The Minnesota Timberwolves have lurched into the 2016-17 season like a finicky sports car, capable of thrilling acceleration and maneuverability, but too prone to coughs, stall outs, inefficient fuel consumption and overheating.
Mechanic Tom Thibodeau is forever under the hood, barking out instructions and muttering to himself. Renowned for his hot temper and lack of patience, he knows better than anyone the beautiful machinery at his disposal and has kept his frustrated outbursts at a consistent, even keel. The white noise of his exhortation meshes into the fabric of his team’s play-by-play the way relative humidity mingles with sweat on the skin.
The Wolves have held leads of 15 points or more in a majority of their games thus far and are outscoring their opponents by 13 points overall, yet are 2-5 on the season. Their schedule has been pretty soft, with no games against the top eight NBA teams (if you go by win total projections set in Las Vegas at the onset of the season) and ugly losses to less-talented teams in Sacramento and Brooklyn.
But there have been more than a few glimpses of incandescence thus far from the bounty of burgeoning stars on the roster. Despite losing veteran point guard Ricky Rubio for the past five games, the team’s offensive rating — points scored per possession — is fifth-best among the 30 teams. Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine, all born in 1995, are all averaging more than 20 points per game.
In the 19 minutes that trio has been on the floor with Tyus Jones (born 1996) and 26-year old graybeard Gorgui Dieng, the team has scored 60 points and allowed 51. Telescope that out to a regulation 48-minute game and the score would be 152-129. Fun times. And terrible defense.
While this team is not yet the juggernaut I envisioned when I predicted 46 wins and a 7th-seeded playoff spot at the start of the season, they are auditioning for a new coach without Rubio and with a bench that has underperformed expectations. Yes, they have been susceptible to physical dominance and have exhibited only sporadic poise, telltale signs of immature bodies and psyches.
Bottom line, these Wolves have just begun the process of blazing their identity. They enjoy the rare luxury of having their two cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins, and their coach and president of basketball operations, Thibodeau, on a guaranteed three-year plan (it’s four for Towns and five for Thibs). Other potentially important pieces, such as LaVine (three years), Dieng (five years), and the point guard troika of Rubio (three years), Jones (four years) and Kris Dunn (five years) are also under extended team control. They have talent and they have time — the essential raw ingredients of stable growth.
So, after a whopping seven games, let’s take a look at the three early returns.
The upgraded Wiggins J
The most heartening upgrade of the season thus far is the retailored form, greater accuracy and longer range of Andrew Wiggins’ jump shot. The neon statistic in this regard is Wiggins’ NBA-best 63.6 percent accuracy (14 of 22) from three-point range, a tad above his 30.4 percent career mark heading into this season.
That unsustainably high figure could still level out a titch above 40 percent over the course of the season. Intensive work on revamping the jumper have ironed the kinks out of his flow, stabilized his release point and given him the self-assurance to step into treys without hesitation, instead of the catch-and-shoot set-ups and end of shot clock heaves that comprised the bulk of his long-range missives the previous two seasons. He has cut the assist rate on his three-pointers from 85 percent in those two campaigns to 57 percent thus far this year.
Wiggins has likewise dramatically boosted the accuracy of his long midranges (16 feet out to the three-point arc), while being foiled more often at the rim and reducing his already shaky free throw percentage into the low 70s. The free throws are a chronic worry, especially in late-game situations, but the more a pogo stick like Wigs nails that floor-spacing jumper, the more dangerous he will be on dribble-penetration.
Thibodeau has always disdained restricting the choreography to his point guard (hence the ongoing tension with Rubio), and has shown a willingness to have Wiggins run the offense for stretches at a time. The newfound ability of Wigs to bury the jumper from deep will help compensate for his improved but still-suspect handle in those situations.
The resilience of Tyus Jones
When Flip Saunders swapped a couple of second-round picks in order to move up in the draft and take Jones with 24th overall selection of the first round, it felt like a move with provincial motivations. A prep star at Apple Valley and an NCAA tournament MVP his lone year in college, Tyus was not without luster. But it didn’t take long to see that he was a long way from being physically capable of defending anybody in the NBA.
