From ping-pong balls to prosperity? The Minnesota Timberwolves have spent nearly the last decade and a half waiting for their luck to change. Waiting for ping-pong balls to bounce their way. Waiting for lottery pick after lottery pick to pan out, but ultimately never living up to their potential or completely falling on their face (Hi, Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson). Waiting to land big name players through trades or free agency.
It seems over the last three years, the Wolves fortunes were slowly changing. Former head coach and President of Basketball Operations, Flip Saunders, was able to turn Kevin Love into Andrew Wiggins in the summer of 2014. The following spring, after finishing the season as the worst team in the league, the ping-pong balls didn’t so much bounce their way but rather didn’t bounce another team way. The Wolves won the NBA Lottery and took Karl-Anthony Towns.
With the passing of Flip Saunders a few months later, a power vacuum of sorts was created in Minnesota. Sam Mitchell took over as interim head coach and Milt Newton stepped in to call the shots on player personnel decisions. Immediately following the last game of the 2015-16 season, owner Glen Taylor made the decision to let Sam Mitchell go and shortly thereafter hired former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau as head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Newton was let go a short time later and Scott Layden was brought in to serve as GM.
Fast forward a year later, and Tom Thibodeau is putting his stamp on this Wolves team. First on draft night. The Wolves swapped Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, the No. 7 overall pick (Lauri Markannen) for Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick (Justin Patton). The trade was highway robbery. Thibodeau was able to get his guy in Butler while disposing Dunn, a player who struggled (to put it lightly), on the offensive end of the floor and Zach LaVine, an explosive player with tons of potential to be great, but is lost on defense and is recovering from an ACL tear. The trade signaled the Wolves were ready to be relevant again and were ready to take the next step forward with their young core of Wiggins and Towns.
Heading into free agency, the Wolves had money to spend and a dilemma. What do they do with point guard Ricky Rubio? The Spaniard, while he makes everyone around him better and is an above average defender, has one big flaw in his game – his shot. With the loss of LaVine, the Wolves no longer had a player that could stretch the floor and hit the outside shot, which made Rubio expendable. Hours before free agency began, the Wolves sent Rubio to Utah for a first round pick. Completely wiping his contract off their books and giving them, even more money to work with.
As the start of free agency approached, reports began circulating that the Wolves had agreed to a three-year $57 million deal with point guard Jeff Teague. While it wasn’t the flashy point guard most Wolves fans were hoping for to be Rubio’s replacement, Teague does provide the one thing that Rubio couldn’t – the ability to hit open shots and keep defenses honest, which is essential in Thibs offense, especially considering Butler and Wiggins aren’t shooters. The Wolves likely would’ve struggled to create space and stretch the floor with Rubio in the lineup, which is essential in today’s NBA. Teague at the very least gives Thibodeau another weapon to use and one more player defenses have to worry about to go alongside Towns, Wiggins and Butler.
However, it looks like the Thibodeau and Wolves aren’t done trying to make a splash in free agency. Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders reports that the Wolves are meeting with power forward Paul Millsap on Saturday. Some money would need to be moved around, but if the Wolves could land Millsap, they have a team that could go toe-to-toe with the upper echelon teams in the league, and depending on Wiggins and Towns development, could make a run at the Western Conference in a year or two. Millsap’s ability to play both sides of the floor would not only make them dangerous on the offensive side of the floor but would greatly improve their defense, something the team struggled with a ton last season.
In a little over a week, Thibodeau has completely changed the culture and the perception of the Wolves. It started with Jimmy Butler. His arrival in a way put the rest of the NBA on notice. Minnesota was done being basement dwellers. Done watching ping-pong ball bounce. Done being the doormat of the league. Done missing the playoffs. It’s time to move forward and time to start winning.
The Wolves are on the cusp of creating a super team if everything goes to plan with Towns and Wiggins development. Towns-Butler-Wiggins is a formidable big three, but if the Wolves can find a way to add Millsap, the Wolves are now a super team in waiting. At the very least, they’re smack-dab in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture.
The NBA is a poker table. Young assets and cap space are the Wolves poker chips. They’ve pushed their chips to the center of the table and are ready to make their move. Take notice, NBA.