It’s possibly pointless to even talk about the 2017-18 NBA season since the Warriors — as long as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry stay with the team and no more than one player sustains a major injury next year — will win another championship next season.
The Warriors are an unfair team as constructed. They did everything by completely legal means, and they play beautiful basketball. But if you enjoy competition and the notion of a fair fight, you can’t love that part of the Warriors. You can love them for their art, but not for their sport. They are a stacked deck. They are Capitalism, The Basketball Team — the rich getting richer while insisting they earned every penny.
So 29 teams are battling for second place next year — or more aptly, 15 Eastern Conference teams are battling for second place and the other 14 Western Conference teams are battling for third place since they won’t make it past the Warriors in the conference finals.
If you’re OK with that, then we can talk about this: What do the Timberwolves need to do to reach the playoffs next season and give themselves at least a chance at that NBA bronze medal?
Lest you think it’s preposterous to think about the Wolves in the playoffs or the next NBA season less than 24 hours after the old one ended, know that I received an email this morning from an online sports betting firm. One of the prop bets involved which teams who didn’t make the playoffs in 2016-17 were most likely to make it in 2017-18. The Wolves had 1-1 odds, so a 50 percent chance that they make it. But to get there these things need to happen:
1) Add a defensive-minded big man. The Timberwolves allowed opponents to score 46.2 points per game in the paint last season. Only five NBA teams allowed more. I don’t know that they specifically need a shot blocker, but neither Gorgui Dieng nor Karl-Anthony Towns are thick post defenders who strike fear into opposing guards and bigs. Someone like Nene would be a great addition.
2) Add a perimeter defender who can shoot threes. Yes, the three-and-D player so many teams covet in the modern NBA. Whether the Wolves address this in the draft or through free agency, a strong wing defender who can space the floor and knock down threes would be a major boon to this rotation. Brandon Rush *sort of* filled that role last year on a one-year contract, but a turbo-charged, more athletic version of Rush who is a better defender would look great in a Wolves uniform.
3) The continued evolution of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Here’s where we get into things a little harder to define, but clearly for as good as Towns and Wiggins already are, they have room to get better. As they gain even more confidence and repetitions, they should improve in two key areas: end of game situations and stopping opposing teams’ runs. Minnesota lost a ghastly 22 games last season in which it held a double-digit lead at one point. Leadership means getting good shots and defensive stops as momentum starts to turn against you. Towns and Wiggins are young, but they are leaders. This responsibility will fall to them, and they will need to be able to handle it.
4) A commitment to defense. The most disappointing thing about last year’s Wolves had to be their stalled progress on defense under Tom Thibodeau. The head coach has a reputation for being a defensive fixer. But the Wolves two years ago under Sam Mitchell had a defensive efficiency that ranked 27th in the NBA. Last year they were tied for 26th. If there is any silver lining, the Wolves had about a one-month stretch from mid-February to mid-March where they played good defense for a sustained stretch while hanging around the fringes of the playoff race. They could see the translation into victories, but they lost interest as their playoff hopes faded. That’s a maturity thing (as well as an effort and talent thing). But at least they’ve done it before and can see the benefit. Now they need to do it more consistently over 82 games.
5) Figure out their point guard situation. Are the Wolves committing to Ricky Rubio? Are they going to trade him and roll with Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones? Are they going to trade Rubio but add another veteran? Would they consider drafting another point guard if they’re worried about Dunn’s progress? Man, that’s a lot of questions. With the draft coming next week and free agency coming shortly thereafter, we should have some clarity soon. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know the Wolves better get it right to have any chance next season.