The 2015-16 Timberwolves season was never about wins and losses anyway. This is a franchise that hasn't even made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett's 2003-04 MVP season. Sam Mitchell, the current head coach, is the seventh man to hold that title over that 12-year span. Putative saviors — on the court, on the sidelines and in the front office — have come and gone, yet the results have remained the same.
Now, though, the Timberwolves finally seem to be on the right track. They traded for last year's Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins, then drafted Karl-Anthony Towns, the man likely to take home that award this season. Both are dynamic, young two-way players: Wiggins turned 21 in February and Towns is not yet old enough to buy a drink. Both are considered high-character people, the type that every team would kill to have as foundational stars.
But yet again, the Timberwolves find themselves with one of the worst records in the league. Having talent is great, but soon it will be time to start turning all that potential into actual results. The Timberwolves have an actual foundation, unlike, say, Philadelphia. The question is what to do next.
This will be a big offseason for Minnesota. Here are the biggest questions facing the franchise and how it should handle them.
1. Who should coach the team?
Mitchell has become a punching bag around the advanced statistics community, and for good reason. He says and does some odds things. Also, his team plays as if the three-point line was never invented. The Timberwolves are second-to-last in the league in three-point attempts, trailing only the Bucks. Worse, they're third in the NBA in mid-range jumpers per game, and too many of those shots are spot-up attempts.
If Mitchell instructed his players to simply stand just a few feet further across the perimeter, his offense would be more explosive.
There'd also be more room for stars like Wiggins to attack the hoop.
Minnesota is jacking just 3.3 corner three-pointers per game, per NBA.com. That's asinine.
Yet despite this problem, scoring hasn't been the problem for the Timberwolves. The team moves the ball well (eighth in assist rate) and is putting up 104.2 points per 100 possessions, the 11th-best mark in the NBA. What they lack in shooting, they make up in drawing fouls — they rank third in the NBA in free throw rate, behind only the Rockets and Raptors.
While it's easy to hammer Mitchell for his seemingly archaic philosophies, it should also be noted that his roster doesn't contain a single knock-down shooter. Zach LaVine is leading the team at 38 percent, but he's the only rotations player connecting on more than 35 percent of his shots from deep. Minnesota's best catch-and-shoot three-point weapon has actually been the 7'0 Towns, per NBA.com.
Defense, on the other hand, has been a different story. The Timberwolves, despite having a plethora of young, talented and athletic stoppers, are allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst number in the league. They give up a ton of open looks, especially in the paint.
Of course, that's what happens when you play a bunch of kids. For instance, the defense has been really good during the rare instances Garnett has been healthy enough to play. Mitchell has rightfully handed a lot of the minutes to the youngest players on his roster to develop them. Still, it would be nice to see some defensive improvement as the season progressed. Instead, it's gone the other way.
All that's to say that Mitchell is probably not the man for this job moving forward. The Timberwolves have been gifted with two brilliant young players, so there will be many coaches interested in the job.
There also happen to be a plethora of good candidates on the market. Tom Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy both have impressive track records. David Blatt was successful in Cleveland despite many problems. And Scott Brooks went through this dance morphing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into the players they are today.
Mitchell might not be as clueless as many believe, but it would be silly for a team with the bright the future of the Timberwolves to move forward with a man boasting a 178-236 career coaching record.
2. What should they do with Ricky Rubio?
This is probably the most interesting decision the Wolves will face this offseason. Not coincidentally, it involves one of the most difficult players to value in the league. By now, we've spent countless hours fretting over what Rubio does (defense, passing) and what he doesn't do (shoot). Can teams win with a player like him on the court? The never-ending question has no clear answer.
But here's the only number that should matter to the Timberwolves: $42.3 million. That's the amount they owe Rubio over the next three seasons. Given the impending salary-cap jump, that's an incredibly low total for a starting point guard who statistically makes his team better in every way.
