The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Thursday night matchup on TNT featured a team with an entirely different style of play than that of the T-Wolves. The Houston Rockets like to spread the floor and shoot three’s–a historic amount of three’s, in fact. They average 43.5 three point attempts per game which is good for first in the league in that category. The Wolves average 22.6 attempts which is third worst. Tom Thibodeau’s grind-it-out defensive style of play versus Mike D’Antoni’s pace and space, defense optional style was on full display at the Toyota Center.
The Rockets won handily as they pulled away in the fourth quarter after the Wolves cut the deficit to single digits in the third quarter. The Rockets fire power from behind the arc was just too much for the Wolves to overcome. Which begs the question, are the Timberwolves legit championship contenders? Can they play with teams like the Golden State Warriors, Rockets, and Cavs who all rank in the top five in three point makes per game?
The need for three point shooting was very apparent against the Rockets. Having said that, I believe the Wolves are legitimate contenders this season. Does that mean that I think the Wolves can beat the Warriors or Rockets as their roster is currently constructed? Not quite. The Wolves are way ahead of schedule with the development of their talent, but are still a piece or two away in my opinion. So how are they contenders if I don’t even think they can beat the top two teams in the Western Conference? One word: injuries.
We saw it in the season opener: Cavs vs. Celtics. Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome lower leg injury in the opening minutes of the game. This changed the landscape of the Eastern Conference in an instant. Basketball is a crazy sport where anything can happen at any time. The Warriors are one bad ankle injury to Stephen Curry (who’s had multiple procedures on his ankles) from not being the favorites to win it all. Are the Rockets still contenders if 32 year-old Chris Paul goes down? The Wolves are the third best team in the West after another serious injury to the Spurs’ Kawhi leonard. So while they are contenders, there is obvious room for improvement and an opportunity to get the help they need. Cue free-agency rumors!
Nah, this isn’t one of those articles where I report breaking news that I heard from my cousin’s x-fiance who heard it from his neighbor’s dermatologist that the Wolves are trading Andrew Wiggins for LeBron James. I’m talking real, tangible role players with cheap, reasonable contracts that the Wolves can acquire while setting themselves up for the future (sheesh, what a sexy concept that is!). Keep in mind we still have to pay Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones this summer. So what do the Wolves need? Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins are third and tenth in the league respectively in minutes per game. A “3 and D” wing that can take some minutes away from them would be ideal.
One name I anticipate to be moved is Iman Shumpert of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Shump came in the trade with J. R. Smith from the Knicks and has been buried behind vets such as Dwayne Wade and Kyle Korver on the depth chart. Shumpert is still a young talent, but has been groomed on a championship team and has developed a formidable three-point shot in his time in Cleveland (49 percent). He needs minutes, and the Wolves have minutes to give. I forsee him demanding a trade, and Minnesota seems like a great landing spot for him. He’s a defensive stopper and would work well with Tyus Jones and Jamal Crawford on the bench unit. He is on his last year of a 4 year, $40,000,000 contract. He will want to revitalize his career to get another big contract next summer, and the Cavs would be happy just to get his contract off their books before they make a move at the trade deadline especially if they can’t give him minutes.
The Wolves don’t have a ton of tradable assets. They have Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-rounder this year, and maybe Jeff Teague or Andrew Wiggins if they want to go after a big fish like Kemba Walker. A priority for the Wolves as the deadline approaches should be to get any sort of value out of Shabazz Muhammad and Cole Aldrich. Shabazz is on a minimum contract, but he’s in Thibs doghouse for the moment and not likely to get out before he leaves the Wolves this summer in free agency. Aldrich’s contract is a little pricey, and after drafting Justin Patton, Minnesota no longer needs his bench-warming services.
The Wolves are really close to being almost there in the Western Conference. It will be interesting to see what president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau does at the deadline. Will he resort to his coaching instincts and try to add an impact player now without considering the future salary cap, or will the front office be quiet again and continue to keep building chemistry and go after players in free agency? The next few weeks will tell a lot about the Timberwolves intentions for the rest of this season.