April Autopsy: Minnesota Timberwolves

Tuesday night in Oracle Arena, the Minnesota Timberwolves reminded the NBA that although they didn’t come close to earning a playoff berth this season, they’re going to be heard from in the future.

The question is: “How much?”

The Timberwolves are definitely going to win more in the coming years, as long as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins stay healthy. Minnesota will definitely challenge for playoff spots and very likely obtain them, probably winning at least one playoff series here or there, at minimum.

As the Timberwolves’ current season winds down — now imbued with a fresh splash of color just before the endpoint — it’s evident that as far as April Autopsies go, this one is a death due to natural causes: youth. By NBA standards, if you want your season to die before the playoffs, this is as good a death as one could hope for.

How good a death is it, though?

It depends on the head coach, and the head coach depends on where owner Glen Taylor stands.

In order to get a feel for what’s going on in Minnesota — and what the franchise needs to do in the offseason — start here with this excellent primer from Yaron Weitzman. Then take note of this update on one of the items in Weitzman’s piece, the Timberwolves’ ownership and management situation.

From those articles, it becomes clear that Taylor will be the foremost voice — therefore the foremost determinant — of where the Wolves go from here.

It is true that in some cases, the ownership dynamics of a franchise overwhelm the head coach to the point that the coach can’t realistically succeed. The New York Knicks have manifested this identity in multiple instances during the James Dolan era. The Timberwolves don’t quite seem to fit that category, because their deals (with the Cleveland Cavaliers in particular) have set up the franchise for the next several years. Ownership hasn’t been a beacon of light in Minnesota, but it hasn’t gotten in the way of putting two emerging stars on the floor.

Just look at what Karl-Anthony Towns did to Steph Curry on Tuesday night in the Wolves’ stirring overtime win over the NBA champions:

Then consider what Andrew Wiggins did late in the victory over Golden State:

One can see the Timberwolves’ future from a great distance. So much hope and promise are visible in Minneapolis.

The talent of an annual championship contender exists, albeit with needed changes to the bench rotation, especially at the power forward spot. Simply having Towns and Wiggins on the court together will give Minnesota of the best 1-2 punches in basketball for years to come. The floor for this organization has been dramatically raised.

The question concerns how high the ceiling can — and will — become.

It’s all about the head coach.


Would it be a terrible thing for Timberwolf fans if Sam Mitchell is retained as head coach?

Acknowledging that many Minnesota fans would indeed feel that way, let’s give him this bread crumb of credit: Mitchell has finally figured out which players to play. Tuesday night against Golden State, the Timberwolves began to shoot more threes, a necessary step in their evolution. Players are developing, and a win over the reigning champions in Oracle Arena certainly strengthens Mitchell’s argument that he should be the one to lead this franchise into the breaking dawn of a new tomorrow.

However, does all of this fully make the case for Mitchell?

Weitzman, in that article linked to above, is skeptical. It is very difficult to argue against — and above — that skepticism.

Here’s the deal with Sam Mitchell: He’s never won a playoff series. He’s never coached a team to 50 or more wins. He has basically never coached at a particularly great height in the league. Yes, he has improved over the course of this season. Accordingly, so has his team. Yet, doesn’t Cadillac talent demand (and deserve) a Cadillac coach?

Can anyone who thinks Sam Mitchell does deserve to stay on as head coach tell me — or anyone else of like mind — that Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy would not be better for the Timberwolves?

That’s what’s at issue here.

There’s zero doubt the team will get better, but the raising of the floor is not what’s being discussed — it’s the height of the ceiling. The Timberwolves have the ability to evolve into a championship team. NBA Twitter — on Tuesday night during the win against the Warriors — mentioned the early-stage Oklahoma City Thunder (2009-2010) as a comparison to these Timberwolves. Right or wrong, prescient or not, that comparison holds merit if only because one can see the luminous quality of the talent on hand in Minneapolis. The comparison is an imperfect one — it might not work on several levels — but in terms of the existence of two potentially transcendent stars on the same roster, the comparison fits.

Towns and Wiggins deserve nothing less than the best possible coach, do they not?

Sam Mitchell is a decent guy, and after the death of Flip Saunders, it would undeniably create one of the best feel-good stories in NBA history if Mitchell leads the Wolves all the way to the mountaintop in the course of time, lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in three or four years. That would be a wonderful story to witness and then write about.

However, would Mitchell realistically be the right man to engineer such a feat?

Skepticism seems to be the better posture than optimism… and by more than a small margin.

Thus concludes this April Autopsy on the Minnesota Timberwolves. This is a good death… but it will become a bad one if this team isn’t properly coached in 2017 and beyond.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |