The Growing Pains of the Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the most enigmatic teams of this season despite sky high expectations for one of the youngest teams in the league, who boast two of the best up and coming players in Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, as well as a coaching upgrade from Sam Mitchell to the well-respected Tom Thibodeau.  Along with the addition of Thibs, the Wolves brought in Brandon Rush (game changer… or not), Cole Aldrich (welcome home), Jordan Hill (blah), and Kris Dunn (Rubio’s replacement?).  With an over/under of 42.5, they were supposed to be competing for a playoff spot in the back end of the West.  Instead, they currently sit 5-12 on the season.  So, what’s happening?

Let’s start with the good, the 3-point shooting.  The Wolves have improved their 3-point shooting and a lot of it is due to the improvement of Wiggins and Towns, as well as the continued good shooting of Zach LaVine.  Some regression has happened after a scorching start, but Wiggins is shooting nearly 40% this year, compared to 30% last year.  Towns is shooting nearly 40% from 3, compared to 34% last season, and LaVine is still shooting around 39%.  With Gorgui Dieng and Towns hitting the boards, the T’Wolves are one of the top teams in the league generating 2nd chance points from their high Offensive Rebounding Percentage.   In Towns and Wiggins, the Wolves have two of the most versatile young offensive players in the NBA.  Both can shoot 3’s, post-up, attack the basket, and hit mid-range shots; seriously, next time you watch the Wolves, watch for Towns’ step back jumpers like this one, and think to yourself, “Hey, he just turned 21.”

The growth of LaVine has been one of the catalysts for the Wolves offense, as, at least on the offensive end, the Wolves’ dynamic duo is becoming a trio.  One of the reasons behind this growth is LaVine’s improved shot selection.  He’s shooting a higher percentage of his shots from spots-ups (16% this year vs 14% last year), hand-offs (18% vs 10%), and running off screens (12% vs 7%), which are higher percentage shots for most NBA shooters, let alone someone as good as LaVine.  He is also limiting isolation possessions, where he scores at 0.73 points per possession (while average for the NBA, this is still a less efficient play type compared to others).  LaVine is finishing better at the rim as well, as the game appears to be slowing down for him. He has also developed a nice inside out layup with his right hand, showing the ability to use his athleticism to protect the ball for a high percentage layup instead of just recklessly attacking the rim.

The team has played extremely well in spurts, jumping out to big leads in several games.  Granted, they have lost a lot of these games, but you have to be optimistic that at least they have the talent to build these leads.  There are some promising signs of development for the Wolves that, should they continue, will benefit them long-term.

Now the bad, starting with the point guard situation.  Wolves’ fans have spent the last couple of years watching Ricky Rubio shoot under 40% from the field and around 30% from 3.  This year, he is shooting, wait for it, 37% from the field and 27% from 3.  This makes the half court heaves by fans at half time less of a $10,000 contest and more an audition for a point guard who can shoot (Dukes for Point Guard, anyone?). Backing up Rubio, Kris Dunn is shooting, wait for it, 32% from the field and 33% from 3. Yikes.  Combining their traditional stats, the Wolves are getting 10 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals at 35% from the field and 28% from 3 from Dunn and Rubio.  This is on a team with Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Zach LaVine, mind you.  In a league that is so deep at this position, the Wolves cannot muster better than this?

Rubio has not made any improvements in his game, and his jump shot is still as broke as ever.  While he is not quite at Rondo levels of shooting, he is not a scoring threat and only contributes assists on the offensive end, which are down on the year.  They need to cut his minutes, as it appears he has reached his ceiling as a player and that ceiling is not good enough to be a starting point guard for this team. He needs a new direction for his career and I don’t see it with the Wolves.  Dunn, on the other hand, needs minutes running the offense, plain and simple.  He has little value off the ball, though he has shown potential as an off the ball cutter.  His adjustment to the NBA is progressing slowly, but the Wolves need to work through these growing pains with him.  A lot of his turnovers are simply good passes that are being passed a split second too slow.  Defensively, he is extremely active on the ball, resulting in him being 2nd on the team in steals and 3rd in deflections in only 19 minutes a game.  Thibs demands ball pressure and Dunn, with his athleticism and size, can deliver in this scheme.  Off the ball, he needs more minutes to keep working through his mistakes on defense.  The X-factor in the point guard discussion is Tyus Jones.  With Rubio getting hurt and missing five games, Jones was awarded significant rotation minutes.  The difference between Jones and Dunn/Rubio is that he has value off the ball.  Jones is shooting 42% from the 3-point line, which requires at least a little attention from the defense.

Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine have been criticized for not being playmakers (7.5 assists per game between the three), but playmaking is more difficult with Rubio and Dunn off the ball, due to both of them not needing to be guarded at the 3-point line.  The extra spacing that Jones brings makes a world of difference for Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine, which is reflected in Jones leading the team in offensive rating (sorry John Lucas, your ten minutes of 117 offensive rating this season don’t count).  At the end of the game versus the Kings, the Wolves were able to run a Wiggins/Towns pick-and-roll four times in a row because Jones was on the floor giving them that extra little bit of space.  These types of plays need to be developed into the Wolves bread and butter, and they will need the extra spacing to make this work.  Even when he has the ball Jones can be effective, especially distributing the ball in the pick-and-roll.   Jones leads the team in pace as well, which the Wolves need to do a better job of utilizing with all of the athletes they have at their disposal.  He also makes good decisions with the ball, as evidenced by his 3.50 assist to turnover ratio.  Jones does have significant weaknesses, however.  He is a pretty poor on-ball defender, and his finishing at the rim is horrendous (he is shooting 33% on shots less than five feet from the rim).  This may be attributed to a small sample size, and he may get exposed through more playing time, but he can clearly be a plus when on the court (he has a +3.8 plus/minus), and he is still only 20 years-old.  Against the Lakers recently, Thibs played Dunn at the point guard and Jones off the ball on offense and then switched their defensive assignments.  Dunn’s size and athleticism allows for this type of switching against certain teams, and it allows Jones extra minutes that aren’t at Dunn’s expense.  The Wolves are not going to reach the playoffs if this type of production continues from the point guard position.  At that point, they need to look to the future and play Dunn and Jones more minutes to evaluate them and allow them to grow.

Part of the adjustment for this team is Thibs utilizing each player in a way that maximizes their potential, and there is no player he has failed more in that regard than Gorgui Dieng.  The fourth year pro just signed a 4-year, $64 million extension, so he will be a part of the team for the near future. The former Louisville star was a defensive force in college and has now developed into a solid offensive player, so why is he struggling?  Offensively, he is a nice compliment to Towns with his mid-range shooting game, despite his current slump.  With Towns now a 40% 3-point shooter, the Wolves need to take advantage of Dieng’s post-up game as well in order to make teams pay for going small against them.  With Towns shooting 3’s, Dieng also contributes on the offensive boards. Dieng, who coincidently leads the team in screen assists, a stat measuring the number of screens that lead to a made field goal, has developed a nice two-man game with LaVine, and these two should be anchoring their second unit lineups.

Defensively, the fit is awkward.  Due to Dieng’s inability to guard on the perimeter, Towns is usually forced to guard 4’s, bringing him away from the basket where he is very effective (his defensive field goal % at the rim is an above average 48%).  Dieng usually guards opposing 5’s, where he struggles.  He gets bullied often in the post by being simply moved underneath the basket, which is due to his lack of a strong base.

Post players are scoring an alarming 1.24 points per possession against Dieng and are shooting 68%, both of which are worst in the league by a mile for players who have been posted up at least 30 times so far this season.  Watching him try to guard the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Marc Gasol has been brutal to watch, but don’t worry, Towns has offensive luminaries like Omer Asik and JaMychal Green locked up.  Dieng is also not an adept or intimidating shot blocker. He gives up 62% shooting at shots less than six feet from the basket, and yields almost eight defensive attempts a game (3rd most attempts in the league). He has seen an uptick in fouls this year as well, which has contributed to teams reaching the dreaded bonus faster against the Wolves. Towns needs to be guarding the opponents’ main post-up threats, as he has a 0.63 PPP for defensive post ups (compare that with Dieng!).  Either way, this pairing can be made more effective if they look to exploit their smaller match ups on the other end.  This type of attack can compensate for some of the defensive issues in this pairing.

