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Analyst sees uncertain Timberwolves' future

CANNON BALL, N.D. — It's been a bumpy offseason for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Despite snapping a 14-year playoff drought last season, stories of dysfunction between the team's two All-Stars — Jimmy Butler and Karl Anthony Towns — and whether they can co-exist have grabbed headlines. Andrew Wiggins, who signed a $148-million extension last October, also has come under scrutiny as questions of team chemistry under head coach Tom Thibodeau persist as training camp opens in less than a month.

ESPN NBA analyst Brian Windhorst sees uncertain times ahead.

"Two years ago I was so excited about the Wolves. I understood why they hired Thibs. It was a bit of a risky hire, but I understood why they did it," Windhorst said. "If and when Karl Towns signs, which I expect him to do, it's just interesting it hasn't happened yet, they're probably going to have to make a choice on the direction of the team. Do they want to build around Karl and his sensibilities and his style of play, or do they want to build the team around Jimmy.

"My guess is it's going to be hard for the two of them to co-exist."

Butler is a free agent after the upcoming season. Towns is eligible to sign a five-year contract with Minnesota like Wiggins did last October.

Windhorst, who was in Cannon Ball, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 23, to attend the Standing Rock Sioux heritage ceremony for Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, isn't ready to make concrete assessments on the Timberwolves' future.

"It's very difficult here in August to say you know how things are going to go," Windhorst said. "The thing about the NBA is that things can turn around very quickly."

The Wolves are hoping that happens with Wiggins, who struggled in 2017-18 after inking the monster extension.

"Andrew has value certainly, but with his contract it's hard. The thing about it is, and there are exceptions to this, but typically the guy who you are five years in, is kinda the guy you are," Windhorst said. "When they gave him that contract, they expected him to elevate. Now, he would probably argue well, if I'm the third guy at the table, it's hard to elevate, I'm being held back. There may be some merit to that. But for the Wolves ever to be great, they need, or needed him, to be great."

Lebron in L.A.

Windhorst, a native of Akron, Ohio, attended the same high school as LeBron James and has covered him extensively for the Akron Beacon Journal, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and ESPN.

Windhorst was not surprised James chose to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in July. With close ties to James' inner circle, Windhorst was among the first NBA pundits to peg the Lakers as the favorite.

The wheels for James to leave Cleveland were set in motion when Irving forced the Cavs to trade him last summer, ultimately to the Celtics.

"Had LeBron and Kyrie been able to form a relationship—and really they never did and were never meant to and it was nobody's fault—then I think they might have been able to stay together," Windhorst said. "Once that fell apart, and he lost (Kyrie), it just wasn't going to last."

With the Lakers, James joined a team that is not currently viewed as a legitimate title threat. James has played in the NBA Finals eight years in a row.

"It's a really different thing for him. For the last 10 years he's been on a team that was absolutely a championship contender but that's not the case now," Windhorst said. "Now if they trade for Kawhi Leonard or if Brandon Ingram becomes a star, maybe we'll have a different conversation. But as we sit here today he's not on a championship contender, and knowing him, it's just hard to believe he was ready to make that move."

NBA 365

Much like the NFL, the NBA has become essentially a 12-month sport.

Windhorst is a regular on ESPN's "The Jump" a television show dedicated to coverage of the NBA year round.

"As somebody involved with the league, you want the league to be super relevant year round. You want free agency to be a huge story. You want the draft to be a big deal. You want all that stuff," he said. "I feel really good about being associated with the NBA at this point in its history. I feel good about its future, about its present and I feel good about how the players represent themselves in public.

"I feel really good about where the league is and I'm just very fortunate to be a part of it."