The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
2016-17 finish: 31-51, 13th in the West
• Offensive rating: 108.1 (10th)
• Defensive rating: 109.1 (26th)
Additions: Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Justin Patton, Amile Jefferson
Subtractions: Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, Omri Casspi, Adreian Payne, Brandon Rush
Did the summer help at all?
You betcha. That’s not only something I imagine the good people of Minnesota might say, it’s true.
The Wolves traded a guy who’s recovering from ACL surgery (LaVine), a potential draft bust (Dunn) and a first-round pick for Butler, one of the league’s 15 best players. You make that deal 11 times out of 10.
Tom Thibodeau also brought in Gibson to pair with Butler in an attempt to replicate the defensive powerhouse that was their Chicago Bulls. The hope is they’ll rub off on Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two offensive dynamos who haven’t found their way on the other end. With Butler and Gibson playing significant roles, it would be genuinely surprising if Minnesota didn’t improve from one of the five worst defensive units in the league last season to around league average in 2017-18.
Teague may not be the playmaker or defender Rubio was, but he’s a former All-Star who has steered teams to the playoffs every year since becoming a starter, including a 60-win campaign with a 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks team that was sound defensively. Teague is also a much better shooter than the player he’s replacing, and his off-ball ability when the Wolves run offense through Butler or Wiggins will give them a dynamic they sorely lacked with multiple non-shooters in their starting lineup a season ago.
Crawford won’t do anything to improve the defense, but he gives the Wolves another veteran presence and a potentially explosive scorer off the bench that the previously lacked under Thibodeau. To a less degree, the same can be said of Brooks, should Minnesota guarantee his contract. And re-signing Shabazz Muhammad further bolsters the wing depth, even if they’re defensively deficient as a group.
Patton and Jefferson are a couple more big bodies, but don’t expect much from either in a crowded frontcourt that also features Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Adrich behind Towns and Gibson.
The biggest question mark of Minnesota’s offseason was the $148 million max extension for Wiggins. In many ways, the Wolves had little choice but to extend a former No. 1 pick who is already a prolific scorer and still has so much room for growth at age 22. We’ve covered Wiggins’ potential in great detail here before, also understanding that his limitations could make Minnesota regret that contract.
So, it’s somewhat curious why the Wolves took him off the table in Kyrie Irving trade discussions. An Irving-Butler-Towns triumvirate would have had the makings of a perennial 50-win core and a title contender in 2020. That may still be the case with Wiggins, but he’s less of a sure thing than Irving.
Best-case scenario: Butler blends in seamlessly, motivating Wiggins to defend, and the same goes for Gibson and Towns, resulting in a stout defensive outfit. Towns picks up where he left off on offense last season, when he averaged 28.4 points and 13.4 rebounds after the All-Star break and cemented himself as an All-NBA-caliber weapon. Minnesota’s arsenal creates enough room for everyone to enjoy a career shooting year, and Teague directs one of the league’s elite offenses. And the Wolves are the trendy first-round upset pick everyone made them out to be when Thibodeau first took the job.
If everything falls apart: Thibodeau runs everyone into the ground. A worn-out Butler’s abrasiveness wears on the young Wolves. Wiggins and Towns lose interest on defense, and what’s worse, Minnesota immediately regrets committing roughly $30 million a year to the former through 2023. Teague isn’t an upgrade over Rubio. The bench, a mix of inconsistent contributors, young and old, is a disaster. And the Wolves, after all that tinkering, still can’t vie for a playoff spot in a stacked Western Conference.
Best guess at a record: 48-34
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