It is well known to basketball enthusiasts that in recent history, the Western Conference has been far stronger that the East. The Golden State Warriors are coming off of their second championship in three years and show no signs of slowing down. The San Antonio Spurs always seem to find the right players to fit in their system that make them perennial contenders. Houston has added a floor general in Chris Paul to team up with the MVP runner-up, James Harden. Paul George was traded to the Thunder to share the floor with “Mr. Triple Double”, Russell Westbrook. Portland has a premier back-court with Damian Lillard leading the way. The Memphis Grizzlies, who are usually in the mix, come playoff time, have a way of slowing down their opponents to play at their own speed.
However, the pressing question throughout the Western Conference is, are the Minnesota Timberwolves legit? Have they added the right pieces to make their roster complete and make a real push for the NBA title? Nobody denies the potential of the Timberwolves if they can keep Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster. Now, they’ve added one of the best two-way players in the league, Jimmy Butler, a move that could certainly increase their chances of making the playoffs this season.
When the trade came through on draft night, head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau was reunited with one of his former players. Butler had played for Thibodeau for four years in Chicago. Butler was the rising star, coexisting with Derrick Rose, to fill out the back-court. When Butler was traded for Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, two young players with some potential, it was clear to most analysts and NBA fans that Minnesota got the better end of the deal. Thibodeau and Butler won a gold medal for Team USA together in the Olympics last summer. They had a great run in Chicago. They reached the playoffs all four years and Butler won the 2014-2015 NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, which doubled as Thibodeau’s final season in Chicago. It was clear that Thibbs was in favor of a reunion with Jimmy Butler, so he convinced management to make a move and go get the three-time all-star.
Jimmy is a special player. He is one of the best two-way players in the NBA, being a great perimeter defender as well as a capable scorer. Each year, Butler continues to improve as one of the league’s top players. Towards the end of his career in Chicago, Butler took on the leadership role for the team, averaging 23.9/6.2/5.5. Derrick Rose, having never returned to the MVP-caliber player he once was, got traded to the New York Knicks at the end of the 2015-2016 season. This forced Butler to assume that leadership role. It gave Butler the opportunity to be “The Guy” for the Bulls. The last few years that Rose and Butler were teammates, there had been reports of the two not getting along. Regardless, Butler still led the team to the NBA playoffs as the eighth seed in 2017. They faced the top seeded Boston Celtics and held a 2-0 lead in the series before Boston came back and won four straight. Overall, it was somewhat of a frustrating season for the Chicago Bulls. They had veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo mixed with a young group of mid-level talent. Following a few locker room arguments that got blown out of proportion and a regular season record that most likely displayed an underachieving year, it was time for Butler to get a fresh start. Butler is under contract until 2020, giving the Timberwolves a few seasons to build around and the already established core.
Another piece that Minnesota added was point guard Jeff Teague. The eight-year veteran is coming off just a single season with the Indiana Pacers, in which he averaged 15.3/4.0/7.8 per game. Teague helped the Pacers claim the seventh seed in the playoffs. They eventually got swept by Cleveland, but there were a few games that could have gone either way. Before the ’16-’17 season, Teague spent his first seven years in Atlanta playing for the Hawks. He’s had a solid career as a guy who can knock down shots, run the offense and spread the ball. He also comes with ample playoff experience and even made an all-star appearance. He’s not necessarily going to take over a game, but he’s a solid point guard who could be considered an upgrade from Ricky Rubio. He will work well with Butler and Wiggins. Teague is locked up until the summer of 2020, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Karl-Anthony Towns recently had another spectacular season. He finished the starting all 82 games, and continued to improve with 25.1/12.3 numbers on 54% shooting, and averaged 3.6 offensive rebounds to go along with 1.3 blocks per game. His name has continuously been thrown around by many NBA analysts and reporters as the player that they would personally choose to build a team around. He is athletic and effective on both sides of the ball. The seven-footer has been compared to Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Amar’e Stoudemire back when he was a monster for the Phoenix Suns. If he stays healthy like he has in his first two seasons, Towns will become one of the all-time great big men in NBA history. KAT is locked up for the next two seasons before becoming a restricted free agent. Minnesota would like to offer him a huge extension before that 2019 summer. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t match any offer that Towns received from another team.
Andrew Wiggins has had a nice start to his career. Last season, he averaged 23.6/4.0/2.3. Like Towns, Wiggins started all 82 games. In fact, he has only missed one game in his three-year career. Wiggins is a long, athletic small forward that is willing to take on tough assignments on the defensive end. However, his defensive ability has indeed been questioned as of late, and he must step up in that regard. He matches up well with offensive superstars like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kevin Durant. Wiggins has one more year on his contract before becoming a restricted free agent. Much like Towns, expect the Timberwolves to make a strong effort in persuading Wiggins to sign an extension before he can test the free agent market.
One of the other additions they T-Wolves made was signing former sixth-man of the year, Jamal Crawford. Crawford is a crafty dribbler and elite scorer. He averaged 12.3 PPG on 26 minutes per game last season. The 37-year-old will add a much-needed veteran presence to the young locker room. He will most likely be one of the primary ball handlers down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota also added Taj Gibson, who will add 10 points and 6 rebounds a game. Gibson is coming off of a season where he started with the Chicago Bulls and finished with the Oklahoma City Thunder. During his 23-game stint in OKC, Gibson saw his numbers drop slightly due to the fact that he had to figure out his role down low with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Gibson is generally utilized for his defensive contributions and his toughness that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, anyway. Gibson is an eight-year veteran that has played with a few superstars throughout his career. This season, he will be reunited with Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau.
In recent news, there has been talk of Kyrie Irving wanting to team up with Jimmy Butler in Minnesota. It stems from Butler and Irving’s great relationship that they built while they were teammates on Team USA. I would love to see Irving on the same court as Butler, Towns and Wiggins. However, I believe that the Timberwolves would not be able to acquire Irving without giving away established and vital pieces, which would generally have to include one of their three stars. One of the trade talks drummed up by the media mentioned sending Wiggins back to Cleveland. Wiggins was initially drafted by Cleveland in 2014, but was then part of the trade that sent Kevin Love to the Cavaliers. Another trade scenario revolved around adding Teague to the trade package. He can’t be dealt until December, so that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.
I think that the Timberwolves are a much stronger team since adding Butler, Teague and the other pieces. This group has at least a two-year window before contracts start expiring. If they can keep the core players together, Minnesota could be a real contender in the years to follow. I could imagine the Timberwolves claiming the fifth or sixth seed in the West, and even better if they gel together in their first season. I think that if they can match up with the Houston Rockets, it would be their best chance of advancing to the Western Conference semifinals. However, if they match up against Golden State or San Antonio, I don’t believe that they have a deep enough bench to overcome those already established teams.
The future is bright in Minnesota. They have a great young core. Tibbs is a players’ coach. If they were in the Eastern Conference, I would put them in contention with Cleveland and Boston to advance to the finals. Unfortunately for them, their path to the NBA finals is extraordinarily tough due to the competition out West.