First and foremost, congratulations to the Cleveland Cavaliers on winning the 2015-16 NBA Title. This was no easy feat, as the team had to go through, quite literally, the best team in basketball history. The 52 years of drought was ended, and it appears that everything is in place for a new dynasty to take place. The same thing can be said about their rivals, the Warriors. Both teams look as if they could be threats for the foreseeable future, even with some impending difficult roster decisions.
While this is taking place, there is another team that is very quietly – and dangerously – building a potential dynasty of their own. The typical names like the Lakers, Spurs, Knicks and Celtics are all typically associated with these types of dynasties, but this team is much different. In fact, when the words come out of my mouth, the initial thought might be laughter, but I assure you, they will be no joke. The biggest potential threat to the dynasties of the Cavaliers and the Warriors? The Minnesota Timberwolves.
Before we jump into the Timberwolves breakdown, let’s check out the free agency impact for the Cavs and Warriors. Here is the breakdown for the 2016 and 2017 free agency periods:
2016 – Matthew Dellavedova (R), Jordan McRae (T), LeBron James (P), Richard Jefferson (Retiring), James Jones (U), Timofey Mozgov (U), J.R. Smith (U)
2017 – Sasha Kaun (R), Dahntay Jones (U), Mo Williams (U)
2016 – Harrison Barnes (R), Ian Clark (R), Festus Ezeli (R), James Michael McAdoo (R), Leandro Barbosa (U), Brandon Rush (U), Marreese Speights (U), Anderson Varejao (U)
2017 – Andrew Bogut (U), Stephen Curry (U), Andre Iguodala (U), Shaun Livingston (U)
The Cavs situation is much more favorable. LeBron will opt out this summer, sign a one year deal, and then opt out again next summer and sign a large, long term contract once the salary cap has risen to the new peak. I would not be shocked to see Dellavedova or Mozgov not return to the team in 2016. It is possible that all of the 2017 free agents will not be part of the team the following year.
Golden State’s situation is a little different. It is entirely possible that Barnes finds himself in a new atmosphere in 2016, with the team prepping to have to resign three big names on the team, with Bogut, Curry and Iguodala entering free agency the next year. Curry is an absolute lock to get a huge deal, as he is basically playing for free in terms of what he brings to the team. The finish of the 2016-17 season will certainly play a huge part in how the team handles both Iguodala and Bogut, but my gut reaction is that both will either be gone or asked to take team friendly deals.
The one benefit both teams have is that players will be willing to take a reduced salary to play for a team that could potentially win a championship. Both teams could, and probably will, end up in the finals in the 2016-17 season. The early Vegas odds for the 2016-17 have Golden State as 2/1 favorites to win, with the Cavaliers coming in with 3/1 odds. The most astonishing jump? You guessed it: The Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Wolves are favored 70/1 to win the title, making them the twelfth highest favored team. For the 2015-16 season, they were likely a bottom five team, with odds over 200/1. That’s quite the jump for one team. What would have caused the jump? Well, there are a lot of reasons for this, so let’s start with the coach: Tom Thibodeau.
Coach Thibodeau is best remembered for his stints with the Chicago Bulls from 2010-2015. During his time there, he led the team to a 255-139 record, with playoff appearances in all five years, going to the conference finals in his first year with the team. He led a team that was often playing a minimum amount of players due to injuries, and still stayed competitive. He is known for his intense defensive mindedness, which led the Sacramento Kings to contract him independently to try to help with their defensive woes during his season away from the sport. Players were a very big fan of Thibodeau, especially Jimmy Butler, who has been the subject of trade rumors in recent days that would see him follow his former coach to Minnesota.
One of the biggest things that Thibodeau will bring to the table is his elite defensive coaching abilities. This table highlights just how much of a difference he brings to the game:
[table id=13 /]
As the table indicates, Thibodeau makes a massive difference to the team he coaches, as Chicago played like a league average defense the year after he left. During his time in Chicago, they were quite possibly the toughest defense in the NBA. The Wolves, since getting rid of Kevin Love, have been 30th and 28th in team defensive rankings, which is not going to take a team to the playoffs, let alone the finals.
