After ending playoff drought, Wolves taking next step
MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves are entering May without their customary collection of good-luck charms for the NBA draft lottery.
The longest-running absence from the playoffs in the league finally over, the Wolves took a significant accomplishment into the summer after their 47-35 record during the regular season tied for the fifth-best in franchise history.
“When you haven’t done something for 14 years, it’s a major step for our organization, and it’s not easy to do. Winning in this league is very difficult, and we should understand that,” said president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau, who joined general manager Scott Layden on Monday for a wrapup news conference.
Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns gave the Timberwolves multiple representatives at the All-Star game for the first time since Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell in 2004 on their way to the Western Conference finals. That was the most recent postseason appearance until the first round series with Houston tipped off earlier this month. With 16 out of 41 home games declared sellouts, they had their highest number since 1991-92, and local television ratings were way up, too.
Still, in typical Timberwolves fashion, the road to relevancy was not without potholes.
Falling in five games to the Rockets was forgivable, considering their opponent had the NBA’s best record, but the Wolves were beaten a total of eight times by the league’s bottom eight teams that all won fewer than 29 games. Win just two of those, and they’re in third place in the West with a much more favorable matchup for the playoffs.
With Butler the resident alpha male in the locker room, the Wolves can no longer be considered an up-and-coming atmosphere where patience with the development of young cornerstones Towns and Andrew Wiggins will be welcomed. With the presence of Butler and the other acquisitions from last year, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, there’s clearly a win-now window in place.
“They’ve learned what it takes to get yourself to the playoffs,” Butler said. “Now us as a whole, we have to figure out what it takes to win, whenever we get there. No matter what seed we are, that’s what we’re expected to do.”
Layden wondered aloud whether the Wolves should have been more aggressive to acquire a new player at the trade deadline in February.
“We had a lot of things that went back and forth, and maybe we should’ve done something a little different,” Layden said. “I take responsibility for that, but we’re always looking to push and push and get better.”
Thibodeau has always leaned heavily on the starters he trusts the most, and this season with the Wolves was no exception. Butler was third in the NBA with an average of 36.7 minutes played per game, and coincidentally or not he missed 23 games, all but two because of trouble with his right knee. Thibodeau said Butler will not need an additional procedure.
Butler can also opt out of his contract after next season, without an extension in place.
“It’s important for him to feel good about everything that we’re doing here,” Thibodeau said.
The Wolves actually led the NBA during the playoffs with a 41.3 percent make rate from 3-point range, but part of the problem is a lack of space in the playbook for setting up attempts from beyond the arc. They finished last in the league in the regular season with an average of eight 3-pointers made per game.
“I thought our guys in the second half of the season were doing a very good job of looking for opportunities, but we do have to take more,” Thibodeau said.
Even owner Glen Taylor, in an interview earlier this month with his hometown newspaper, the Mankato Free Press, openly questioned the lack of improvement.
“If other teams can learn to shoot 3s, why can’t we?” Taylor told the Free Press.
WINNING WITH WIGGINS?
The maximum contract the Wolves gave Wiggins last summer will kick in next season, paying the 23-year-old more than $25 million. There’s no player on the roster who will be under more pressure to be more consistently productive on both ends of the court.
“The experience of the playoffs was huge for him. He did a lot of good things,” Thibodeau said. “I think we saw down the stretch him playing a more complete game, and I think he can build off that.”
Nemanja Bjelica, who played both forward spots off the bench and was a relatively productive starter during Butler’s absence, will be a restricted free agent. His playing time was scant during the playoff series, which Thibodeau said was matchup-related.
“But I thought overall he played really well for us,” Thibodeau said. “Sometimes you have to put the team first.”