When we last left Tom Thibodeau courtside, he walked off into the good night after April’s 2016-17 season finale in Houston, muttering something about how his team hadn’t made the playoffs in 13 years and how he was sick of it after only one as Timberwolves coach.
He’ll start to learn just how much has changed when training camp begins Saturday morning in San Diego with a roster he and General Manager Scott Layden remade over the summer.
The Wolves will practice there for a week, on the way to China for two preseason games against Golden State.
Gone are traded Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine. New to the team are three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and playoff-tested veterans Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, all of whom now surround foundational young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Will it be enough to get the Wolves back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and if so, by how much?
The answers start coming Saturday. The questions are already here. These five are among them with the regular-season opener less than a month away:
1. After all those changes, just whose team is this now?
Butler is wise enough after his departure from Chicago to know it doesn’t really matter who’s considered the face of the franchise. As he said in June, they only see the back of your head when you inevitably leave town anyway.
It will take time to fit the puzzle pieces after Thibodeau added a collection of veterans this summer to play alongside Towns and Wiggins, who even after all those deals remain the franchise’s foundation.
But Thibodeau says it will happen if his players really want to win.
Thibodeau watched Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen do it in their first season together when he was an assistant on Boston’s 2008 title team. He saw from afar a much younger Golden State team achieved something similar last season.
“They all have a chance to shine, but they put the team first and sacrifice for each other,” Thibodeau said. “So if we want to win big, we’re going to have to do the same thing. Jimmy, Karl, Wig, they’re all going to have to share and put the team first. They’re all great players, but you can’t win big in this league without playing for each other.”
2. Is Wiggins worth a max $148 million contract?
Is anyone? Maybe only a handful truly are.
Still, you can see the franchise’s master plan after the Wolves kept Wiggins and didn’t trade for Kyrie Irving. With Teague’s three-year deal the only exception, the Wolves aren’t contractually obligated to anyone other than Wiggins or Towns for more than two more years, unless Butler exercises his player option in 2019.
If all else fails, they’ll still have Wiggins signed through 2023 and Towns through 2024 if he, too, signs a five-year extension next summer.
Thibodeau praises what he calls Wolves owner Glen Taylor’s “strong commitment” to a promising player just 22 years old.
“I certainly appreciate that,” Thibodeau said, “and Wigs has done a good job earning it.”
3. Will the Wolves regret trading Rubio?
If Rubio plays — and scores — the rest of his career like he did in last season’s final two months, they will.
But Thibodeau swapped Rubio for free agent Teague largely because he’s a deft pick-and-roll point guard whom Thibodeau envisions will pair with Towns to torment defenses just as Teague did alongside Al Horford when both played in Atlanta.
Playoff tested, Teague is a better three-point shooter than Rubio, even if he never has been a volume shooter from such distance. He has proved himself remarkably durable in his eight pro seasons and also can play off the ball better. That’s important because Thibodeau intends to put the ball in the hands of both Butler and Wiggins late in games.
4. Have the Wolves fallen even further behind in the NBA’s arms race?
The Wolves ranked last in the league in three-pointers made per game last season — their 7.3 just less than half as many as Houston’s 14.2 — and after pursuing JJ Redick and others, didn’t noticeably add a deadeye three-point shooter all summer. They also traded away their best three-point threat, LaVine, on draft night.
Now Thibodeau expects his team to improve organically by asking everyone from Butler, Wiggins and Towns to even Gorgui Dieng to take and make more threes.
“Everybody is going to have to do more,” Thibodeau said.
5. Is this the season Towns becomes an All-Star, in perpetuity?
Towns would have been named to one of three All-NBA teams last season if his Wolves had won more.
Butler has been chosen for the All-Star Game three times and was named All-NBA third team last spring. Wiggins could be on his way there as well.
But Towns is uniquely skilled for such a big man and likely is headed for such honors for the next decade, particularly if he improves defensively.
“I felt he probably deserved it last year,” Thibodeau said. “We have to win more. The more we win, the more recognition he’ll get. He has to continue to work the way he has been working.”