We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are very likely to improve on their 16-66 record — and very unlikely to make the playoffs. Beyond that, almost anything is possible. If everything goes well, we could be mentioning the Wolves in the same breath as the New Orleans Pelicans in next year’s CARMELO preview: a team that’s on the verge of becoming a title contender. There really is that much upside on the roster among Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio.
But they could also be a total disaster. For now the Wolves are a collection of misfit toys, full of players who are a little too young, a little too old, a little too one-dimensional, a little too injury-prone. They also don’t mesh particularly well together, leading to trouble finding good looks on offense and disorganized, lackadaisical defense.
So take CARMELO’s 29-53 projected record for the Wolves with a grain of salt. It’s a rough guess. More to the point, it doesn’t matter all that much. If the Timberwolves somehow hang around the .500 mark because of surprisingly good last-gasp seasons from veterans like Kevin Garnett and Kevin Martin, it’s not going to do much beyond worsen their lottery position. This year is more about how their young players develop, instead. No player is more important to their future than Wiggins, so we’ll start our CARMELO-guided tour of the roster with him:
In many respects, we created our CARMELO projection system because we were curious about players like Wiggins. On the one hand, he was a regular starter in the league at age 19, which is usually a very good sign. On the other hand, though Wiggins scored 16.9 points per game, he was one of the least efficient regulars in the NBA according to advanced statistics such as Real Plus-Minus. Our assessments of Wiggins last year ranged from decidedly pessimistic to guardedly optimistic, often sparking ire from T-Wolves fans who were sure they were watching the league’s next superstar.
But that was before CARMELO! Now we have CARMELO, and it’s on the optimistic side. CARMELO thinks Andrew Wiggins has a chance to be the next … Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony, Wiggins’s No. 1 comparable, is a good example of what Wiggins’s upside could look like. In Anthony’s rookie year in 2003-04, he was a high-volume but fairly low-efficiency scorer, averaging 21 points per game on 43 percent shooting. Middling scoring efficiency is one of the more forgivable flaws for a young player, however. Both shooting technique and shot selection can (and often do) improve with practice and experience, especially for a player on a young, rebuilding team whose teammates are improving alongside him. Some of CARMELO’s breakout picks this year, like Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton, fit into exactly this category.
But whereas CARMELO is enamored of Smart and Payton, it’s more tentative in its affection toward Wiggins. The reason is his defense, which cost the T-Wolves about 2 points per 100 possessions while Wiggins was on the floor last season. Wiggins’s D will likely improve, but he could wind up a lot like Anthony: very good, but between mediocre defense and average efficiency, not quite as good as his box score stats suggest.
Ricky Rubio is one of the NBA’s bigger outliers, ranking near the top or bottom of just about every statistical category: stellar passer, but turns the ball over a ton and is one of the league’s least efficient shooters. He is a good defender and is younger than you might think (25), having been drafted by the Timberwolves in 2009 when he was just 18, so he still has time to improve. Indeed, CARMELO’s projection for Rubio is fairly optimistic, relying on precedents like Jason Kidd and Rod Strickland, who developed just enough scoring touch to become cornerstone players.
CARMELO likes the No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, D’Angelo Russell, slightly better than No. 1 Karl-Anthony Towns. But this is nonetheless a pretty good projection for Towns. True, his top two comparables (Andrew Bennett and Greg Oden) couldn’t be more discouraging, but that conceals some favorable names (Chris Bosh, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis) just a bit further down his list. A plus with players like Towns is that they can be average-or-better defenders almost as soon as they enter the league, even as they’re figuring out their offensive games.
Although CARMELO sees high reward — coupled with high risk — for Wiggins, Rubio and Towns, it’s less convinced that Zach LaVine will ever become an above-average NBA player. As my Grantland colleague Zach Lowe explains, LaVine was simply overmatched last year, forced into playing more than 1,900 minutes as a pro after having been only a modestly effective amateur at UCLA. LaVine could turn into a league-average player like Monta Ellis — his No. 6 comparable — but even rebuilding teams like the T-Wolves will invest only so many resources in trying to develop the next Monta Ellis.
Oddly enough, the Wolves have a fair amount of frontcourt depth, so Gorgui Dieng could see his playing time decrease despite being one of Minnesota’s more effective players last year. He has a relatively common profile for a big man, and one that tends not to age all that well: good defender, excellent shot-blocker, but limited by his inability to create his own shots.
Kevin Martin has always been a miserable defender, so his offensive game has to be superlative for him to be a worthwhile rotation player. Instead, he’s showing signs of age, having posted his lowest true shooting percentage since his rookie season last year. Martin would have more value as a 10-minutes-per-game offensive sparkplug off the bench for a contending club than as someone who’s still logging starter’s minutes.
Sometimes CARMELO comparables are eerily resonant. Shabazz Muhammad, a former high school slam-dunk champion, draws comps including Harold Miner (his No. 1 overall comparable) and Cedric Ceballos (No. 6). Both Miner and Ceballos won the NBA slam-dunk contest but were minus defenders and otherwise never quite gelled as NBA players. At 23 this season, Muhammad is far from a lost cause, but the Wolves have a lot of other projects who might be higher on their priority list.
CARMELO slaps the “scrappy veteran” label on Kevin Garnett, which seems to woefully underbill his accomplishments as a 15-time All-Star. But that’s what Garnett is at this point, with his defense and rebounding skills still largely intact but no longer much durability or ability to contribute on the offensive end. His return to Minnesota as a sort of player-coach is a nice story, but he has just enough left that contending teams could eye him for frontcourt depth down the stretch.