The Timberwolves and coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau had a couple different basic directions they could have gone this past offseason.
Option one was to make minimal moves to the roster, trusting that Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were the franchise and that things would fall into place around them as they grew older and better.
Option two was to decide this was the time to infuse the roster with a better supporting cast to hopefully enhance what those two players already offered.
Thibodeau and the Wolves clearly chose the second option. The centerpiece of the overhaul was a draft night trade with the Bulls. Jimmy Butler and draft pick Justin Patton came to Minnesota, while Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and draft pick Lauri Markkanen went to Chicago. Adding someone of Butler’s caliber, combined with a good amount of salary cap space, allowed the Timberwolves to add Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford as well.
The Bulls will judge their trade in the long-term. LaVine is still young and coming off a torn ACL. Dunn is in his second year and Markkanen, of course, is a rookie. On the Wolves side, Patton is an unknown whose season is just getting started in the G-League after an early injury.
Butler, though, allows us to judge the Wolves’ part of the trade in the short-term. One third of the way into this season, Minnesota’s remade roster is 16-11 and in first place in the Northwest Division. The Wolves sit fourth in the Western Conference, meaning if the season ended today (one of the worst phrases in sports because it always means the season does not, in fact, end today) they would have home-court advantage for a first-round playoff series.
For a franchise that has missed the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons, this is tangible progress.
We can discuss the aesthetic of this version of the Wolves all we want. They often win “ugly,” and games against seemingly inferior opponents seem to require more effort and longer minutes than they should. The team’s depth is such that Thibodeau has taken to playing just eight guys lately. Sunday’s 97-92 win over Dallas was an example of all those things.
But in the end, it was another win in the bank. Thibodeau seems to be saying with actions and words that this team doesn’t look how he wants it to look right now, but he’s going to try to squeeze as many wins out of the early slate so that it doesn’t cost the Wolves later on when they should look better.
He’s been able to do that because of the offseason moves. Plain and simple, the Wolves would very likely be headed toward another playoff-less season without the overhaul.
Imagine the Wolves right now without the Butler trade. Markkanen has been OK in his first 25 games, averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds. Dunn has been better than he was in Minnesota, but the Wolves had a more than capable point guard backup already in Tyus Jones who has played well this year. LaVine hasn’t played yet but hopes to make his season debut next month.
Butler has given the Wolves a fourth-quarter closer and a tough-minded defensive presence. Gibson often has been terrific (better than I thought) as both an underrated scorer and a clutch rebounder (as he showed once again against Dallas by grabbing the game-clinching defensive rebound while surrounded by three Mavericks players). Teague is imperfect, but he’s shooting 42.2 percent from three-point range and gives the Wolves the kind of offensive threat at point guard that they never had when Ricky Rubio (who is shooting 29 percent from three-point range with Utah) was here. Crawford has been a sorely needed veteran bench scorer, particularly with the struggles of Shabazz Muhammad.
If you have gripes that the current Wolves are winning ugly, the alternative reality is this: Had Minnesota not made the Butler trade in the offseason, triggering so much of the overall roster overhaul, they would be doing a lot of losing right now. It might be pretty sometimes, but the losses would still be piling up.
As it is, the current Wolves can be a tough, frustrating squad to watch. You might yell at the TV just as much as you did when they were losing. They look disjointed and downright cranky sometimes, starting with their coach. Towns doesn’t get enough touches sometimes, though he’s starting to figure out his place high in the pecking order. Wiggins looks more lost on offense, which is concerning but not altogether unexpected given the overhaul.
But if the primary objective is to win — last time I checked, it was — you have to conclude the path the Wolves and Thibodeau put themselves on this past offseason is a successful one.