In all likelihood, the Minnesota Timberwolves are going to be a very good basketball team for a very long time. That's generally what happens when you take a potential top ten overall player who still hasn't reached the legal drinking age (Karl-Anthony Towns) and give him one of the NBA's best coaches (Tom Thibodeau) and a cadre of supporting players whose contributions should range from solid bench player to fellow All-Star (Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng, Kris Dunn, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush).
So yeah, barring an injury to Towns—knock on wood—it's extremely likely that these guys are going to get really good, really soon. But to a sizable portion of the viewing public, "really soon" has come to mean "right away." The Timberwolves are a trendy pick to be in contention for a playoff spot in the bottom half of the Western Conference bracket this season. (Their Westgate Superbook over/under for 2016-17 is 41.5 wins, which would have been good enough for the seven-seed last year.) Take all that young talent, project some year-to-year improvement, and throw Thibs into the mix, and it starts to make a whole lot of sense.
As encouraging as the future looks, however, there are a number of reasons to slow our collective roll on the Timberwolves.
Let's start with the fact that the principals are all crazy young. Towns, LaVine, and Wiggins are all entering their age-21 season (defined by their age as of February 1st.) Dunn is 22. Muhammad is 24. Rubio and Dieng are 26. Bjelica and Aldrich are 28. Rush is practically Old Man River at age 31. The average player in Timberwolves camp is 26.5 years old, and that includes guys like 37-year-old Rasual Butler and soon-to-be 34-year-old John Lucas III, who most likely will not see the floor very often, if ever. The team's projected minutes-weighted age for the upcoming season, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton, is 24.3 years old.
Some perspective on teams that young: Over the past five years, 32 teams have finished the season with a minutes-weighted age younger than 25 years old. Those 32 teams have averaged 28.2 wins per 82 games (after adjusting the win totals of the five teams with rosters that young during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season). Only four of them made the playoffs, and only three hit the 42-win mark the T-Wolves would need to break their Vegas over/under. Extend the sample back ten years, and 57 teams have averaged 28.9 wins, with only 11 of 57 making a trip to the postseason and just seven of 57 exceeding the aforementioned 42 wins. Last season's Wolves, with a minutes-weighted age of 24.6 years and a 29-53 record, are basically the default expectation for that kind of team.
Then you have to factor in the Wolves' muted offseason. Thibs should be worth a few wins or more by himself, but Minnesota's biggest on-court additions were Aldrich, a career fringe rotation center, and Dunn, a rookie point guard. Dunn has the prototypical size and length that teams are looking for in backcourt players these days and should be an impact player soon, but the reality of the NBA is still that most rookies are negatives on the floor. He could be an exception (like Towns was), but the safe bet is on him flashing the skills that will make him a positive contributor in the future in fits and starts for now. With low potential for outside contributors adding to their win total, the Wolves are banking almost entirely on internal improvement, which isn't always as linear as people like to think it is.
It's here that we should also note that the 2015-16 version of this squad arrived at their 29 wins with almost all of their returning rotation players staying incredibly healthy. Towns, LaVine, Dieng, and Muhammad played all 82 games. Wiggins played 81. Rubio, who had missed an average of 27.5 games a year over his first four seasons, suited up for 76 out of 82 games last season. Even Bjelica, who was in and out of the rotation and got 18 DNP-CDs, only missed four games due to injury. It's possible, of course, that they could all stay healthy again, but it seems unlikely that someone like Rubio only misses six games again. The potential for regression to the mean is staring us in the face, especially when you consider that Thibodeau-coached teams are not exactly known for their sparkling health.
Minnesota can weather the storm if one of the non-Towns bigs has to sit, and can possibly do the same if it's a wing missing time, but an injury keeping Towns or Rubio out for any extended stretch could spell doom. Towns, obviously, is the team's best overall player. Take away any team's best guy and the trajectory of its season will instantly change for the worse, but that's especially true of a young, relatively thin team like the Wolves.
We also have to consider where Minnesota is starting from. Thibodeau will whip these guys into a top defensive unit eventually—it's what he does. But the Wolves also finished 27th in defensive efficiency last season, per NBA.com. They have a long way to go to before becoming an average point-prevention unit, let alone an elite one. The bones of a Thibs Era Bulls–caliber defense are there—Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns are all plus defenders already, and Dunn should become one, too—but it's probably going to take at least a little bit of time before they're smothering teams like those Bulls did. Thibs has to teach LaVine how to defend from scratch, after all.
Then there's the offense. This is likely to be one of the most shooting-starved teams in the NBA, especially if they start Dieng next to Towns rather than the stretchier Bjelica. Only one team attempted fewer threes than the Wolves last season, and only five connected from deep at a lower rate. There are minus shooters all over the roster, and only a few guys who can be expected to make their triples at an above-average rate. (Or their mid-rangers—the Wolves shot 38.5 percent from outside the paint and inside the arc last season, 21st in the league.)
Beyond Bjelica, Rush, and LaVine (who could shoot even better from three this season so long as he sticks as the starting off-guard next to Rubio rather than as his backup, so he can take more catch-and-shoots as opposed to jumpers off the dribble), it's difficult to discern who's going to knock down a healthy amount of long-range jumpers. Towns made 34 percent from beyond the arc last season, but he also took only 88 shots from distance. He took all of eight threes in his one year at Kentucky. He's a wunderkind who can do pretty much anything you ask him to do on the floor, and easily, but we also have to, ya know, actually see him take and make multiple threes a night before we pencil him in for it.
So maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that several projection systems have the Wolves coming close but ultimately falling short of that 41.5-win mark, as well as the playoffs. ESPN's Summer Forecast, which has annually been even more accurate than Vegas, pegged the Wolves for 39 wins this season; their RPM projection system spit out a 37.1-win season. Nylon Calculus's Highly Plausible Win Projections—which over the past two years has finished near the top of the APBRmetric leaderboards—was even lower on the team, predicting another 29-win season. (The system's creator, Andrew Johnson, does not include a coaching adjustment and did note that the win total is weighted down by how many Wolves showed big improvement last season. Still, he estimates a 75 percent chance of the "under" hitting for Minnesota this year.)
The T-Pups should—and likely will—be better this year, and the future couldn't be more bright; the future just might not be arriving this year, is all.
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