The Timberwolves won 16 more regular-season games than last year and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The latter is an achievement owner Glen Taylor expected his team would reach when it traded for All-Star Jimmy Butler last summer and signed several veteran free agents, including two other starters.
“I thought with the changes we made, the people we brought in, the sacrifices we made in moving some young, potential people, that we needed to be in the playoffs,” Taylor said Friday, two days after his team lost a first-round playoff series to Houston in five games. “Those were my expectations.”
The Wolves reached them by beating Denver on the regular season’s final night to advance after they had been as high as third in the Western Conference before Butler sustained a February knee injury that sidelined him for 17 games. It didn’t help, either, that Wolves lost several games to bottom feeders Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago, Brooklyn, Phoenix and Memphis.
After his team beat Denver in the season finale, Taylor said “thank goodness” his team won.
On Wednesday night, Wolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau called himself “very proud” of a team that made a “major jump” when it won 47 regular-season games and reached the playoffs after it had been so far down the past 14 years.
Taylor called himself pleased with the first winning season since 2005 and a team that drew 18 sellout crowds back to Target Center this season, but disappointed it couldn’t position itself better for the playoffs and achieve home-court advantage awarded to the Western Conference top four teams.
“We certainly played a lot better,” Taylor said. “Bringing a product to our fans that they really enjoyed and got involved in, we hit that one. I think they liked how we played. We wanted to get in the playoffs and we did that. But on the things we didn’t quite make, I had hoped we’d get home-court advantage. At one time, it looked like we had the team that could get there and then Jimmy’s injury really set us back. That was disappointing, but not much we could do about that except if we would have won more games while Jimmy was hurt.
“As a whole, yes, we reached my expectations. Did I see things we can be better at? Yes.”
Those things include defense, three-point shooting, depth and consistency as the Wolves enter an offseason in which they must determine how they can afford to pay Butler, Towns and already-signed Andrew Wiggins maximum contracts and still put enough talented players around them to make the team better.
“It involves more than just those three players,” Taylor said.
Taylor said it’s best that he, Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden take some time to consider the past season, watch the playoffs as they progress and ponder the future before they meet to discuss how the franchise proceeds.
“Those are areas best to take more time and think about it,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “Those are big issues.”
The NBA’s labor agreement allows the Wolves this summer to negotiate a contract extension with Butler before he can opt out of his contract and become a free agent in summer 2019.
“Jimmy brings a personality and a skill set that is different from some of our other players,” Taylor said. “At least at this point, they don’t have the experience that he has. We found that very helpful to our team this year. He’s a very important part of our future. I’m not sure what they’re thinking and our thinking is. That’s something that will develop as we get into the summer and start talking to Jimmy and his agent.”
First, they must convince him to stay. Butler said more than once this season that he will decide his long-term future not on money, but on where he feels he has the best chance to win.
Without naming Towns or Wiggins, Butler questioned his young teammates dedication to defense and their toughness compared to his own, but after Wednesday’s Game 5 loss he called himself “proud of everybody.”
The Wolves signed Wiggins to a five-year contract worth at least $146 million last October, before a season of changes about which he said Wednesday night, “I don’t think I had the best season. I learned a lot, but I don’t think I had the best season.”
When asked if he still feels good about his investment in Wiggins, Taylor said, “I do. I think Andrew improved in a number of areas, which I’m really pleased with. On the other hand, do I believe Andrew can improve and be a much better player? I certainly do.”
Taylor hired Thibodeau in April 2016 in good part because he was considered one of the NBA’s best defensive-minded coaches.
“I was hopeful we’d improve even more on defense,” Taylor said. “At certain times, we did do that and you could see [Thibodeau] had a means of doing it and the players played it for a while. I think they are capable of doing that. That’s my expectation for the future.”
Boosting the bench
Taylor said also he’d like to see his team use its bench players more effectively. He said it would improve the team if its starters are injured and perhaps keep those starters fresher in late-game situations.
“Well, I would,” Taylor said. “What Tom does would be a question for him.”
Taylor said he’s hopeful his team can become the kind of destination franchise that Golden State, Houston and others are by attracting veteran free agents willing to play for less than market value for the chance to play with star players and win big.
“Players want to be on a winning team,” Taylor said. “It’s a league of stars. If you have that core that can compete against any team in the league, other guys will be more attracted to the team.”
Taylor called the Wolves’ 47 victories and long-awaited return to the playoffs a “giant step” forward that has him more enthused about owning the team for the long run than ever.
“We said what we’d try to do and we did a lot of those things,” Taylor said. “I don’t know it’s good or bad, but I can see where we can do better. To me, I look at that as a good thing.”