Seeing a path leading back to the playoffs for the Timberwolves was difficult. Rival Western Conference teams made too many moves and the Wolves didn’t have the means to keep up. Teams like the the Thunder, Nuggets, and Clippers elevated their play from a season ago too.
The 2019 Timberwolves have 14 games remaining and an outside shot at winning 40 games for consecutive years for the first time in 15 years. Yet, it’s hard not to feel emptiness towards that feat. Winning is great but this team hasn’t stood out in any area other than the tumultuous Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler situations and a swath of injuries. After all, having a great year is difficult when a team has to play 20 players to get through the season.
Just because this season’s team got off the rails doesn’t mean there is no hope for this team going forward. That’s good news for a team featuring Karl-Anthony Towns establishing himself a force in this league. Forging a path to sustained to success is far from a possibility in the situation the Wolves are in.
A continued focus on the draft
The Timberwolves did well for themselves in last summer’s draft. After whiffing on the Lauri Markaanen-Justin Patton swap on draft night 2017, the Wolves added two players who look like rotational pieces for the future at worst.
Josh Okogie has the controlled energy and basketball I.Q. that Timberwolves faithful wished to see from Shabazz Muhammad for years. Okogie is a hawk in passing lanes and has a nose for the basket in transition. There are always minutes for someone who plays as hard as he does.
While it’s difficult to take too much away from Keita Bates-Diop’s 16 games played this season, it’s safe to feel encouraged. Bates-Diop’s numbers have improved month-over-month as he’s seen more playing time recently. It appears that he’s a smart player who knows where to be and usually knows what to do next.
At 23 years old, his ceiling is somewhat limited but doesn’t mean he won’t improve at all. Bates-Diop has never been a good shooter and perhaps he won’t. That may not matter playing with Towns, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington if he can do enough other things to impact games.
Good news is that the Wolves will have both a first and second-round picks again this summer. In fact, the only pick they currently owe is a 2022 second rounder to Philadelphia. Being able to add this affordable young talent consistently is something this franchise rarely has had.
Acceptable financial situation
Despite owing Gorgui Dieng $33 million over the next two seasons and Andrew Wiggins’ remaining four years, the Wolves are in a good financial place. Even if Jeff Teague exercises his $19 million player option for next season, the team will have a payroll of just $109 million for 2020.
That figure comes before Tyus Jones’ restricted free agency is resolved and any draft picks are signed. Teague declining his option could free up more room and bump the number of potential contracts off of the books for next season up to 10. That would leave the Wolves a lot of room to revamp themselves for 2020.
Looking ahead to 2021 and Teague is for sure off of the books and Dieng is now an expiring contract. Dario Saric may have been extended and Covington is in his second-to-last year of his deal at age 30. With $93 million currently on the books for 2021, the Wolves should have flexibility to continue to grow the roster around Towns without aging former members of the 2011 Chicago Bulls.
One of the best ways to look smart is finding those diamonds in the rough on two-way deals. The Wolves will continue to find themselves in a limited cap room situation but there is affordable young talent in the G-League.
The salary cap is expected to rise to $118 million by 2021 but extensions for players like Saric and possibly their own draft picks may eat into that room. Not overextending yourself on high-priced free agents is a wise approach.
Towns will make life easier
Two players had ever had a season averaging more than 24 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists per game while possessing a true shooting percentage over 62 percent. Those players are Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 and Charles Barkley in 1989.
This season two more players are having these seasons: Towns and current MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Towns may not be an MVP candidate yet, it’s clear he’s on track to become one of the best in the game.
Having a player like Towns on the roster will cover up smaller mistakes made along the way. No, he won’t cover up things like signing Andrew Wiggins for $150 million and then playing him 38 million every night. But a whiff in the draft or free agency here or there can be made up for with a player of Towns’ caliber.
There aren’t many things Towns can’t do and he’s only in his fourth season. He can post players up, step outside for a 3-pointer, and take defenders off the dribble like a guard. His stepback on Tuesday night versus Denver was reminiscent of guards like James Harden. We’ve seen him become more of a late-game option this season too.
Better days likely ahead
There’s no debating that this season has been a downer after last season’s playoff berth. Ideally, a team doesn’t make a lone appearance in the playoffs every 15 years. In a lot of ways, the Butler situation doomed this team from the start. A season marred with injury is more sustainable with a player of Butler’s caliber and not having his replacement (Covington) play just 22 games since arriving.
Missing the playoffs again is unfortunate but there are several clear avenues for the Wolves to return to relevance. Some of that hope is due to Towns but the rest of it is because the team has valued their draft picks and isn’t in a terrible cap situation. It may be easier to see a road to sustained success now than it was with Thibodeau and Butler.