This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.
If there was one truism of the modern NBA drilled home in 2019 it was this:
If your team has a superstar player, the clock is always ticking.
Minnesota has its superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns. Already one of the game’s top centers at age 23, he averaged 22.4 points a night on 51.8 percent shooting last season, hit 40 percent from three (taking 4.6 shots a night), plus pulled down 12.4 rebounds a contest. He’s an All-Star and All-NBA level center who has another gear or two he can reach, and when he does good luck slowing him down.
Minnesota has Towns locked up — his five-year, $190 million max contract extension kicks in this season. Towns says he’s happy in Minnesota and plans to stick around, and he has a strong relationship with coach Ryan Saunders. This is not a disgruntled superstar trying to push his way out the door.
But the clock is always ticking.
Minnesota won 36 games last season — despite the fact Jimmy Butler torpedoed the team and Tom Thibodeau’s job during trading camp — and is projected to be in that same ballpark this season (the Westgate line in Las Vegas is under/over 35.5 wins).
If Minnesota beats the Vegas projection — and on the high end flirts with a playoff spot in the deep and brutal West — it will be because Towns took steps forward. Again. Saunders plans to get Towns more touches by using him in more of a Nikola Jokic role as an offensive facilitator at the elbow, something Towns has craved. Minnesota had an 112.2 offensive rating when Towns was on the court last season (that would have been sixth in the league) and that number could go up. If Towns also becomes more of a consistent force on the defensive end — he has done it for stretches but not night in and night out — that’s another way Minnesota improves. Robert Covington in Towns’ ear every night helps on that front.
However, Minnesota’s improvement would not come from the roster around Towns — and that’s what keeps the clock ticking. Minnesota has yet to put a strong roster where the pieces fit well together around its young star.
New head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas knows it, and knows he has a couple of years to build something around Towns that keeps his superstar happy. To his credit, Rosas tried this summer and was in the running to land D’Angelo Russell (a good friend of Towns) before the Warriors swooped in. Minnesota needs more of that kind of aggressive thinking.
Rosas needs to figure out who will be the No. 2 star next to Towns? Thibodeau thought it would be Butler, but that blew up spectacularly. Right now there is no answer.
Right now, this is a roster that needs work. A lot of work.
Robert Covington is Minnesota’s second-best player heading into the season — a guy who shot 37.8 percent from three last season and, if healthy, could get into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation — and he’s locked up for two more seasons after this one. Covington brings much-needed shooting and a defensive mindset. But he’s not a No. 2 option on an elite team, he’s just the best Minnesota has.
After that… things get a little slim.
Andrew Wiggins is being paid to be that No. 2 guy but instead is the anchor weighing down rebuilding this roster. He has four years left on a max contract and while he puts up empty calorie points (18.1 per game last season) his shooting percentage drops every season (here are his percentages the past four years: 45.9, 45.2, 43.8, 41.2). His lack of efficiency, the fact he doesn’t really get rebounds or assists, his casualness towards defense, it all just drags the team down. The Timberwolves would love to trade Wiggins — expect to hear rumors about it — but the four-years, $122.3 million he is still owed makes him one of the hardest players to trade in the league (maybe only John Wall would be harder to move at this point). Minnesota likely has to throw in a sweetener, but Wiggins gets easier to trade next summer and beyond as the years left decrease.
Josh Okogie enters his second season with a lot of promise but what exactly is his ceiling? The Timberwolves drafted Jarrett Culver at No. 6 and are betting he can be part of the future in Minnesota. Both youngsters have potential, but a lot to prove still.
Jeff Teague is a solid point guard but is in the last year of his contract and is not the future at that spot. Gorgui Dieng is a good enough backup big but will make $33.5 million over the next two seasons in that role. They got Jordan Bell on a steal of a deal to soak up some frontcourt minutes off the bench and bring energy. Jake Layman is a nice pickup as a rotation guy. Shabazz Napier is a fine backup point guard.
Is that a playoff roster? Probably not this season, not in this tsunami of a Western Conference. Even with Towns taking a step forward.
Which is why the clock is ticking.
It’s still in the distance, there’s time to build a quality playoff roster around Towns, but Rosas hears it. He knows if things don’t change in the next couple of years it’s only going to get louder and louder.