The Minnesota Timberwolves will not be among the 22 teams heading to Disney World to finish the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season and as such, it's time to assess what's next for the franchise still searching for success around star centre Karl-Anthony Towns.
This past season saw nothing short of sweeping changes. While Ryan Saunders was retained as head coach following an interim stint last season, the team overhauled both the front office and rest of the roster.
Andrew Wiggins - once viewed at a franchise pillar alongside Towns - was shipped off to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for D'Angelo Russell, while Robert Covington - the last remaining piece from the Jimmy Butler trade - was traded away to the Houston Rockets. Derrick Rose? Gone. Tyus Jones? Gone. Taj Gibson? Gone. Jeff Teague? Traded away midseason.
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The team also hired former Rockets executive and long-time Daryl Morey understudy Gersson Rosas to take over in the front office.
All of this done with one singular mission: start fresh - again - with the intent of building around Towns.
The result of those sweeping changes? A disappointing 19-45 finish and yet another season in the lottery. After a promising 10-8 start, the Wolves limped to a 9-37 finish, the worst record in the NBA after December 1. Since making the playoffs in 2018 to end a 13-year postseason drought, it's been two colossal steps backwards for a franchise 24 months removed from having one of the league's brightest futures.
So with the season over, what's next for Minnesota?
Towns is under contract for four more years so barring a trade, he's not leaving anytime soon. Russell - the major piece acquired in the Wiggins trade and someone the team recruited hard in free agency last offseason - is signed through the 2022-23 season. By virtue of finishing with one of the three worst records, they also have a 14% chance of landing the number one pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Rosas joined the Timberwolves in May 2019 to give a new face to a franchise that has not won a playoff series since 2004. The Colombian, one of the youngest GMs in the NBA (42 years old) spoke with NBA.com back in Chicago during 2020 All-Star weekend and expressed his long-term vision for the franchise. "Our goal is to play fast, strategic. Offensively we want to change the floor in the way they defend us. And those are the same things that we must prevent defensively. We want to be very consistent. Quick, aggressive, strategic."
"Quick. Aggressive. Strategic."
According to Rosas, that is partly why he insisted on a young coaching staff. In addition to the 34-year old Saunders, the team also added youthful assistants Pablo Prigioni (43 years old) and Kevin Burleson (40). "The youth of the coaching staff is by design. We want creativity. We want to play a modern game."
Though not reflected in the standings, that modern game showed out in full force in 2019-20, most notably through the play of Towns who went from having a serviceable 3-point shot to becoming one of the league's most prolific long-range bombers.
Most encouraging? Despite the massive surge in volume, Towns maintained his efficiency as he drained 41.2 percent of his treys which ranked in the 90th percentile among the league's top 100 in overall attempts.
Towns also made strides as a playmaker, setting a career-high with 4.6 assists per game and while his rebounding did come down slightly, Towns remained among the top 20 leaguewide in double-doubles. Add it all up? 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.2 blocks in 33.9 minutes per game, All-Star and potentially All-NBA worthy production. Rosas believes Towns is the perfect big suited to dominate in the modern game.
"I think the system we have for him is incredible. He is one of the best shooters at his position. We are developing his game offensively and defensively. This year injuries have affected him and he has missed 15 or 20 games. But with his talent, his development, his ability... we believe that for the modern game, he is the best player at his position."
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That Towns could end the year without any individual accolades speaks more to the team's overall results and Towns's own injury struggles than it does his actual abilty. Minnesota had two different losing streaks of at least 11 games with Towns in and out of the lineup due to a litany of injuries that hadn't been much of an issue over his first four years in the league. After missing a grand total of five games over his first four seasons, Towns had two separate injuries - a sprained knee and a fractured wrist - that kept him out for extended stretches.
The ill-timed fractured wrist sustained just days prior to All-Star weekend kept Towns and Russell from hardly ever seeing the floor together after the oft-rumoured trade was finally consumated after months of speculation.
The long-time friends who have angled to play together for years shared the floor for just one game, an 11-point road loss to the Toronto Raptors in February. Towns and Russell shared the floor for all of 25 minutes in that game, not offering much of a window into their partnership.
The two-man game, particularly interesting given their abilities to independently score on all three levels, proved almpost non-existent, with their time on the court together resulting in just three total plays that involved them both.
First, a play in which they generated a switch (Fred VanVleet and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) with D-Lo beating Hollis-Jefferson one on one to drain a triple. On paper, the diverse offensive skillset of both make switching almost mandatory to successfully defend them.
A little while later that same mismatch materialized, this time leaving VanVleet to try and defend Towns in the post. Though he was able to turn and drive, Towns could not finish over Pascal Siakam who slid over to help.
The last? A catch-and-shoot 3 by Towns with 17 seconds left on the shot clock after a switch left VanVleet to cover Towns at the top of the key. In KAT's defense here, it was a 14-point game with just under 2:00 to go in regulation which didn't leave much time to reposition or hunt for a better look.
Towns finished that game with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists with Russell pitching in 22 points and 5 assists. The other three starters that night? Josh Okogie, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangómez, all three of whom can have a future together with Russell and Towns. Both Beasley and Hernangómez stretch the floor while Okogie has all the makings of an All-League defensive perimeter stopper.
Although 11 of his 12 games came without Towns, the Timberwolves should be encouraged by the play of Russell who averaged 21.7 points, 6.6 assists and 4.7 rebounds, not far off from the production which earned him a trip to the All-Star Game in 2019 with the Nets.
Beyond Russell, more encouraging is the play of Beasley and Hernángomez who arrived midway through the season from the Nuggets. Their minutes and roles grew substantially compared to in Denver where both were at times lost in the shuffle on a deep Western Conference contender. Beasley proved to be a dangerous shooting guard (20.7 points on 42.6 percent shooting from 3) while the Spaniard had his best month in the NBA, averaging 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 14 starts.
The importance of the two former Nuggets was not lost on Rosas. "For us it is very important, not only to have added to our foundation, but to add players who can play fast, shoot and defend. The identity and style that we want to have takes time and takes effort. But we also need personnel who can play that style. Juancho was a very important addition, because we felt he could play with Karl in a very strategic way, offensively and defensively. We highly value the space and speed with which we play. And he helps us a lot that way. And defensively, his way of playing, fighting every night, is very important to us . "
The Wolves will have to make an important decision regarding them in the coming months as both Beasley and Hernangómez will be free agents. The potentially large paydays - moreso than their ability as players - is why Denver opted to trade them in the first place. In a free agent market that doesn't have as many eye-catching pieces they may be interesting to other franchises, but at least Minnesota will be able to match any offer since they are restricted free agents coming off rookie contracts.
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With its renovations and incoming draft picks (one very high plus another in the range of 15 to 17 they will add if the Nets qualify for the playoffs), Minnesota would hardly have any salary space in the market to sign any player outside of the mid-level exception. Barring any unforeseen and unexpected moves, the core in place right now is the one the Wolves will move forward with entering next season.
More than anything, 2020-21 presented Minnesota with the opportunity to reshuffle the deck in a giant game of NBA five-card draw in which it kept its ace in Towns while swapping out every other card for a new piece.
Only time will tell if the cards dealt Minnesota's way result in a winning hand.
The opinions expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.