Minnesota Timberwolves

Timberwolves offseason outlook: Expecting improvements from defense, Wiggins, youth

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From left: Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (Getty Images)

Big issue 1: The addition of Jimmy Butler from the Bulls brought significant changes to the Timberwolves, giving the team a reliable veteran star on the floor and in the locker room. Butler was productive as usual, averaging 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists, and with Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford in the fold, Minnesota's problem of excessive youth was quickly erased, and a more mature group ended the franchise's 14-year playoff drought.

But it wasn't perfect. The team didn't get much better defensively, finishing the season with a defensive rating of 108.4 points per 100 possessions, 22nd in the league and second-worst among playoff teams. That's a slight improvement over 2016-17 (26th in the league, 109.1), but not the kind of bounce that coach Tom Thibodeau - who made his name on defense - hoped to achieve.

And it wasn't the injury to Butler, which kept him out from late February to early April, that was to blame. Before Butler got hurt, Minnesota was 25th in DR, at 108.3. Which is to say, they weren't very good defensively even with a healthy Butler.

There wasn't much that Minnesota did well defensively. The Wolves allowed the second-most points in transition this season, were mediocre defending spot-up shooters and the pick-and-roll, ranked 20th in second-chance points and points in the paint allowed and 27th in opponents' effective field-goal percentage.

Thibodeau's aggressive defensive system was innovative 10 years ago, but it has spread around the league, and offenses have learned to handle and exploit it. Perhaps he needs to rethink his approach.

More likely, though, overall defensive improvement will have to come from individual improvement from the likes of Andrew Wiggins and star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, two physically gifted athletes who should be much better defensive players than they are.

The Timberwolves should be back in the playoffs next season, and if they can stay healthy, they should earn a better seed (they were third in the West when Butler was injured) that will afford them a better chance to advance. But if they want to improve their chances at developing into a legitimate contender, or at least into a candidate to win a round or two in the postseason, they'll need significant defensive improvement.

Big issue 2: What about Wiggins? There have been rumors that Wiggins was not entirely satisfied with his new status on the team once Butler arrived. Towns is a freakish athlete for his size (7-0) and needs to develop into an elite scorer. Butler is the hired All-Star the Timberwolves need to provide consistency.

That has left Wiggins, whose shots-per-game average went from 19.1 last season to 15.9 this season, as the third wheel. For a guy who shot 43.8 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from the 3-point line, that's as it should be.

But Wiggins is 23 years old and sees himself as a top-option scorer. He is about to be paid like one, too, as his five-year extension worth nearly $150 million kicks in next season. If you're thinking that perhaps a trade to send Wiggins elsewhere is in order, think again - no team wants to take on that sizable deal for a guy who has shown himself to be a poor 3-point shooter (33.0 percent for his career) and only a sometimes-interested defensive player.

Not sure what Butler and/or Thibodeau can say to Wiggins to keep him engaged and focused heading into next season. Maybe the ballooning of his paycheck will do the trick. It's critical, though, that Wiggins make individual improvements for the Timberwolves to keep growing.

Free-agent outlook: The first order of business will be handing Towns a max extension, a process that should be much less messy than the two previous max deals the Timberwolves have given out, to Wiggins and Kevin Love, both of which took some wrangling and ego-deflating. Towns' deal will kick in for the 2019-20 season, when Minnesota will also be looking at the free agencies of Butler and Teague.

Less settled is the status of forward Nemanja Bjelica, a restricted free agent who was a solid contributor off the bench (one of the few quality reserves on the roster) and as a starter in a pinch. Bjelica will get some interest around the league, but he turns 30 in early May and won't be a high priority for teams with cap space. The Wolves will hold out hope that Bjelica goes overlooked around the league, and can be kept for the midlevel exception.

Other than Bjelica, most of the roster is cemented into place. Thibodeau could bring back guard Derrick Rose, which would likely further tick off some Minnesota loyalists who wonder why Thibodeau keeps hindering the development of point guard Tyus Jones.

The young folks: We know the challenge that this offseason will present for Towns and Wiggins, but because the Wolves are so locked into their current roster, getting some internal improvement from other spots would be valuable.

Begin with Jones, who can't seem to get the trust of Thibodeau despite playing well when given a chance. Jones had a net rating this year of plus-6.1 in 82 games, second on the team only to Butler, yet the Wolves still went and signed Rose, who had a minus-4.4 rating in nine games with Minnesota, but still ate into Jones' postseason minutes. Thibodeau likes veterans, obviously, but he seems to be too stubborn about that at times.

The team's lone rookie draftee, Justin Patton, played only one game and was so-so in the G League (12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds). The Wolves owe their first-rounder to Atlanta this year, but they will have Oklahoma City's pick, which is No. 20.

Wait till next year: The upside for the Timberwolves is that they broke the seal on their playoff return, they'll have the team back as a whole next year, they have two young stars with room to improve and some teams in the West ahead of them (Oklahoma City and San Antonio, certainly) are heading into turbulent offseasons and could be headed for a precipitous fall. The Wolves should be a near lock to land a top-five seed in the West.

The Wolves won 47 games this year despite missing Butler for more than a quarter of the season. If he stays healthy, an improvement to 50 wins should be a comfortable goal. That might even be enough to set up a postseason series win.

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