Five goals for the Timberwolves heading into 2016-17

Apr 9, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots the ball over Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) and guard Gerald Henderson (9) during the second quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots the ball over Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) and guard Gerald Henderson (9) during the second quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports /

Summer League has begun and the season is quickly approaching for the Timberwolves.

The hope that the Timberwolves actually might be a competitive team is more prevalent than ever. From a front office standpoint, the organization has made all the right moves to turn the ship around. The question remains, however: will these business decisions translate to on-court production? And, what should this team focus on in order to be competitive?

First and foremost, the main focus for the team should be defense. Last year, the Wolves allowed 106 points per game and had a defensive rating of 110.1 — good for 23rd and 29th in the league, respectively. Continuing to play defense like this will not get the Timberwolves very far. There needs to be a complete change of culture on the defensive end and they’ve hired just the coach to do it.

In 2009-10, Chicago Bulls under Vinny Del Negro were 13th in the league in opponent points per game and 11th in the league in defensive rating. The following year, 2010-11, was Tom Thibodeau’s first year as the head coach of the Bulls. In just one season, the Bulls arguably became the best defensive team in the league giving up 91.3 points per game to opposing teams.

They were first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.3, and Thibodeau won Coach of the Year. If Coach Thibs can turn this years Timberwolves into even half the defensive team that the Bulls were, then the Wolves will be on the path to success.

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Secondly, the Timberwolves need to shoot and make more three-pointers. Last season, the Timberwolves connected on 455 three-pointers. In comparison, the Golden State Warriors made 1077. Steph Curry alone hit 402 threes — nearly as many as the entire Wolves roster. While I do not expect the Timberwolves suddenly turn into the Warriors, I do expect them to attempt and make more threes this year.

During the 2014-15 season, Thibodeau’s last year as head coach, the Bulls attempted an average of 22.3 threes a game and hit 37 percent of them. In 2015-16, the Wolves attempted 16.4 threes a game and made 34 percent of them.

It should be noted that the Bulls had better shooters on the roster, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Wolves should continue to be at the bottom of the league in both three-point shooting attempts and percentage. Between Zach Lavine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and new acquisition Brandon Rush, the Timberwolves should have average, if not above-average, long-range shooters. If Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Ricky Rubio, and even Kris Dunn are able to hit a handful of threes between all of them, this offense would immediately become deadly.

My third point goes hand-in-hand with scoring production: the Timberwolves need to establish a reliable and effective bench.

While the Wolves’ bench did rank 14th in points per game with 35.7, this number includes Kevin Martin’s 10.6 points per game. Without Martin, last year’s bench averaged just 25.1 points per game.

The additions of Kris Dunn and Cole Aldrich should be a huge lift for the second unit if they can create chemistry. Last year’s bench was extremely stagnant. There was slow ball movement, contested jumpers, and inefficient isolation. In order to be a successful squad, all of this will need to improved upon.

I believe that Shabazz Muhammad has the ability to compete for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He needs consistent minutes, but he will also have to take advantage of the opportunities he is given with Towns and Wiggins on the bench. During the 2015-16 season, Shabazz averaged 10.5 points per game while playing 20.5 minutes and shooting 46.5 percent from the field. While those numbers are decent, Shabazz’s per-36 stats show that he has true promise as a scorer.

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Fourth on the list is closing out games — last year’s team let a number of early leads slip away in the later stages of contests. The Timberwolves lost 18 games by five points or less, which was the most in the entire league.

There were, of course, some pretty finishes: Towns’ game-winner vs. Portland and the final few minutes of the win over Golden State come to mind. This team showed flashes of brilliance and promise, especially late in the season and in crunch time. If Thibs is able to bring together all of the unique pieces of this team, we could see the Wolves finish above the .500 mark for the first time in over a decade.

Fifth, and finally, the Minnesota Timberwolves should make the playoffs. This team is too talented and well coached to continue to be on the outside looking in.

If the Wolves are able to improve by 15 games this upcoming season that would be good enough for last year’s fifth seed. Improving by 15 wins may seem like a stretch, and it is. But let’s not forget that Thibs took what had been a 41-win Bulls team and led them to 62 wins and the number-one seed in the East.

Thibodeau also helped turn a third-year Derrick Rose into the league’s MVP. He did all of this during his first year as a head coach.

Next: Dunn is Solid, Timberwolves Lost Again in Summer League

While the competition in the Western Conference may be slightly more concentrated this year, the Timberwolves have the versatility, talent and leadership to be in the playoffs.