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T’wolves 2015/16: Win Some for the Flipper


Flip Saunders, 1955-2015

Commemorative patchEach year for the last several, I have written up a Timberwolves season preview.[1] It is an opportunity to out myself as the deluded optimist I am when it comes to the team. Most years, this optimism manages to survive two or three weeks into the season. Last year, when Ricky Rubio went down with an injury in the fourth game of the season, it didn’t last even that long.

Flip SaundersIt is now late October and tonight the Wolves’ season begins. I should be more unrealistically optimistic than ever. The team has a handful of very exciting young players and franchise icon KG–Kevin Garnett–is here to perform the mentoring magic that will help transform them into perennial all-stars. (If such magic exists, KG is as likely as anyone to possess it.)

But just four days ago, Flip Saunders, the sometimes reviled and sometimes revered coach, President of Basketball Operations, and part-owner of the Timberwolves, passed away after a short and stunning illness. In August, the public was told he had “a very treatable and curable” form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Not long after that, we learned he had “suffered a setback” and would not be with the team for at least half of the season.

KG's tribute to FlipAs the season grew closer, the Saunders family and (to its credit) the team kept details of Flip’s treatment and prognosis very private. As the weeks passed, this silence took on an ominous character.

Still, the announcement on Sunday–just two days after the team’s final preseason game–that Flip Saunders had passed away after six weeks in a coma was a shocker. It was a gut-punch to fans and anyone associated with the team and to much of the NBA. In the days since, the outpouring of heartfelt grief and respect from players and fans around the league has been an impressive tribute to the man.

While I have at times griped about some of Flip’s moves and what I felt were his less-than-modern coaching philosophies, I’ve always respected him as a good and decent man. I had no idea. Stories from his players past and present and from others who enjoyed close encounters with him over the years paint a picture of a very classy individual who has touched scores of people.

He leaves this team in a hopeful place. It is indescribably sad to me to think he did not live to see his dreams for this franchise come to fruition.

He will be missed. My heart goes out to his family and to everyone who loved him. May he rest in peace.

Timberwolves 2015/16 preview

Preview? Such a thing seems so much less important than it ever has, and my previews have never seemed important at all. Not even to me. Nevertheless here is a stream-of-consciousness version of what I had planned to write.

Wolf pack
The over/under for the Wolves in Las Vegas is set at 27.5 wins. Bet the under if you believe the team will win no more than 27 games. If you believe they can win 28 or more, bet the over. Me? You just know I will bet the over. (Real money? Of course not. I’m not stupid.)

My rose-colored-glasses take is that things will finally begin to fall into place for this ill-starred franchise. Maybe Flip can buy a few beers for the basketball gods and swing a late-night deal like he did so many years ago as a coach in the Continental Basketball Association. I see 30-34 wins and a clear sense that team is on the right path.

How might this happen?

Ricky RubioIt starts with Ricky Rubio. He is the engine (or, if you prefer, the magic unicorn) that makes this team go. If he gets hurt again, I might have to watch hockey or football. Well, not really, but I will need a new hobby. He needs to improve his shot and he did show some hopeful signs last season before getting hurt. Fingers are crossed. This seems to be a make-or-break year for him.

Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins had a uninspired, low-energy preseason. I expect he will get going. Towns has been even better than advertised. Joann and I were at the team’s last preseason game at the Target Center and he was very impressive. Under Kevin Garnett‘s tutelage, he may be the rare big man who makes an impact his first season.[2]

Nemanja BjelicaNemanja Bjelica is a 6’10″ power forward who was the 2015 Euroleague MVP and a guy who will be the Timberwolves’ third or fourth best player. Technically, he is a rookie (despite several years pro experience in Europe) and he is virtually unknown to all but the most fanatical fans of this team. That will change. In fact, if he plays as well as I expect him to play, the average Wolves fan might learn to pronounce his name.

Andrew WigginsFour veterans–KG, Kevin Martin, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller are with the team. Only Martin is anywhere close to his prime. He will play and contribute (though there is a good chance he is traded before the end of the season). KG will play if health permits. Prince will be an opening day starter and once Mitchell concedes that LaVine is not a point guard, Miller will fill the backup PG role unless the local-boy-does-good rookie Tyus Jones is used (my preference, though that may mean the season has gone south in a big way).

Nikola Pekovic is hurt. Again. If he plays at all this season it will be a bonus. If not, backup center duties will fall to Gorgui Dieng. He had an outstanding off-season and was the best player in the 2015 FIBA Africa Championship tournament. Too often in the past, Dieng has tried to defend everyone and in so doing, defended no one. With any luck, an improved team defense and mentoring by KG will help him.

KG and TownsShabazz Muhammad is a very intriguing player. He has gone from the guy no knowledgeable Wolves’ fan wanted on the team to a guy who might contend for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He can get buckets. If he can defend at all and play a modicum of team basketball, he could be a key player.

Zach LaVine might succeed if he plays shooting guard. Has some physical tools, but so did Rashad McCants. He has a lot to learn about the pro game. I don’t expect it to happen this year, though in a best-case scenario he takes most of Martin’s minutes at the shooting guard position by the end of the season. Stranger things have happened.

Damjan Rudez is a three-point shooting specialist and shouldn’t play much. Adreian Payne will provide some comic relief in blowouts.

Tonight begins the adventure. At this point, the Timberwolves are undefeated. Let’s hope they can keep that unblemished record intact by beating the Fakers in Los Angeles. Go Wolves!

Notes

  1. Not always on my blog. I’ve used email and fan forums in the past. See last year’s Timberwolves 2014/15 Outlook for evidence of my over-optimistic bent. [^]
  2. I wrote this blog post prior to last Wednesday night’s season opener (added photos and proofread today). Now it has come out that Wiggins is dealing with a bad back. That may account for his underwhelming performance thus far. Towns is flat-out ballin’! (I have probably jinxed him for tonight’s home opener.) [^]

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