseason last year, averaged 7.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 25 minutes last year with the Timberwolves. While those numbers aren’t too impressive, he did show potential to grow into a solid contributor and possible starter moving forward. However, following Garnett’s return to Minnesota, he’s seen his minutes per game fall to just 10.3 per game this year, and he’s fallen victim to far more “DNP – Coach’s Decisions” as a result.
The old guard in Minnesota is valuable (Professor Andre Miller continues to serve up beautiful passing and displays of basketball IQ, even as he nears his 40th birthday this coming March). But, the young players need time to play and develop. The Timberwolves have done a good job rebuilding from the disaster that was the Kahn Era. The pieces collected by the late, great Flip Saunders appear to be gelling more and are young enough that they should be able to stick together for the foreseeable future.
However, the organization now finds itself at a crossroads: about half of Minnesota’s rotation depth is made up of the 30+ year olds who have no hope of improvement. This team does not have championship hopes this season – but it could in the not-so-distant future. In order to increase their chances of winning, Minnesota should shift minutes towards their younger players and fully commit to the rebuild.