Losses: Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Tyus Jones, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose.
Additions: Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Shabazz Napier, Traveon Graham, Jordan Bell, Tyrone Wallace, Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell, Naz Reid.
Likely Starters Guard: Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie Wing: Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington Big: Karl-Anthony Towns
Predicted Record: 37–45 | 22rd in NBA | 13th in West
Without looking it up, guess how old Jeff Teague is. Go ahead, guess. Okay, I’ll tell you the answer: he’s 31. Can you believe Jeff Teague is 31? When I started looking at the Timberwolves and thinking about what kind of team they might be this year, I had this moment where I was like, “Maybe Jeff Teague will be better this year?” Jeff Teague, though, is not going to be better this year. Likely, he’s going to be worse.
Jeff Teague’s general 31-ness, metonymically, is a pretty good way of thinking about the Timberwolves in general. They seem to have this wide open future ahead of them, but when you really look hard at what is happening here, it might already be all over.
The success or, more likely, failure of this team this season and beyond will depend not on Jeff Teague, of course, but on Karl-Anthony Towns and, more terrifyingly, Andrew Wiggins. A few years ago, these two had been the first overall picks in subsequent drafts, and the Timberwolves seemed to be an inevitable basketball juggernaut over the next decade. Now, Towns is a guy who constantly falls tantalizingly shy of our expectations of him (lackadaisical defense and an absence of relentlessness on offense), and Wiggins is an untradable albatross under contract for roughly $120M over the next four seasons.
Perhaps no team in the NBA currently has a wider possible range of short term and long term outcomes for their current core roster. You can squint at these Wolves and see Towns as an MVP-level hub surrounded by the varied skill sets of guys like Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, Josh Okogie, brand new lottery pick Jarrett Culver, and maybe even a miraculously revitalized (or, like, just vitalized?) version of Wiggins. That’s an interesting team, capable of playing good defense on one end and scoring in multiple ways at all levels of the floor on the other.
On the other hand, instead of squinting, you can just look at what’s here. Towns is inattentive on defense, and there are entire halves of basketball games during which it seems like he isn’t even out there. Wiggins has shown no inclination whatsoever towards any sort of winning habits on a basketball court. Robert Covington and Josh Okogie are awesome, but they are awesome role players, not primary hubs. At times during this past season at Texas Tech, Jarrett Culver was the astonishing, all-court, organizing principle for his team; at other times, he was going 5-for-16 in the title game while his teammates made endless big plays to keep them afloat.
You know how, in movies, there’s always this moment where the main character, who has been through some sort of harrowing conflict, finally thinks things are turning around, and is driving down the boulevard, good music on the stereo, improving vibes swirling in the atmosphere, and then—BAM!—gets bulldozed by oncoming traffic while pulling through an intersection? I couldn’t help but think of that kind of moment when I was listening to head coach Ryan Saunders talk about his optimism for this team on Zach Lowe’s podcast earlier this summer. I just can’t help but feel at this point that any optimism about this particular iteration of the Timberwolves is foolish. There’s a wreck on the horizon.
Ultimately, the only way out of this mess is Wiggins. Any scenario in which Wiggins continues playing listless, sad basketball for the Timberwolves is a nightmare. If they can trade him to a team that talks themselves into the mirage (remember how many teams traded for Jeff Green over the years?), that’s a possible way out. If Wiggins by some inner grace heretofore invisible manages to become a competent basketball player, that’s another way out. More likely, the Timberwolves will be late to the realization that all of the hope they thought they saw on the horizon was really just another busted ship off in the distance. Sometimes one rebuild presages another.