MINNEAPOLIS — When Derrick Rose walked into the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ locker room Wednesday night after an improbable 50-point showing, his teammates doused him with bottles of water in celebratory fashion. For a few moments, the club had escaped — or at least forgotten about — the awkward cloud that’s hung over the team for more than a month now.
But at some point, perhaps as soon as Friday night when they visit the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, reality figures to set in again. The franchise still has to address the Jimmy Butler situation. And if the Timberwolves do actually take the step of trading him, the most important question becomes: Are Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins strong enough franchise cornerstones to truly put Minnesota in contention out West?
There’s a ton riding on the answer, even if Butler appears to have made up his mind on it already. Combined, the duo is set to take up 50 percent of the club’s salary-cap space next season, and that could rise to 55 percent if Towns makes All-NBA this year — an enormous amount for young players who haven’t shown they can move the needle enough on their own to guarantee an annual trip to the playoffs.
Asked how he evaluates the progress of Towns and Wiggins, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said it all comes down to one thing for him.
“Winning,” he said. “I thought they showed significant growth last year because of the impact on the winning. It’s not only playing well individually, but playing well for the group, to bring the best out of the group.”
Yet in a lot of ways, the context of “winning” is the dilemma. Yes, the Timberwolves won 47 games and made their first playoff appearance in 14 seasons this past April. But they also appeared to desperately need Butler to make that happen. Minnesota slid from a third-place tie down to a tie for seventh in the six weeks or so Butler missed because of right knee surgery. The Wolves did end up clinching that postseason berth on the final day of the season, but only after Butler returned to the lineup and lifted them to three consecutive victories.
That finishing storyline was a kind of microcosm for the season. Butler was arguably the driving force that pushed the team across the line. Without Butler on the floor, Towns and Wiggins were outscored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions, on par with last season’s 35-47 Lakers — an unacceptable fate for a team with so much long-term money on the books, plus no way to sign more high-end talent. In the 1,500-plus minutes those two flanked Butler, though, Minnesota blasted foes by a whopping 10.3 points per 100 possessions, a margin that would’ve ranked best in the NBA.
There have been cringeworthy moments (Towns requesting to be subbed out of a game after shooting an airball) and metrics (Wiggins earned 0.34 win shares per 48 minutes last season — just half of his output from 2016-17, and matching his rookie season). But Towns turns 23 later this month, and Wiggins turns 24 in February. It’s natural to expect that both can, and perhaps will, hit another gear as they enter their primes. Doing that would help justify their hefty contracts, which figure to leave Minnesota without a ton of future flexibility.
It’s difficult to say how likely that is, though, because there’s little precedent for the situation in Minnesota.
Only nine other 25-and-under duos since the NBA/ABA merger have averaged 25 points per 100 possessions over their first three seasons together like Towns and Wiggins have, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. But those pairings — like Chris Webber and Juwan Howard in Washington, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway in Orlando, or Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning in Charlotte — often split before the team was forced to the bank to retain both players.
As such, there are only two clubs that have spent more than half their cap space on young scoring talent like this: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook earning 52 percent of Oklahoma City’s cap space in 2012-13, and Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce getting nearly 56 percent of Boston’s cap in 2002-03, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Both the Thunder and Celtics enjoyed some level of success with their high-scoring duos, as each team reached the conference finals before the pairs split. Durant left Oklahoma City in free agency for Golden State, while Walker was included in a cycle of trades that saw him bounce between Dallas, Boston again and then eventually Miami.
If Butler does leave, how can Minnesota avoid an unfortunate fate with its key duo?
A potential Butler deal could have a profound impact on both Towns and Wiggins. Aside from the fact that the spotlight would shine back on them — as established, max players — they would almost certainly take on expanded offensive roles in the aftermath of any deal.
Wiggins, who isn’t nearly the facilitator that Butler is, would have to become a more willing passer than he’s ever been. Towns, who’s somehow looked like a fourth or fifth scoring option at times, would need to take more ownership of the offense and do more to demand the ball. If he’s going to be a top-20 player, he can’t be invisible some nights.
The area where both players have real room for improvement is on defense, where Wiggins and Towns allowed 111 points per 100 plays when playing without Butler last season. The Timberwolves sit fifth-worst in defensive efficiency, a ranking that, if it holds, would mark the third consecutive season Minnesota finishes in the bottom five on that end under Thibodeau.
Wiggins, as Butler has publicly suggested, is one of the most athletic players in the league, but only showcases that jaw-dropping ability on defense every now and then. Of those who’ve defended at least 2,500 shots over the past three seasons, no wing player has surrendered a higher effective field goal rate than Wiggins’ 54.3 percent, according to data from Second Spectrum.
Towns was an elite, defensively mobile shot-blocker at Kentucky, so this might be more a question of scheme. At times, he stays tethered to the paint in high screen-and-roll action, almost like a dog that’s constrained by an electric fence. That might stem from Thibodeau’s conservative game plan, which generally calls for bigs to drop in coverage, and doesn’t encourage switching nearly as much as other teams.
Still, at least one of Towns’ veteran teammates feels he’ll have to start playing like more of a modern defensive big in the months and years to come.
“He’s going to have to be [more mobile] at some point,” said forward Anthony Tolliver, adding that four- and five-out offenses all but require teams to have a big who is comfortable stepping outside the paint to defend. “You have to take the challenge to [defend] some guards — especially with some of the teams we’re going to be playing against. If he’s gonna be on the court, he’s gonna have to be able to be versatile.”
“You realize there are a lot of mistakes that can be covered up by pure hustle.”
But on a basic level, given all the talent they possess, Wiggins and Towns know they can help their chances by simply limiting mistakes. That might mean cutting back on midrange jumpers (something Wiggins did last season), or realizing the importance of staying out of foul trouble (Towns led the NBA in fouls last season, and he’s racking them up at an even faster pace now).
“I think we’ve gotten more knowledgeable about the game,” Wiggins said.
And even when mistakes are made — particularly on defense, where there might be a missed rotation — Towns said he’s more interested in trying to figure out how to remedy the situation on the fly. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons he’s learned thus far came from playing next to Kevin Garnett.
“You realize there are a lot of mistakes that can be covered up by pure hustle,” Towns said, explaining that an imperfect defensive possession can still be salvaged if he and his teammates show enough effort to force a miss. This inconsistency from Towns and Wiggins is a swing skill for Minnesota’s future.
Across state lines, in Milwaukee, Khris Middleton has had a front-row seat to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo develop into a superstar. He’s seen the MVP candidate rapidly develop a killer instinct even without having a killer jumper, and he attributes the vast majority of it to hard work.
“When you have a kid, you see him grow up every day, and it’s not really until you step away that you see them all grown up,” Middleton said last week, hours before he and his team dismantled the Timberwolves. “It’s not until they do something you’ve never seen them do before that you realize they’re not a kid anymore.”
And perhaps that’s the best way to view the situation in Minnesota at the moment: Towns and Wiggins aren’t mere kids anymore. They’re paid too much, and they’ve been around too long for us to still see them that way. But if they’re going to carry the Timberwolves into contention once the Jimmy Butler era ends, they’ll have to show us something we’ve never seen them do.