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Tom Thibodeau must decide if Ricky Rubio is a key part of the Timberwolves’ future

The new Timberwolves boss inherits a tantalizing roster, but also a vexing question: Is Ricky Rubio a long-term core player?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves finished last season No. 27 in points allowed per 100 possessions due primarily to the second-worst shot defense in the league. If we know anything about Tom Thibodeau as a coach, it's that he will fix that immediately. There is no question that with Thibodeau signed on to coach Karl-Anthony Towns in the middle and Andrew Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves are on track to be a good defensive team within a couple of years, if not next season.

Thibodeau's defenses in Boston and then Chicago were so good that the rest of the league copied them. While mutant variations of his schemes cropped up around the basic Thibodeau principles -- deny the paint, overload the strong side, etc. -- no one has implemented them better than Thibs did in Chicago. He took a mid-tier playoff team to the No. 1 seed on the strength of that defense and by opening up the offense for Derrick Rose's dribble-drive penetration.

The Wolves are not yet where those Bulls teams began. They have an impossibly young team with the league's longest active postseason drought, which is to say this will take time. Towns has wonderful instincts and a terrific combination of length and mobility, but pick-and-roll coverage is learned, not bestowed. Wiggins has the potential to be a shutdown defender, but he also has a massive offensive role and needs much more seasoning. He's also just 21 and Towns is 20. In Chicago, Thibodeau inherited older defensive stars. (Joakim Noah and Luol Deng were 25 with multiple years of experience. Rose was, however, young and green.)

The long-term concern is on offense, where Minnesota was actually respectable in 2015-16. Thibodeau's Chicago teams had a knock for being bad at scoring efficiently. The record is much more complicated. The 2010-11 team that won 62 games finished No. 11 in offensive rating and hit No. 5 in the lockout-shortened season that followed. The offense disintegrated with Rose's knee ligaments, scraping the cellar repeatedly until last season when Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol helped get it back up to No. 11. Meanwhile, the defense was consistently excellent until 2014-15, when Gasol's huge role assumed part of the void that Deng once filled and injuries to Noah sunk Chicago to a still-respectable No. 11.

This is where the most intriguing player on Minnesota's roster comes into play.

By most accounts Ricky Rubio nearly got traded to Jason Kidd and the Bucks in February.  It's hard to know what to make of Rubio under Thibodeau because Rubio is so unlike the Bulls' point guards (and frankly most point guards). Rose was a slashing scorer who learned how to pass and shoot enough to keep the lane semi-open. His primary replacements, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, were a role-playing grinder and an undersized gunner, respectively. Butler blossomed and took on a huge offensive role late in Thibodeau's tenure, where he echoed Rose's probing style.

If Rubio does have a future in Minnesota, perhaps the Celtics when Thibodeau worked under Doc Rivers offer a better guide. Rubio's skills are ultra-creative passing and defense. On the flip side, he's among the league's worst shooters. Boston had Rajon Rondo and Rubio is a Rondo clone. The Celtics had so much defense that they won a title and nearly took another without compromising at point guard.

The three-pointer has since taken over the league, so holding on to the ghost of old champions might not be tenable. However, Rubio's defensive excellence seems custom-made for Thibodeau.

The problem is that while there is already a good bit of defensive talent at the top of the roster, there's also little to no shooting. Wiggins took threes rather infrequently (fewer than three per game) and hit them at a poor rate (30 percent), though he improved in the second half of the season. Towns takes little more than one per game. The only credible deep shooters last season were Nemanja Bjelica and Zach LaVine. Unless Wiggins becomes a dead-eye deep shooter or Towns truly extends his consistent range to 23 feet, having a third potential star who isn't a deep threat in the modern NBA is a scary prospect.

This is all theoryball, a paper exercise in trying to read tea leaves that will become clear with some patience. Fans are bad at that, and everyone who loves basketball is quickly becoming a fan of the Timberwolves. After seeing Towns, Wiggins and LaVine ride their potential to an exciting, albeit loss-ridden, season and knowing that there's more youth beyond the marquee with another top-10 pick on its way, who wouldn't be excited? Now that Thibodeau will guide Towns, there's even a free agent case to be made.

We're all rushing to see what's next. The Wolves are like distinctly shaped gifts shrouded in wrapping paper: We think we know what we're getting, but that paper needs to be ripped off to be sure.

How Thibodeau approaches Rubio in the offseason and next November will be fascinating. We'll see if the next great Wolves team will be so overloaded on defense that it will concede a modern shooting offense. We'll see if Thibodeau trusts so much in the defense of Wiggins, Towns and his own system that the coach-president goes after a more traditional scorer at the point. We'll see whether Bjelica becomes a starter or at least a featured player, whether the LaVine Point Guard experiment resumes, where Kevin Garnett fits in minutes-wise and what savvy veterans the front office chases.

These are all important questions we can't answer now. The allure is so great that we can't help considering them.

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Bonus Round: Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine's dunk contest kept going all year

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