New-Look Timberwolves Still Figuring It Out, Which Should Terrify the NBA

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 31, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 22:  Andrew Wiggins #22, Karl-Anthony Towns #32 and Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves pose for portraits during the 2017 Media Day on September 22, 2017 at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx Courts at Mayo Clinic Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Sherman/Getty Images

MIAMI — The Minnesota Timberwolves are on the brink of something.

Maybe it's a muscle move into the NBA's upper class. Or perhaps it's a second consecutive colossal disappointment, doomed by a defense that bends, strains, snaps and breaks.

"I've been on teams where we started 14-2 out the gate and still lost in the first round of the playoffs. You just never really know," Jamal Crawford told Bleacher Report. "You go a week with winning, it's like things are the best in the world. You go a week where you struggle a bit, it's like the sky is falling."

The 'Wolves have seen both extremes already. They own a pair of wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and back-to-back double-digit losses to the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. Only three teams boast a more efficient offense. No one has a less efficient defense.

Their talent is both obvious and tremendous. Karl-Anthony Towns is on a clear All-Star path and might not stop ascending there. Jimmy Butler has thrice been selected as an All-Star and an All-Defensive player. Andrew Wiggins combines sky-high defensive potential with a career 20.4 points-per-game scoring average, an improving three ball (36.1 percent) and absurd athleticism.

When Minnesota formed its own Big Three over the offseason, it had the NBA's only trio with top-20 scoring averages across the board. And it nurtured the developments of Towns and Wiggins with a slew of proven veterans—a collection headlined by Butler but also featuring Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford.

"Now we have a lot of people that know how to win, know how to close out games," Wiggins said after Minnesota's 125-122 overtime road win over the Miami Heat on Monday. "It's a plus for us. Every night we're going in thinking we're going to win the game."


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It's a mutually beneficial partnership. The veterans are drawing their own confidence from the youngsters, a collection so special it helped make the Gopher State a free-agency destination.

"With Coach [Tom Thibodeau], the young talent they had already and the veteran players that came over—from Jimmy to Taj to Teague—and seeing what they're building, I just wanted to be a part of it," Crawford told Bleacher Report.

Inside the locker room, the optimism is rampant and well-founded. But why has this seemingly loaded squad sputtered to an uneven 4-3 start? And how seriously can they be taken as contenders when history says only top-10 defenses win titles?

Both answers are—unsurprisingly—complicated.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 08: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on as Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves on court during the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors as part of 2017
Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Minnesota isn't satisfied with its start by any means. But it's not mystified by it, either.

"We're going through things for the first time, we're experiencing things for the first time in front of 20,000 people and the world," Crawford told Bleacher Report. "You get an overhaul like we've had, there are going to be learning curves."

Not to mention, the 'Wolves had to cram their training sessions into a truncated three-game preseason that included a trip to China. Then, they lost Butler for two games to a respiratory infection, which doesn't sound like much until you realize those were the aforementioned defeats (by a total of 44 points).

With Butler in the lineup, Minnesota's only blemish was an opening-night, eight-point loss in San Antonio. With Butler on the court, the 'Wolves have a plus-0.7 net rating—their only positive on-court mark.

No matter how you view their talent hierarchy, they don't have a more important puzzle piece than the 28-year-old swingman.

"He's just gone through what KAT and [Wiggins] are going through now—learning the league, learning a lot about how to great ready," Thibodeau said. "I think he's been a great example for those guys. He just plays the right way."

The pups need guidance. With Minnesota's eventful offseason skyrocketing expectations, it's easy to forget how young Wiggins and Towns are. The former is five months older than Los Angeles Lakers' rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma; the latter is four months younger.

"The game comes easy to them now, and that's scary when they haven't really learned how to even play all the way yet," Teague told Bleacher Report. "Once they figure out all the small things they can do to get better, it's going to be amazing seeing what those guys can do."

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Karl-Anthony Towns #32 and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves look on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on February 27, 2017 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

So much of Minnesota's season hinges on its players' abilities to teach and be taught.

There are lessons to be learned on the offensive end. Wiggins (19.7 points per game) and Butler (16.2) are capable of carrying heavier scoring burdens, but the 'Wolves are still figuring out how to distribute their shots. Staggering their minutes would simplify that process—Butler has played 136 of his 191 minutes alongside Butler and Towns—and limit the exposure of Minnesota's 28th-ranked bench.

But the offense is ready for contention right now. It's that dreadful defense making the 'Wolves look ripe for an early-round exit.

"We can help each other more, make every shot a tough, challenged shot," Teague told Bleacher Report. "Right now, we're getting into scoring games. We got a lot of guys who can score the ball, so we're able to win some. But down the stretch against really good teams, that's not going to happen."

There are too many blown assignments, late rotations and lazy closeouts that teams can exploit over a seven-game series. Having Butler and Gibson will help (not only with their play, but with their understanding of Thibodeau's system). But the 'Wolves need significant steps forward from Wiggins and Towns. Wiggins was second-to-last at his position in defensive real plus-minus last season; Towns was last at his, per ESPN.com.

The good news is two-fold.

For starters, it's October. No one is winning or losing a title right now. Plus, with the right guidance and commitment, this could become a feisty defense. Their length and athleticism wreaked havoc against the Heat and forced 24 turnovers from a team that averages 16.3. That could be a repeatable formula, and if it is, look out—defenses don't want to see Teague, Wiggins, Butler and Towns racing at them.

But patience and potential don't automatically transform into defensive competence. Only work and maturity will get Minnesota over its biggest obstacle and into the championship race.

"We gotta do all the little things to keep ourselves from losing," Towns said. "Elite teams like the Spurs and the Warriors have great discipline. If we can implement that into our culture, we'll be on another level."

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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