A year ago, the Timberwolves were opening training camp amid the constant drama that was Jimmy Butler’s trade request — and Tom Thibodeau’s reluctance to trade the angered star. The vibe is much different this season. Coach Ryan Saunders and the Wolves are set to open camp with media day Monday and practice Tuesday. Saunders answered some of the Star Tribune’s questions to preview what fans can expect during camp and into the early part of the regular season. This has been edited for space and clarity.
Q We’ve made a lot about the change in tone and culture around the organization. How different it is from a year ago when everything was going on with Jimmy Butler ... and can a more positive culture lead to wins?
A That’s the thing we understand. This is just how myself and [new President] Gersson [Rosas] like to do things. Everybody has a different leadership style. There’s a lot of different leadership styles that produce a number of wins in a number of places. Time will tell, but this is what we believe in and how we believe sustainable success comes about within an organization, especially in a place like Minnesota where we are such a close-knit community and close-knit state in the fact that you want guys to have a family atmosphere. That’s been a big thing we’ve tried to push.
Q In some of the photos from summer workouts, you’ve actually put shot values on the court [how much certain shots are worth in terms of points per possession]. How have the players taken to that? Has it been eye-opening for them?
A I do think it has been. In games we understand there will be some regression, some getting to know the system, too, but this isn’t a ‘Let’s take care of it for October’ kind of thing, this is what we believe is going to help propel us to a contending team down the line by installing these type of things early on and committing to these things we’re stressing.
With that, having shot values on the court … it’s a very simple visual for players. We’ve done a lot of educating with them … and we have guys from our analytics department present to the players what these mean. They come on the court and we can give a better understanding. We see where the game has gone and we don’t want to be left behind when it comes to three-point attempts and things like that.
It’s going to take time to break some of those habits, and when guys do play open gym, it’s their time. We’ve noticed a number of guys have a midrange shot, but they understand that’s not the shot we’re striving to get. They’ll continue on and try to attack the rim or they’ll go into a drive-and-kick situation, which is something we want to see.
Q Along those lines, Andrew [Wiggins] takes a high volume of midrange shots. How has he been receptive to seeing what these values are and adjusting his game or tweaking his game to improve the value of his shots?
A He’s been receptive, and that’s something that I do want to make clear is that we all understand and we’ve had conversations with Andrew. Andrew is a self-aware person. He knows he needs to have a big year not just for himself but for our team. With that, it’d be very easy to — if Andrew was somebody who was a jerk, who didn’t care, didn’t treat people right, then it’d be very easy to criticize.
Now, I know there’s other things that can go into criticism, but the fact that he is a good person and has positive intentions, it makes you want to continue to keep trying to push through and he’s been receptive. That’s the thing. He’s somebody who wants to do right by people, so we do look forward to him having a year where he buys into the system and with anybody, if guys don’t do that, you have different conversations.
Q For you, looking at the roster and looking at the ages on the roster, it is a young team. Jeff Teague is the oldest guy son the team [at 32]. Where do you see leadership coming from?
A It comes from everybody. We want to be a committee of leaders. It’s not coming from just one person and just the oldest player on the team or just the guy who makes the most money. I think that’s not a positive way of looking at it.
We don’t want it to be where a player is just told he’s a leader or given a leadership role just because of issues that don’t automatically qualify players to be leaders. We want guys to take it upon themselves. And we want servant leadership. Serve the team before you serve yourself. That’s a big thing we’ve been talking a lot about and that’s something we believe in.
Q How are things going to be different defensively this year as you and assistant David Vanterpool look over that end of the floor [the Wolves were 24th last year in defensive rating]. Is it a matter of scheme, effort or both?
A It’s a little bit of both. You want to make sure that you want to see if you’re doing things hard enough first and then you can judge if the schemes are working. For that reason, for us, we have some things we need to adjust, I think. Then we also have some things we need to do a lot harder, and with more intention. That’s a word we use a lot, do things with intention.
We’ve worked on these things. We understand it’s not going to be a fix right away, but our guys, we need to take the challenge as a group to become a better defensive team, have a defensive component to us and not just think that offensively is where we’re going to win all our games. We need to rely on our defense when shots aren’t falling.
Q Offensively, you’ve talked a lot about pushing the pace and how things are going to be running through Karl-Anthony Towns. How is that going to look different?
A When you talk about things going through KAT, that’s not just him in terms of being on the block. He’s so dynamic as an offensive player that you want to move him around and you want to give him opportunities where the ball can touch your best player, his hands, every time down the court.
We can do that by having him be a playmaker at the top of the key, allowing him to rebound and push the ball at times, under control though. We can do that by throwing the ball to him in the post but also having our standards of what we want to see when the ball does go into the post. I think you’ll see a number of different things when it comes to KAT touching the ball.
Q What is your definition of a successful season? The Western Conference is loaded this year. Almost everybody is a playoff contender, it seems like. In your eyes, can there be a successful season without making the playoffs, or do you define that by wins and losses?
A I think you need to look at it in different scopes and see where you are at certain points of the season. We’re not looking to just get into the playoffs for one year. That’s not our goal. And we understand that. So with that, you want to make sure you’re building for sustainable success. You want to make sure you’re doing the right things each day.
We feel strongly as a team … that if you put the work in and you do things with intention and you have an end goal in mind each day, you don’t skip days, you’re going to in the end have a maybe not as successful season, but you’re going to have a successful organization. That’s what we’re looking toward. I’m not big on quantifying win goals. I see where we’re slotted and things like that. I try not to pay too much attention. We’re really just focused on the daily improvement here.