What Thibodeau will inherit is a very young team. Their average age is dragged down by Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, who are 40 and 36 respectively. There is no questioning the offensive capabilities of the team, as they had a 104.3 offensive efficiency rating, which was the 11th highest in the league last year. The team was a fifth in assist ratio, 23rd in turnover ratio, 14th in offensive rebounding rate, 23rd in defensive rebounding rate, 14th in overall rebounding rate, 18th in effective field goal percentage and ninth in true shooting percentage. While there are certainly some things that need fixed, defensive rebounding in specific, this is a team that is doing some things right.
The team also has a great roster situation. They will have a $61.5 million salary cap, with the expected salary cap in 2016-17 to be around $94 million. This gives the team ample salary to make moves in the off-season if they desired to do so. Their free agent situation is very good as well, as in 2016, only Damjan Rudez (team option) and Tayshaun Prince are free agents. In 2017, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad are both restricted free agents, while Kevin Garnett and Greg Smith are unrestricted. Both Garnett and Smith will surely be gone, and the situation gets even better with the cap expected to spike even higher in 2017-18.
So how does this team break down? The best place to start is with the 2015-16 NBA Rookie of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns. The University of Kentucky product finished the year averaging 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. He ended the year with a PER [Player Efficiency Ranking] of 22.59, the 14th best in the entire league, ahead of the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin and Kyle Lowry. This, all with a coach in Sam Mitchell that was tossed into the position as a result of the tragic passing of Flip Saunders, and was never really able to get control over the young team. Towns has a high basketball IQ, and is the perfect centerpiece of the team moving forward.
At the guard position, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine form an excellent duo that perform different functions. Rubio is a master facilitator, finishing in the top five in the NBA in assists last year. LaVine, who is much more known for his insane ability to dunk the basketball, is also a very good scorer, and can shoot the three ball well. Both he and Rubio have quick hands that can give other guards problems and cause turnovers. Tyus Jones, while undersized, can certainly develop into a great backup point guard with good three point shooting abilities.
Then we have the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins.Wiggins is still just 21 years old, and has not even come close to hitting his stride yet, despite averaging over 20 points per game this past season. Wiggins is in line to gain the most from the involvement of Thibodeau, as he will likely be able to unlock Wiggins’ defensive capabilities that we just haven’t seen thus far in his NBA career. It is going to be the advancement of Wiggins that will ultimately decide how far the team will go in the next year.
If this team is limited in one area, it is likely to be at the forward/center spot. Outside of Towns, Gorgui Dieng is the next best player, and he is very good. He is able to contribute in a multitude of ways, and is a good defensive player as well. The rest of this team is where the problem starts. Shabazz Muhammad and Nemenja Bjelica are the best of the rest, but they both have to improve quite a bit to really give this team a fighting chance. Behind them, Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince are way past their primes, Adreian Payne has not done well in limited starts, Nikola Pekovic is constantly injured, and Damjan Rudez and Greg Smith don’t really add much to the overall landscape of the team.
The team also has another top 5 pick this year, which should yield another game ready player that will take their team up another level. The draft is still a few days away, but the popular choices to go to the Wolves include Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield and Jaylen Brown. The best bets would be for a player that could keep LaVine on the bench, as he provides an instant spark when he comes off the bench. The draft future looks bright for the team, aside from having to move their 2018 first round pick to Atlanta, but it is protected 1-14 for the next three years, and ends up becoming two second round picks in the fourth year if not satisfied the first three.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think the Wolves are going to challenge this coming year for the NBA Championship. However, if their roster continues to gel and grow together, the draft pick fits in and Thibodeau does what he does on the defensive side of the ball, this team is just a few years away from being a legitimate threat to both the Cavs and Golden State. If guys like Jimmy Butler are ready to walk away from where they are, no matter how unhappy he may be, to join Thibs and company, then you know they are doing something right.