The Minnesota Timberwolves feature one of the NBA's most promising rosters, and the 2016-17 season may be the start of an extended stretch of playoff appearances for the franchise. The question is whether the Wolves are prepared to compete with the league's elite.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the foundation of something special budding in Minnesota. Now the focus is on if their supporting cast, which is led by the likes of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, is ready for prime time.
Let's check out all of the important information for the upcoming campaign following the league's schedule release. That's followed by a look at what lies ahead and a record prediction.
Season Opener: Oct. 26 at Memphis Grizzlies (8 p.m. ET)
Championship Odds: 40-1 (per Odds Shark)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Utah Jazz (Nov. 28, Jan. 7, March 1 and April 7)
The T-Wolves are a dangerous team because another full season of development for their young roster could put them in position to pull off a postseason shocker in the first round. Of course, they must qualify for the playoffs first.
Two teams from their division figure to serve as roadblocks in that quest. The Utah Jazz are one. They missed the playoffs by a single game last season and figure to find themselves in the muddled middle of the Western Conference once again.
Josh Eberley of Hoop Magazine believes both teams could be part of a changing of the guard in the West:
Games between the sides should be interesting chess matches. The Timberwolves are a strong offensive team still working on the defensive side, and the Jazz are the direct opposite. Utah could end up as one of the best defensive teams in the league.
The Jazz won last season's series 3-1. If the Wolves want to bolster their playoff chances in an environment where a few games figure to make a big difference, flipping the script in those head-to-head meetings would be a nice boost.
Portland Trail Blazers (Jan. 1, March 6, March 25 and April 6)
Although the Portland Trail Blazers weren't on the brink last season, they still managed to make the playoffs by just four games. So they can't enter the campaign confident of their playoff chances, especially with Minnesota looking to make its move.
In the West, there's the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and then a lot of question marks. That's both a blessing and a curse for teams like the Blazers and Wolves because there's a lot of playoff openings but also plenty of competition.
Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area joked about the uncertainty in the conference:
The keys in these battles will be the Blazers' frontcourt and the T-Wolves' backcourt. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are going to get theirs for Portland, and the same is true for Wiggins and Towns for Minnesota. It's the other players who will make the difference.
This is another matchup within the division that Minnesota lost 3-1 last season. It illustrated the team wasn't quite ready to make the leap. How the Wolves perform against the likes of Portland and Utah should be a key indicator of their overall success.
Exactly how much coaching can impact a team is up for debate. It doesn't matter if a team has Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich if there's no talent on the roster. Having the right players is always the most important thing.
That said, once the requisite talent is in place, finding the right coach can make a sizable impact. It seems like that's what Minnesota has found in Tom Thibodeau. He arrives with a strong track record of success with the Chicago Bulls and a much-needed defensive mentality.
Pat Borzi of USA Today passed along Thibodeau's comments about the state of the franchise after he agreed to take charge in April:
If you look at what wins in the playoffs, you have to be strong on both sides of the ball. You have to strive to be in the Top 10 in efficiency in both offense and defense. We're close offensively. Defensively we've got a lot of room to improve. That's an area we've got to correct. Rebounding is an area we've got to correct. You take it step by step. You don't skip over any step.
The Timberwolves finished 11th in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency during the 2015-16 campaign, according to ESPN.com.
Minnesota features the size and athleticism to have at least moderate success defensively. Getting the players to understand assignments and put forth the same amount of effort and enthusiasm at that end as they do on offense is the biggest task for Thibodeau.
All told, the Timberwolves have plenty of reason for optimism. They are a team the top seeds won't want to face to open the postseason if the defensive improvement materializes, but there's a lot of work to do during the course of the 82-game season.
There will be some growing pains along the way. The most important thing, however, is showing signs of progress to keep those positive vibes alive, even if the team falls short of the postseason. But don't be surprised if that 12-year playoff drought comes to an end in 2016-17.