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After sad season, Timberwolves could soon sport big grins thanks to young stars

Postmortem: Minnesota Timberwolves

As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were eliminated from the playoffs earlier this week.

It’s been a strange year for the Minnesota Timberwolves. On one hand, the franchise is arguably in as good a shape as it has been since trading Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics in 2007.

With the last two No. 1 overall picks – Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns – on the roster, along with two-time Slam Dunk champion Zach LaVine and another expected top-five pick in the upcoming 2016 NBA draft, the Timberwolves are following a similar path to the one the Oklahoma City Thunder followed in the early stages of their current roster.

But on the other, the Timberwolves are still reeling from the loss of Flip Saunders, the team’s part-owner, president of basketball operations and head coach who passed away from cancer last October. Saunders was synonymous with Minnesota thanks to his time at the University of Minnesota as a player and his role in turning the Timberwolves into a consistent Western Conference power by overseeing Garnett’s growth into a dominant player.

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When Saunders passed, the top job in the front office went to Milt Newton, while Sam Mitchell became head coach. Both have deep ties to Saunders and, as the Timberwolves have progressed through this season, his presence has hung over the franchise. While Minnesota has made nascent progress this year from last (the Timberwolves are on pace to win 26 games, 10 more than last season), questions about the futures of both Newton and Saunders – as well as the potential addition of a minority owner – have dominated talk surrounding the franchise.

Still, despite the losing and uncertainty, there’s plenty to like about the direction the Timberwolves are headed.

2016 draft picks

First round: Their own

Second round: Houston’s pick, if it lands outside the 31-45 range (their own pick will go to Boston)

2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)

$25.3 million ($60.3 million committed to 11 players; $1.2 million in stretch provision payments to Kevin Martin; $3.2 million for one draft pick)

2016 free agents

SF Tayshaun Prince, PF/C Greg Smith

Five questions to answer

1. Will Sam Mitchell be back?

Over the past few months, Mitchell’s job on the sidelines has been scrutinized heavily – mainly for appearing to view the game through the lens of someone who was a player 20 years ago, as opposed to someone adjusting to the modern advancements the game has undergone in recent seasons.

But those assuming Mitchell is automatically headed out the door at season’s end aren’t looking at the bigger picture surrounding him and the franchise. First is Mitchell’s connection with Saunders, which is substantial – as is the fact he is an original member of the Timberwolves. Then there is Mitchell’s deep friendship with Garnett, who – along with Saunders – helped convince Garnett to waive his no-trade clause and return to Minnesota last year and heal a seven-year feud with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor.

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That’s why the expectation here is that Mitchell will, in fact, be back next season. If Taylor decides to make a change though, there will be no shortage of suitors lined up to take what is one of the most intriguing jobs in the NBA.

2. Will Ricky Rubio be back?

Rubio is just 25, but it feels like he’s been around forever. That’s because, in many ways, he has been.

Rubio has been part of our basketball consciousness for at least a decade, since he was a teenage phenom in Spain who grew in popularity thanks to video clips of his dribbling exploits online, and for his play in the 2008 Olympics for the Spanish national team. Rubio was eventually drafted by the Timberwolves in 2009, and came to Minnesota two years later.

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Since then, though, he’s been a confusing player. An excellent passer and an underrated defender, Rubio’s true ceiling is hard to define because of his persistent shooting struggles. In today’s NBA, it’s hard to have a successful offense with a point guard that can’t be a threat to shoot – just look at Rajon Rondo in Sacramento.

Add to this that Rubio’s name has consistently come up in trade rumors over the past few years, and it’s fair to wonder what his future in Minnesota looks like. On a reasonable contract for the next three seasons, Rubio will undoubtedly have value – even with his shooting issues – if the Timberwolves choose to go that route.

3. What direction will the Timberwolves go in the draft?

Right now, the Timberwolves seem pretty well locked into the fifth spot in the NBA’s draft lottery, which, if nothing changes, would leave them in solid shape entering this year’s draft.

In the eyes of many, this is a five-player draft, with LSU’s Ben Simmons, Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Croatian forward Dragan Bender, Cal’s Jaylen Brown and Providence’s Kris Dunn, in some order, a tier above the rest.

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So if the Timberwolves manage to remain inside that top five, they could simply take whatever player falls to them – almost certainly one of Bender, Brown or Dunn. And all of them would be interesting fits. Bender would give Minnesota an interesting compliment to Towns in the frontcourt, Brown a wing to pair with Wiggins and Dunn as either a shooting guard who can handle the ball like a point guard (think some version of Dwyane Wade) or as a potential replacement for Rubio if the team indeed does look to trade him.

4. What is Zach LaVine’s long-term position and role?

LaVine has become a household name, at least in NBA households, because of his jaw-dropping performances in the past two Slam Dunk contests. But he’s also an intriguing talent outside of his dunking ability, averaging 14 points per game this season and shooting 38 percent from three-point range.

What LaVine is not, however, is a point guard. The Timberwolves have tried to play him there often throughout the first two years of his NBA career, and it hasn’t worked. Things have gone much better for him, though, when he’s played at shooting guard – which seems like a much more logical long-term home for him positionally.

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In watching LaVine play, the person that comes to mind is another Seattle product: Jamal Crawford. LaVine settling into a long-term sixth man scoring role off the bench would likely be the best thing for both him and the Timberwolves – assuming everyone can agree that’s the proper way to utilize his skills.

5. Which of the “other” young guys are long-term fits?

There is plenty of talk – and understandably so – about Wiggins, Towns and LaVine, and that group will have a fourth player after the draft.

But Minnesota also has several other young players on its roster, and will need to determine what their role is moving forward. Minnesota native Tyus Jones hasn’t played much this year, but seems like a lock to settle in as a solid, long-term backup point guard, whether the Timberwolves keep Rubio or not, so he seems like a good bet to stick around. Adreian Payne, on the other hand seems like a bit of a lost cause, struggling to find playing time and seemingly likely to become a non-factor before too much longer.

The truly interesting case, though, is that of Shabazz Muhammad. After an injury cut short a promising second season, Muhammad has become a consistent member of Minnesota’s rotation in 2015-16. But while he’s shown an ability to score, he’s fundamentally a wing that is shooting less than 30 percent from three-point range. Even with his ability to use his strength to score inside on smaller defenders, if that shooting percentage doesn’t increase it’s hard to see a sustainable path to long-term success for him in the league.

More in our NBA Postmortem series:

– Is the Carmelo Anthony Era with the Knicks coming to an end?

– Bucks have big decisions ahead – like whether to take a run at Dwight Howard

– If Magic want to ascend, they may need to deal Elfrid Payton or Victor Oladipo

– Will Nets’ dim prospects brighten any this offseason?

– The Suns have bottomed out. Here’s how they can pick themselves up.

– The Lakers can finally move on from Kobe Bryant

– The 76ers’ season is dead. Here’s how they can rise in 2017.