To begin a mini road trip, the Sixers are in Minnesota to take on our good friend Dario Saric and the Timberwolves, who have had about as eventful of a season as they possibly could have imagined. I talked with David Naylor to get an updated view of the Wolves.
David does great work on the T-Wolves for A Wolf Among Wolves, and also covers the Minnesota Lynx and Minnesota United FC for Zone Coverage.
Question #1: The most common debate nowadays when it comes to the Sixers deals with Jimmy Butler, an upcoming free agent who will be hoping for a five-year, maximum salary contract. Some want Butler back no matter what, some are cautious about how many years it’s worth giving him, and some want him gone entirely. As someone who watched Jimmy closely during his time in Minnesota, how would you feel as a Sixers fan heading into his free agency?
You can count me among the number that would have been hesitant to give Butler the full max, primarily due to age and physical concerns. Butler is on track to play in 69 games this season if he plays in all the Sixers’ remaining games, which comfortably tops the 59 he played in last season. He’s only played in all 82 games in a season once, his second year in the league while primarily coming off the bench, and the physical nature of his game seemed to lead to injuries that, while not major, would cause him to not be at full strength or miss a game or two here and there. The Sixers are better placed to sustain his absence than Minnesota was, as the examples of this season and the stretch he missed late last season clearly show, but giving the maximum money and time to Butler feels risky given his workload and history. Butler at 34 in the final year of this potential deal could be great, but the odds don’t seem to go with that.
Question #2: Karl Anthony-Towns is the best scoring big-man in all of basketball, a threat from anywhere on the court who combines substantial volume with impressive efficiency. His Achilles heel has been his defense thus far in his career, but he’s made visible strides on that end recently. Do you think Towns will ever become a positive-impact defender?
Towns’ longstanding weakness on defense has always seemed more mental than physical. In his early seasons in Tom Thibodeau’s defense, Towns frequently seemed out-of-place and missed rotations in Thibs’ (outdated) “ICE” defense. As he has aged, the mental mistakes have decreased, and the abundant physical tools at his disposal have taken over. He’s obviously not done developing yet, so I feel pretty strongly that he will still get better yet on defense, not least if Ryan Saunders, or whoever coaches the Wolves next season, can implement a scheme that uses his strengths better. His permanent partner in the frontcourt is also an interesting development, with Taj Gibson likely to leave in the offseason and Dario Šarić yet to make a permanent mark. The developing partnership between Towns and Šarić is a great thing to keep an eye on in the twilight of this season for Minnesota.
Question #3: Is there any hope for Andrew Wiggins? He has awful shot selection and is brutally inefficient, while also giving lackluster defensive production. Do you think there’s still a chance he becomes a good player?
The Wiggins question has always felt like one of just whether or not he actually wants to play basketball at a high level, and this season has felt like a pretty resounding “no” outside of a couple of highlight performances, most notably against Oklahoma City in the fall. Thibodeau couldn’t solve him, Saunders has as of yet failed to unlock him and one wonders how patient the team’s decision makers will remain with him. The quote that sums up Wiggins’ issues in a nutshell came from Saunders after Tuesday’s loss to the Clippers: “I think people should be, I don’t want to use the word excited, but they should be encouraged by that, because that’s consecutive, consecutive, consecutive games right here where he has been aggressive with things.” Aggressiveness marks the best elements of Andrew’s game, but it shouldn’t be celebrated when he takes the right approach two games in a row. There will always be a chance for him — the natural tools that have always been there haven’t gone anywhere. The decision seems to be entirely in his extremely-full-of-money pocket.
Big thanks to David for answering our questions!