The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.
Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.
But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:
“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”
Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.
The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.
Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.