The 25-year-old Rubio might be past his prime by the time Towns and Wiggins fully blossom, but there's no reason to send him packing any time soon. If anything, Rubio's presence should actually help foster the stars' development. He remains the team's best playmaker, creating a team-high 19 points per game via assists this season, according to NBA.com. That's 12 more than LaVine, who's second on the team and presumably would be in line for more playmaking duties if Rubio is traded.
Despite Rubio's inability to connect from anything outside of 15 feet, the offense is still better with him on the floor. Plus, he's by far the team's best perimeter defender. LaVine is making strides, but clearly isn't ready to handle lead point guard duties and might be better as an off guard anyway. When he plays with Rubio, Minnesota is scoring an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com. The team is surrendering the same amount in those minutes, but removing Rubio from that equation won't help defensively.
Unless Minnesota can convince a top free agent like Mike Conley — who is as good as Rubio defensively, but can shoot from the outside — to sign with them and then get something valuable in return for Rubio, they're better off just keeping Rubio around. They thought about dealing Rubio and a protected future first-round pick to Milwaukee for Khris Midldeton, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, but ultimately declined. That was the right decision.
3. Who should they pair next to KAT in the frontcourt?
Towns should be playing center, and it will be easier for the Timberwolves to move forward once they acknowledge this. On offense, he can space the floor with knock-down mid-range shooting and a stroke that should eventually become consistent from deep. He's also a beast down in the paint, where he boasts one of the league's best baby hook shots. He already knows how to use his size and quickness to create space inside.
Towns is averaging 1.2 points per possession on isolations, according to NBA.com, which places him in the 98th percentile among all players. Remember: he's 20! That he's an adroit passer just makes him even more dangerous down there.
He's also nearly as effective on the other side of the ball. Towns is quick enough to contain guards across the perimeter, whether in a trap of a pick-and-roll or an all-out switch. That skill that is becoming increasingly valuable as the league becomes even more three happy.
Yet he's even more dominant down in the paint, where opponents are shooting just 49 percent on shots at the rim against him, per NBA.com. Towns has the ability to become a Joakim Noah clone on defense. Center is where he belongs.
Center also isn't where he's playing right now. Fellow big man Gorgui Dieng, who has recently been starting alongside Towns, has double-double potential, but offers no three-point shooting and barely helps the team's defense. On a different team, that combination could work over the long haul. But with the crooked jump shots of Rubio and Wiggins on the floor, the Timberwolves need their "power forward" to be a long-range bomber who can help space the floor around Towns and Wiggins post-ups.
That could be an unrestricted free agent stretch-4 like Ryan Anderson or a young wing like Harrison Barnes that can play up a position, although both will be expensive this summer. Players like Charlotte's Marvin Williams and New York's Lance Thomas loom as possible short-term veteran solutions. The Timberwolves could even give 2015 EuroLeague MVP Nemanja Bjelica another shot to become the team's primary power forward after his injury-plagued rookie debut.
It's impossible to come up with a concrete answer before the draft, but whatever the Timberwolves decide should keep KAT at center.
4. What's going to happen with ownership and management?
The Timberwolves' ownership situation is complicated, so here's the CliffNotes version.
- Taylor wants to sell a share of the team to Grizzlies part-owners Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus. The arrangement would eventually have Kaplan becoming the majority owner.
- However, Grizzlies plurality owner Robert Pera is making it difficult for Kaplan and Straus to sell their current shares, for many different reasons.
- Because of the delay, Taylor is now getting cold feet about even giving up a share of the Timberwolves in the first place.
If Kaplan were to complete the sale of his Grizzlies shares and take over the Timberwolves, general manager Milt Newton and Mitchell would likely be gone. Kaplan reportedly already reached out to Thibodeau and will likely want his own general manager. If Taylor does change his mind and decide to hold onto all his ownership shares, however, the Timberwolves could find themselves being led by the same voices that have failed to orchestrate any sort or turnaround over the last 12 years.
Therefore, Kaplan buying the team is the best thing that could happen to Timberwolves fans. That transaction could wind up being the key to answering the previous three questions (and many more) properly.
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