Season preview: Can Timberwolves' young core bust playoff drought?
MINNEAPOLIS -- There is a gaping hole in the northeast corner of Target Center, the result of a renovation that has started on the Minnesota Timberwolves' aging arena to update it as much as possible without completely tearing it down and starting from scratch.
After almost a decade-long identity crisis, the major rebuilding of the roster is finally over.
With Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, a core is firmly entrenched that makes one of league's most unsuccessful franchises the subject of envy for its wealth of young talent. Tom Thibodeau has arrived to give the Wolves a top-flight coach to take over their on-the-job education. And they are just plain sick and tired of hearing about the team's 12-year playoff drought.
"It bothers me," Towns said. "It truly bothers me. It's something I don't want to hear anymore. I'm tired of hearing about a drought around here. That's something that annoys me and bothers me. What I can do to control that is come in every day, work tremendously hard and do everything possible to help us be the winning team we see ourselves being."
The Timberwolves won 29 games a year ago, a 13-game improvement from the previous season. They will likely need at least 12 more wins this season to be in the mix in the competitive Western Conference.
Despite starting three players who are 21 or younger, their optimism is high.
"There are a lot of guys on the team that have never been in the playoffs and they've been here for a long time," Wiggins said. "We haven't seen it. Now we finally have the perfect pieces to get there, the perfect opportunity this year. We're very confident. We're overly excited. We just want to work hard to get there."
The Timberwolves open the regular season on Wednesday in Memphis. Here are some things to watch this season:
There is relative certainty surrounding Towns' ability to assert himself as an elite big man in the league. It remains a little unclear just how great Wiggins will be. He has worked tirelessly to improve his ball-handling and perimeter shooting to become an All-Star caliber player. If Thibodeau and Wiggins can form the relationship that helps the supremely talented wing play with fire more consistently, look out.
The Wolves grabbed point guard Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick in June, and there is a lot of speculation that he will eventually supplant Ricky Rubio as the starter. But point guard is the most difficult position to play in the league, and the Wolves have no reason to rush him into that role on a team that desperately wants to make the playoffs. Dunn has shot poorly in the preseason, but Thibodeau has already proclaimed him "NBA-ready on defense," which is a big thing for the coach.
Nemanja Bjelica came to the Timberwolves last season after being named Euroleague MVP in Turkey, but struggled with injuries and making an adjustment to the NBA game. He has looked much more comfortable during the preseason of Year No. 2. If he can emerge as the playmaking, sharpshooting, "stretch 4" with the second unit, the ceiling for the team raises significantly.
BYE, BYE KG
Franchise icon Kevin Garnett retired earlier this month, leaving the pups he mentored last season to strike out on their own. The best players on this team are very, very young, so watching the leadership element develop will be intriguing. Towns has quickly asserted himself as one of the team's hardest workers and most vocal communicators, so he is a natural candidate.
"We talked. I know what I must do," Towns wrote on Instagram after KG retired. "I'll take it from here."
With so many young players under contract, the Timberwolves enter the season with cap space galore. But that space will be chewed up in the coming years when Wiggins, LaVine and Towns come up for extensions. One of the interesting pieces in the immediate future is versatile big man Gorgui Dieng. If the Wolves do not reach agreement on an extension with him by the end of the month, he will become a restricted free agent next summer and likely command a salary on the open market of $17 million a year or more. Thibodeau is a big fan of Dieng's game, but it remains to be seen if the two sides can come to an agreement.