The revamped Timberwolves open their season Wednesday with the potential to become one of the two best teams in franchise history in terms of talent.
Their roster includes two top-20 NBA players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler; a proven scorer in Andrew Wiggins; a former All-Star point guard in Jeff Teague; a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner in Jamal Crawford; and a defensive whiz in power forward Taj Gibson.
In the age of NBA superteams, the Wolves reconstructed their roster in accordance with this trend, or at least with a tacit admission that a 13-year playoff drought must end, pronto.
The sum of their upgrades raised expectations to levels foreign to this organization. Yet even with that narrative change, the Wolves belong no higher than No. 5 in predicting the NBA’s varsity division, the Western Conference.
That’s assuming the Wolves learn to play defense this season.
The West is more loaded than Bill Gates’ money clip. The collection of top-tier talent on that side of the NBA makes it feel like LeBron James vs. Everybody Else.
“I thought it was a juggernaut five years ago,” said Crawford, who has spent seven of his 17 NBA seasons in the Western Conference. “It’s really a juggernaut now.”
Everything starts with the Golden State Warriors. They will continue to win championships until they become old, injured or bored. They went 16-1 in the postseason last season. That’s an awfully wide gap to close.
The Houston Rockets added Chris Paul to play alongside James Harden on the NBA’s second-highest-scoring team.
The San Antonio Spurs boast championship pedigree, the league’s best two-way player (Kawhi Leonard) and the league’s best coach (Gregg Popovich). And Oklahoma City gave MVP Russell Westbrook help by adding All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
That’s just the first-class section. Teams riding in premium seating aren’t too shabby either.
“It’s loaded,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Butler moved from the East to the West in joining the Wolves in a draft-night trade with the Chicago Bulls. He didn’t exactly break into a cold sweat Monday when asked about the firepower in his new conference.
“It doesn’t scare me any,” he said. “It’s basketball, at the end of the day. I’m not worried about anybody.”
The Wolves have the makings of a superteam with Towns, Butler and Wiggins — provided that Towns and Wiggins show more commitment on the defensive end. If their cornerstones become more complete players and the new pieces fit as Thibodeau envisions, the Wolves could become the most improved team in the NBA this season.
They face a steep climb because of the cluster of talent in the West. The NBA’s superteam era has made it virtually impossible for teams to grow and develop into championship contenders organically. Stars form pacts to cut to the chase.
Whether that’s good or bad for league business depends on one’s perspective. Superteams certainly have eliminated postseason suspense. One didn’t need a crystal ball to predict a Warriors-Cavs rematch in the Finals last season. Or again this season.
Is that boring? Maybe to some. And yet robust TV ratings for the Finals suggest fans still enjoy watching star-packed teams, either for the beauty of their collective talent or with the hope that they stumble and fall on their face.
“The game has changed,” Crawford said. “Guys are teaming up. The way it is, you have to do that to compete.”
Michael Jordan, for one, is not a fan of that model, which he voiced in an interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine. Jordan lamented, “You’re going to have one or two teams that are going to be great, and another 28 teams that are going to be garbage.”
Players worry about winning championships, not competitive imbalance. Same with coaches. So this is the NBA’s new normal.
“All of it is within the rules,” Crawford said. “It would be different if they weren’t playing within the rules. But they have that choice. Everybody does.”
The Wolves jumped into the fray this offseason. This is their chance to return to relevance.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org