Butler, Towns, Wiggins: How quickly can the Timberwolves stars mesh?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 06: Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 6, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 06: Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 6, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

Off-season moves have thrust the Minnesota Timberwolves up the NBA food chain and into contention in the Western Conference, and their success depends largely on the chemistry of their three best players.

The weight of the season lies squarely on the shoulders of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins and how quickly they can blend their talents.

Going into a season having three players who averaged over 20 points per game the prior year is a luxury most teams do not have. Actually, it’s a luxury only two teams in the entire NBA will have next season: the Golden State Warriors and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Bump that average up to 23 points per game and you are left with only one team: the Timberwolves. The Wolves new trio combined for 72.7 points per game, with Jimmy Butler averaging 23.9, Karl-Anthony Towns was at 25.2, and Andrew Wiggins at 23.6.

Now, this stat may be skewed due to the fact that Jimmy Butler didn’t play for the Wolves last season. However, it speaks to the offensive firepower that Tom Thibodeau’s roster boasts.

The only recent precedent similar to this situation comes in the forms of the 2010-11 Miami Heat and the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers (excluding the 2016-17 Warriors with Durant, who were such an outlier it doesn’t bother comparing anybody to them). In each case, the teams’ stars had to learn each other’s tendencies and sacrifice for the betterment of the club. The question is how well and how quickly will the Wolves stars be able to accomplish this task.

The Process

There will no doubt be growing pains through this process. In both of the aforementioned cases, the 2010 Heat and 2014 Cavs had their struggles. In Miami’s situation they hobbled out of the gate to a 9-8 start as collection of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Lebron James felt out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The 2014 Cavs faced similar struggles. They put together a lackluster 20-20 start even with the high-end talent of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and James.

It now becomes the 2017-18 Timberwolves turn to test out the experiment of meshing three star scorers together. A task that becomes even more difficult when also adding players like Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Teague. The Wolves also will not have the luxury of a basketball savant like LeBron to push things along when the flow of the offense becomes clunky.

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But, the advantage the Timberwolves will have over these above-mentioned teams is prior player and coach chemistry. Wiggins and Towns have now been playing together for two years. Jimmy Butler, despite being new to the Timberwolves, has plenty of experience in Tom Thibodeau’s system. The Wolves will ideally also have the fallback of a strong defense, which will buoy the team if the offense sputters to start the season. There should (emphasize should) be enough talent to win a fair ratio of games even without meshing immediately.

So, how do the three stars fit together? Let’s look at each individually.

Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has evolved his game over his six-year career from defensive-minded bench guy to top-15 NBA player. He’s added wrinkles and skills every year, pushing him into the conversation of top two-way player in the entire league. The hope, and probably belief, is that this improvement will only continue and he’ll come into next season as an even better player.

His strengths lie in his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls, while mixing in a strong mid-range game out of the pick-and-roll. Over at Canis Hoopus, Eric in Madison wrote a great piece on how the Timberwolves pick-and-roll might look next year. He mentioned Jimmy’s inefficiency in Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) when using the pick-and-roll. However, he also analyzes how Butler didn’t have the gravitational pull of two other stars to keep the defense honest.

The natural progression for Butler, and probably a need if the Timberwolves offense will remain efficient, is an uptick in his three-point attempts and percentage. By cutting out some shots from 16 feet to inside the three-point line and moving behind the arc, Butler should open up another level for his offensive game.

A lot has been made of the Timberwolves shooting outlook for next year. That is a subject that should probably be covered in another article. But if the Wolves players are able to up their attempts while maintaining their percentages, the team should be fine with their spacing.

Karl-Anthony Towns

KAT might be the player to worry least about when it comes to adapting to other great scorers. His offensive game is like a chameleon: no matter what the offense looks like he is able to blend in. Need him to pop out to the three-point line to space the floor? Fine, he’ll hit at an above league average clip. Need him in the post? Okay, he’ll just be one of the best post scorers in the entire NBA.

How about as a pick-and-roll man? As a modern day center that moves like a guard, with the athleticism of a wing, he’ll be able to finish over players and play through contact as well as anyone. Pick-and-pop? His outside shot is more than good enough to keep defenses honest. Add that to his pump fake that can be devastating when he doesn’t overthink it.

What about how KAT needs the ball in his hands to be effective? Well, as one of the top players in the league on the offensive glass, even that statement is overblown. He’ll get enough put back chances through his work on the boards to make up for the touches that Butler may take from him. Do you get the point? Basically, the Wolves are spoiled to have (arguably) the best and most versatile big man in the NBA. Oh yeah, he’s only 21 years old too. Cool.

That’s enough on KAT. We all know how neat he is.

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is probably the biggest variable when it comes to the new triumvirate the Wolves are putting on the floor. Going back to his days at Kansas, a constant knock on Andrew is his tendency to fade into the background when his services aren’t needed. With the talent of Butler and Towns now surrounding him, it will be sink or swim time for Wiggins. Will he rise to the occasion and be the Klay Thompson of the Wolves? That is to say a hyper-talented, yet third best, player on a contending team.

His offensive progression would suggest he has the ability to do so. His three-point percentage has risen each of his first three years in the league. Is the jump from 30 to 35 percent from outside the same as a 35 to 40 percent rise? We’ll have to wait and see.

His distribution and off-ball skills will also have to improve. Wiggins’ low assist totals have been noted many times since his NBA career began. He will also have to show his improved outside shot includes the ability to hit spot up threes, a must with Jimmy Butler needing the ball in his hands so often.

Related Story: Andrew Wiggins: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

In general, Wiggins is just a younger and slightly less effective version of Butler on the offensive end. How these two coexist will be one of the interesting things to follow as this upcoming season unfolds. Andrew will have to learn where his effective places on the floor will be with another volume scoring wing on the roster. His ability to adapt his game to his new teammates while remaining an explosive scorer is one of the key variables that this season’s success will rest on.

What will the Wolves look like?

Predicting the success of the upcoming Wolves season using the precedent of the 2010 Heat and 2014 Cavs suggests growing pains are imminent. Regardless of talent level and previous team chemistry, players of the Wolves talented trio will need time to adapt their games to fit with one another.

Specifically in the case of Butler and Wiggins, learning how to effectively space the floor and play off each other will be key in determining the heights this Minnesota team can reach.

Personality-wise, they seem to be a pretty good match. Butler with his grind-it-out, hard-working style. Karl-Anthony Towns and his love of the spotlight, mixed with a drive to make the franchise relevant again. Wiggins’ with his quiet demeanor and ability to take a back seat to other players without feeling like the forgotten one.

If they mesh well and quickly, it is not difficult to see how this team can win 50 games and make some noise in the stacked Western Conference. If they stumble and resist adapting their respective games, it is not difficult to see them narrowly missing the playoffs.

Next: Unpacking the Kyrie Irving rumor for the Timberwolves

These three players will be responsible for the joy or disappointment of the fan base for the foreseeable future. But, if you squint a little bit, you can see something special brewing for the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise.