LA JOLLA, CALIF. – The Timberwolves open their preseason schedule Saturday night against the Los Angeles Lakers in Anaheim, Calif., with the clock already ticking toward their Oct. 18 regular-season opener at San Antonio.
The NBA’s preseason is a week shorter this season because the regular season has been lengthened in an attempt to reduce scheduling demands on players.
Add the Wolves’ previously scheduled week’s trip to China and Target Center renovations that probably won’t be completed until just before their Oct. 20 home opener, and they have 3½ weeks and only three preseason games to organize a team that currently features nine new faces.
“We thought we’d have 10 more days,” said Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations. “We would have liked to play another game or two.”
They considered playing a game in Des Moines — home to their new Iowa Wolves G League team — but didn’t want to travel again after they will have spent the preseason’s first 18 days on the road together.
Thibodeau calls “invaluable” the eight days the team spent together at a training camp near San Diego in which three-time All Star Jimmy Butler impressed with his two-way play while Shabazz Muhammad did the same with energetic play.
Thibodeau’s team will fly to China immediately after Saturday’s game and play defending NBA champion Golden State in preseason games in Shenzhen and Shanghai before it returns home a week from Sunday.
Upon their return from China, the Wolves will hold an intrasquad game they will play as if it were a real game, to simulate a fourth preseason game. The Wolves have played six to eight preseason games in previous years, before the NBA this year shortened the preseason and lengthened its regular season.
“It is a challenge,” Thibodeau said, “but every team is playing fewer games.”
Thibodeau’s challenge come Saturday: Tread the correct line integrating a starting lineup that with the arrival of Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson probably will feature three new players alongside young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins without playing anyone too much.
“You just have to get ready quicker,” Towns said. “You have to make sure you’re ready earlier. Everything has to come together. It gives us less time. I think it hurts teams like us that have so many new players, so we just have to learn to get our timing and execution down.”
Thibodeau must decide during this truncated preseason between Gibson and incumbent Gorgui Dieng as his starting power forward and choose between veteran Aaron Brooks and third-year Tyus Jones as his backup point guard.
Thibodeau said he will let the competition on the court decide such things.
“Competition is good for everyone and you need everyone,” Thibodeau said. “It helps you. Guys are fighting for minutes, but they understand you have to put the team first. I think the competition is healthy and I think it’ll drive us to a different level. So I think it’s a good thing.”
Gibson’s ability to defend smaller lineups out on the floor, his experience and his long relationship with Thibodeau makes him the favorite at power forward. His presence as a starter there provides a veteran presence alongside Towns. It’d also allows Dieng to return to his more natural center position and create playing time on the second unit for Nemanja Bjelica as backup power forward.
“I want to see how things unfold,” Thibodeau said. “We’ll see. You have to see how it works with the group. You’re also looking at what your opponents are doing. There are more wings playing at the power-forward position now, so you’re concerned about that matchup. That’s all part of it.”
Meanwhile, Butler, Towns and Wiggins have become the process of learning to play together, a week-old experiment that Thibodeau calls a “work in progress.”
“Every day, there are some good things,” Thibodeau said, “and there are some things that are not good enough.”
Ready or not, they’ll discover what’s what starting Saturday against the Lakers.
“Very productive days, but we still have to get better,” Butler said of the week’s camp. “We’ll see once we go up against an opposing team.”