Minnesota Timberwolves: 2015-16 forecast

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No. 15: <a href="http://espn.go.com/nba/team/_/name/min/minnesota-timberwolves">Minnesota Timberwolves</a>

Last Season: 16-66
15th place in West; missed playoffs

Even after trading Kevin Love, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered the previous season hoping to compete for a playoff berth. Injuries scuttled that hope and sent Minnesota into a rebuilding process, ready or not.

A painful 16-66 campaign had a happy ending. The Timberwolves became the first team since the Orlando Magic in 2004 to win the lottery with the league's worst record. Minnesota drafted Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1 overall, and the combination of Towns and 2014 top pick Andrew Wiggins gives the Timberwolves a pair of potential superstars as a foundation.

Last summer's trade to send Love to Cleveland left Minnesota with two different teams: the veteran core built to contend for a playoff spot and a group of talented but unproven young players. With newcomer Thaddeus Young replacing Love, the Timberwolves expected to remain competitive. Injuries had other plans. Minnesota's expected starting lineup -- Young, Wiggins, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio -- started just three games before Rubio went down with a severely sprained ankle that kept him out through the end of January. Martin (fractured wrist) and Pekovic (sprained wrist) also missed most of the season's first three months.

Without those three, the Timberwolves started the season 5-31, which led coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders to begin dealing away older players. Corey Brewer went to the Houston Rockets, and at the deadline, Minnesota sent Young to the Brooklyn Nets to bring Kevin Garnett home to finish his career with the Timberwolves. Minnesota finished the season with six players on the sideline and lost the second-most games (335) and most minutes (8,000-plus) to injury of any NBA team.

The injuries and trades gave unexpected opportunities to young players. After a slow start, Wiggins came on to emerge as the team's leading scorer and win Rookie of the Year honors. The Wolves threw their other first-round pick, Zach LaVine, into the lineup ahead of schedule and saw him improve late in the season. Before succumbing to season-ending hand surgery, second-year forward Shabazz Muhammad improved dramatically.

Minnesota's lost season paid off at the lottery with the No. 1 overall pick, the first in franchise history after years of lottery misery. After some debate over whether to take Duke center Jahlil Okafor, the Timberwolves decided on Towns, the consensus top player available. They also traded a pair of second-round picks to take Duke point guard Tyus Jones, a Twin Cities native, with the 24th pick.

The rest of Minnesota's summer was quiet. The Timberwolves re-signed Garnett to a two-year, $16 million deal that will take him through retirement. Their other big move was signing 2014-15 Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, whose rights the team has held since he was drafted in the second round in 2010, to a three-year contract worth $11.7 million. Minnesota also swapped Chase Budinger for Damjan Rudez in a money-saving deal and added veteran leadership by signing point guard Andre Miller and small forward Tayshaun Prince.

Given the Timberwolves' long history of injury problems -- dating back to 2009-10, their players have missed more games and minutes due to injury than any other NBA team -- perhaps Minnesota's most important offseason addition was long-time Detroit Pistons physical therapist Arnie Kander, who is known for his innovative treatments. Since 2009-10, the Pistons were among the 10 teams that lost the fewest games and minutes to injury.

The Timberwolves' biggest health concern entering camp is far more serious than a torn ligament or broken bone. Saunders began treatment for cancer of the immune system over the summer and was hospitalized in September after a setback. Assistant coach Sam Mitchell, the 2006-07 Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors, will begin the season as interim head coach.

Just outside the locker room, next to the twin practice courts in the Minnesota Timberwolves' sparkling new, downtown practice facility, is a unique feature. For lack of a better term, it's a "hangout zone" that wraps around a corner and has multiple levels with long, padded benches. It looks like something a billionaire would have in his personal clubhouse. Team president and coach Flip Saunders had many visions when leading the design of this structure, the Mayo Clinic Courts, and he wanted this piece of architecture to create a natural area where on-the-court work could be extended to basketball and life conversation.

"We're already seeing it working," Saunders said. "It's acting as a gathering place for our guys to bond and talk, and that's exactly what we'd hoped for. Sometimes the locker room doesn't always lend itself to that."

It might as well be called Kevin Garnett's office. Although this area might seem trivial in the grand scheme, teaching and the passing on of wisdom are a huge focus for the young Wolves right now. They will start training camp with three teenagers on their roster, including the past two No. 1 overall picks, Wiggins and Towns. In total, there are five players age 22 or younger and nine players with two or fewer seasons of NBA experience.

That is why Saunders brought back Garnett, signed veterans Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince, and has refused to trade Kevin Martin. Just about everything the Wolves do this season will revolve around seasoning their kids as they hope to finally pivot and make a return to relevance behind what appears to be a promising youth movement. -- Brian Windhorst

Projected Real Plus-Minus for starters 
Ricky Rubio, PG:  +6.3
Zach LaVine, SG: -6.0
Andrew Wiggins, SF: +1.9
Kevin Garnett, PF:  +0.3
Karl-Anthony Towns, C: N/A

Scouting reports on every player on the Timberwolves

Using shot data from 2014-15 and projected starters, Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry ranks each team's offensive efficiency based on square footage.

  • Though the team projects to shoot a solid 35 percent from 3 this season, three Minnesota starters project to hit on 32 percent or worse. 
  • No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns projects to shoot almost 50 percent on two-point shots this season, which will help a Wolves' offense that ranked 27th from two in 2015.
  • All About That Space: 27th (357 square feet of above-average offense)

    To identify players who stretch offenses the most, ESPN Stats & Information created the Kyle Korver Effect -- a metric on a 1-100 scale, factoring in 3PT%, 3-point attempt rate (percentage of total shots that come from 3-point range) and influence on teammate FG%.

    Korver Effect: Though Kevin Martin projects to shoot a team-high 39.2 percent from 3, his below-average Kyle Korver Effect (42.4) is due to his teammates' effective field goal percentage dropping when he's on the court.

    By virtue of the addition of Towns, the growth of the young players on the roster and inevitable better health from the veterans, the Timberwolves figure to be more competitive in 2015-16. Minnesota might be able to climb out of the Western Conference cellar, but we're still at least a year -- most likely two -- from Minnesota contending for the postseason.

    In Towns and Wiggins, the Timberwolves have two pieces of their eventual starting five. This season will be crucial for evaluating where players such as Rubio, Jones, LaVine, Muhammad and third-year center Gorgui Dieng fit into the mix. Although the summer was quiet, the next 12 months might bring more action to solidify the core of the next great Timberwolves team.

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