Why Every Basketball Fan Should Care About This Season’s Minnesota Timberwolves

The 2015-16 NBA Season starts soon, preseason hoops are in full swing, and playoff prognostications have begun in earnest. Since season previews can get bogged down by team-specific minutiae, and we cover every basketball team, we’re providing our readers reasons why you should care about all 30 teams in the Association.

DIME MAG’s 2015-16 NBA Season Previews

All these Minney youngsters will be head-butting the basket stanchion in no time. The Association’s day care center is back this season with the No. 1 overall pick on the cover of SI with Minnesota’s best player ever, Kevin Garnett. KG is joined by the Professor, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince — the latter of whom will try and teach Andrew Wiggins all the tittle tips and tricks to guarding the best wings in the league. Miller will just pound Rubio in the post during practice.

That’s a fun group especially when you add Ricky Rubio’s beard and prepubescent voice. The various lineups will be the thing to watch for, especially with Sam Mitchell taking over as Flip Saunders battles cancer.

The opening night starting lineup of Rubio, Zach Lavine (in a bit of a surprise over Kevin Martin), Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Garnett and Gorgui Dieng could see two new additions as Towns gets ready and Pekovic returns to the court after coming back from surgery on his right Achilles. We’ve got more on Pek in a sec, but here’s a reminder why KG’s early career had so many of us old farts agog (he was basically Anthony Davis before Anthony Davis).

The real question is: Can Minnesota stop anyone from scoring? They gave up more points per possession than any other team last season, and the addition of Towns — not to mention the year-long presence of Garnett — should shore up their lack of rim protection, or at least limit it. But all of these guys are young and defense at the NBA level takes more time to understand than offense, even though it might not seem like it on the surface.

(Defensive rotations, specifically the timing of them, are incredibly difficult to learn, especially if they change season by season. They need to be so ingrained they became automatic, where fast-twitch muscles react to an offensive player without any hesitation. But that’s easier said than done, especially during the season with lineup changes.)

We could write paeans to Zach LaVine’s dunks and Andrew Wiggins’ developing back-to-the-basket game. We could talk about Ricky’s third eye, or Kevin Martin’s ability to draw fouls despite that wonky set shot. Maybe we could even talk about Towns’ ability to step out and knock down mid-range jumper and what that’ll mean for them if they put him at center (and move Wiggins over to the four).

Instead, the first person that makes the Timberwolves so intriguing is perhaps the least intriguing person on the roster.

Nikola Pekovic trade watch

Everyone knows what Nikola can do. He can get you 20 and 10 in 36 minutes of action with an efficient enough smattering of jump hooks and rumbling rolls to the rim to sport a player efficiency rating above 20 (the league average is 15). He finished with one in the three season’s before last, which is why But he’s never played all 82 games and appeared in a career-low 31 in 2014-15. His “debridement and repair” surgery on his right Achilles’ tendon in early April was just another chance for the Montenegrin to go under the knife.

Besides some solid offensive production before last season, that’s his thing, you see — surgery. He’s always missing time. And it’s not cheap.

We think Pek would be starting at center if he weren’t still convalescing from the Achilles debridement (aka removing damaged tissue). You see, they want to unload Pekovic. While it’s all well and fine that Minnesota is going to start Karl-Anthony Towns off as KG’s replacement at the four, he’s as perfect a rookie five as we’ve seen since Andre Drummond came out. Except, Towns can hit his free throws.

That means they’d like to unload Pek. Since Pek hasn’t played much over the last year, and when he has, he’s been less than his usual scoring and (cheap — i.e. after the other team’s free throws) rebounding self, they need to get him some run to entice other teams to take on the three years and nearly $36 million he has remaining on his deal.

If Pekovic isn’t dealt before the February deadline, something has gone wrong. With Pek that usually means an injury. But it could also be they’re not finding any takers, since there’s not a huge market for a slow 29-year-old center who can’t stay on the floor without getting dinged up and makes nearly $12 million a season. Sure, the cap spike will help, but not much.

The Pek trade watch is a real thing, and it’ll make the Timberwolves even more enticing for hoop heads. This season is all about showcasing Minnesota’s young talent, and they can’t do that as effectively with Pekovic still around.

All the upside for a multitude of different lineups

Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will eventually lift the Minnesota Timberwolves from the bottom of the NBA cellar. The No. 1 pick of last year’s draft is arguably the most promising wing the game has seen since Kevin Durant, and June’s top pick represents the ideal modern center – a big who has the potential to make a sweeping impact not just on both ends of the floor, but also all over it.

Minnesota will make strides this season. Wiggins showed a much-improved jumper and flashed burgeoning playmaking comfort at the FIBA Americas. An offseason of strength training and seven additional months of experience should begin the process of turning Zach LaVine from a tantalizing prospect to a helpful player. Healthy seasons from Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad would prove a boon immediately and going forward, while the veteran influence of Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, and Tayshaun Prince will do the same, albeit in a far different manner.

All that said, there’s guarantee that Minnesota will fare much better in 2015-16 than it did last season. The West is as stacked in the middle as it is at the top, and Sam Mitchell’s team – get well, Flip Saunders! – is clearly behind a group of several playoff hopefuls led by the Utah Jazz. Hopes of the Timberwolves contending for the postseason are delusional; they’re more likely to be battling for lottery balls come early spring than anything else.

But progress for rebuilding franchise shouldn’t be measured by wins and losses, and Minny has the makings of a competitive, ultra-versatile core already in place. A pair of superstars isn’t enough in today’s game, though, and it remains to be seen how many of the ‘Wolves ancillary player will be around for the long-haul. LaVine is a ball of clay; Muhammad could be somewhat redundant depending on Wiggins’ evolution; and trade winds have been swirling around Rubio for months.

Kevin Garnett
Getty Image

Who could be Minnesota’s most important role player going forward? Its most anonymous youngster, reigning Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica.

Concerns related to his NBA acclimation are all about athleticism. The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder has every offensive attribute teams want from a power forward in 2015: deep shooting range, keen court sense, and the ability to make plays in space. Bjelica has even displayed an ability to create off the dribble as a pick-and-roll ball handler, too. He’s the perfect complement to a fully realized Wiggins and Towns.

Defensively is where evaluators assumed the 27-year-old rookie would struggle, and that’s a fair expectation. He’s a first-year player despite his age, after all, and has the doughy body composition normally associated with slow-footed defensive liabilities. Then there’s the stigma associated with all European players on that end of the ball.

Based on his preseason play, however, Bjelica seems poised to prove expectations wrong. He’s an extremely active defender, and has quick, instinctive hands that make him a pest whenever he’s around the ball. The Serbian star won’t ever garner legitimate consideration for All-Defense honors, of course, and could certainly be exploited in certain matchups, too. But he won’t be the defensive zero so many expected – for this season or those going forward.

Make no mistake, either: It’s still all about the future for the Timberwolves no matter how they perform in 2015-16. With Wiggins, Towns, and other young incumbents, this team’s prospects were always going to be bright. Bjelica, though, is the role player who will most allow Minnesota to flash its long-term team-wide potential – not to mention eventually render it sustainable.