Another area where Thibs has not been maximizing potential is in the use of his bench.  The T’ Wolves are last in the league in bench scoring.  They also happen to be last in bench minutes played.  They do, however, have a +0.9 plus/minus, which is good for 9th in the league.  Aldrich has been a solid signing for this unit, coming off the bench to provide muscle against opposing posts, while finishing around the rim.  The biggest thing with Aldrich is that he has a defined role and consistently delivers in this role, which is exactly what you’d expect from the veteran.

shabazz-muhammad-nba-minnesota-timberwolves-denver-nuggets1-590x900
Shabazz is one of many 1st round picks playing meaningful minutes for the Wolves. Photo credit – Fansided

Shabazz Muhammad has been the one of the first guys off the bench and can provide a shot of scoring with his post-up game and ability to attack in transition.  His game can be up and down depending on the matchup, however, and the Wolves have extremely limited wing options beyond him and Brandon Rush, forcing the Wolves to play him even during the periods in which they struggle.  Rush played in the first five games and then was a “Did Not Play-Coaches Decision” (DNP-CD) for two weeks before being brought back in from the cold.  He’s been nothing special and is only getting minutes due to lack of depth.  The biggest X-factor for the Wolves bench, and maybe for the entire Wolves team, is Nemanja Bjelica.  Bjelica is the ideal stretch 4, standing 6’10” while shooting 35% from the 3-point line.  For a team that gets barely any shooting from the point guard position, he is absolutely necessary to balance the floor.  In the team’s 5 wins, he has played 19 minutes, shot 42% from 3, and scored 8 points per game.  In the team’s 11 losses, he has played 16 minutes, shot 31% from 3, and scored 5.8 points per game in these contests.  He can handle the ball and provide some playmaking that is lacking in the rest of the lineup.  He also can attack the basket and use his size extremely well to finish these drives.

 

In the win versus the Lakers, where he started at small forward and poured in 24 points and 8 boards, he flashed the sort of potential that may call for him to play more minutes.  He can be creatively deployed against teams with less athletic small forwards like the Lakers (with statues like Luol Deng) where he can provide extra spacing.  All in all, the bench needs to be given more a chance to shine, so that potential rotation pieces like Bjelica and Jones can be developed.

The expectations for the Wolves were set to match the talent level.  Unfortunately, talent is not the only part of the equation for success in the NBA.  The team needs to learn a brand new defensive system and they are having issues, to say the least.  There are also bad habits on defense that have carried over from previous systems that would be cardinal sins in any defensive system. Thibs will need to iron these out.  Watch Wiggins over help on the ball here, while LaVine is forced to zone up on the back side. LaVine does so without much awareness, and his man cuts off him for a dunk.

Thibs’ style of coaching also demands a higher minute load for the most talented players, who are now playing an extra six minutes per game.  This is an adjustment as well, even for a team as young as the T’Wolves.  These guys have not been professionals for all that long, and they may not have developed the proper rest schedules, dieting, or conditioning for the season that this minute load requires.  The less-than-stellar stats in close games in the 4th quarter may have something to do with these adjustments, as the players tire and maybe aren’t as mentally sharp to fulfill the requirements of Thibs’ system.  There are lineup decisions that he could change that I think would make a difference for the Wolves, including using LaVine/Dieng-centric lineups more against second units and playing Jones and Bjelica more, but he is still searching for his optimal lineup rotations.  The great thing about these issues is that they are correctable with experience.  As the T’Wolves gain experience with Thibs, they can improve within his defensive system.  As Thibs continues to work with this team, he will find his ideal lineups in every situation to optimize the team’s potential.  As the T’Wolves play more close 4th quarter games, they will be more successful.  The hardest thing to find in this league is talent, and the T’Wolves have plenty of it, both on the floor and on the coaching staff.  The fans need more patience to allow it to mature and reap the benefits.

Paul is a lifelong basketball fanatic who played collegiately at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, where he made his mark playing center for the Gusties. Now located in the Twin Cities area, Paul spends some of his time coaching and has seen his share of Timberwolves games, making his unique perspective on the state of the Timberwolves ideal for the the purposes of The Baseline Drift.


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