When Thibodeau brought in one of his old guys from Chicago, John Lucas III, during the preseason, the Wolves’ roster was stuffed with four point guards and Tyus felt like either a trade chip or the odd man out. Fresh off winning the MVP award in the NBA summer league, Tyus could have pouted, leveraged his local popularity to put pressure on the organization to treat him with more respect, or adopted the apathetic bratty mien of 2014 first-round bust Adreian Payne.
Instead, he kept his eyes and ears open and his work regimen and resolve intact, even as he endured a brutal amount of Thibs invective for his on-court mistakes during the preseason. And when Rubio got hurt in game two and it became glaringly apparent that quality ball movement facilitation is not yet in Kris Dunn’s skill set, Tyus delivered some surprisingly effective minutes for this ball club.
Make no mistake, Tyus still gets routinely overwhelmed when he is inevitably forced into on-ball defensive situations. Opponents he is guarding are converting 60.9 percent of their shots, compared to the 42 percent they would normally make under those circumstances, according to defensive tracking stats at nba.com.
But as indicated by the 152-points per 48 minutes stat cited earlier when Tyus shares the court with the athletic starters, he generates enough offense to overcome his defensive woes. It’s a tiny sample size, but in the 14:38 of time he’s joined Towns and Wiggins this year, the Wolves shoot 31 percent better than their opponents and are a plus 49.2 points per 100 possessions. It is a beguiling synergy, because a healthy Rubio should be able to continue that type of facilitation with better defense at the other end.
Like Rubio, Tyus has shrewdly learned how to mask the glaring flaws in his game. In the two games since he began receiving time with the starters, he has nine steals, four treys (on eight attempts) and nine rebounds. Ironically, his defensive numbers are ridiculously good — the Wolves are allowing only 93 points per 100 possessions when he plays — a stat skewed by some garbage time he has logged at the end of blowouts.
Unless he bulks up, though, it is still difficult to see his ceiling as being higher than a quality backup in this league. But his attitude and intelligence make him a value-added asset to any roster, from the locker room to practice to garbage time to key catalyst when a team’s offense is in the doldrums.
The stubbornly lopsided effectiveness of Zach LaVine
Zach LaVine is a key component of the Timberwolves present, and a potentially elite-making element of the team’s future. It is no coincidence that when the Wolves get him rolling with touches and good looks early in a game, their chances of winning rise significantly. He has scored 20 points in 15:40 first quarter minutes during their two victories this season, en route to 31 and 37 point performances. This alleviates the need for Towns to play “hero ball” and spaces the court for Wiggins to go to work.
LaVine has the prettiest jump shot on the team and joins Towns and Wiggins in his stellar ability to get to the rim. He’s shooting a cool 48.9 percent from three-point range, and has a true shooting percentage of 61.8. All this despite the fact that Rubio has been absent the past five games.
In his two-plus years in the NBA, I have fostered a reputation as a “LaVine hater.” Even though I enjoy going against the grain, it is an uncomfortable position, because, as just indicated, there is a lot to love about his play: He is an incredible athlete, and he is not yet 22 years old.
But the value of LaVine remains incredibly overrated. Again, it is easy to see why. On Tuesday night against Brooklyn, he encountered resistance while driving the baseline, wove past one defender and double-clutched under another while banking in the layup on the other side of the hoop. The television replayed it four times.
There were zero replays for LaVine gambling on a steal that sent the defense scrambling ineffectually on what became an open three-point make for Brooklyn. No replays on the times LaVine got caught up in a screen and didn’t definitively shift on the pick and roll, or the times when LaVine laid off his man on the weak side and either cheated in on penetration or was simply late on the closeout when that weakside shooter sank the jumper.
In the 162 minutes LaVine has logged this season, the Wolves have yielded 109 points per 100 possessions. In the 78 minutes he has sat, Minnesota has given up 98.1 points per 100 possessions. Add in the 3.6 fewer poins per 100 possessions Minnesota scores when he plays compared to when he doesn’t and his net plus/minus thus far this season is -14.5. Only Rubio, in a small two-game sample, has a higher minus rating.
In his rookie season, LaVine’s net rating was -10.1 points per 100 possessions. Last year it was -6.9, and dramatically improved in the second half of the season when he was shifted to full-time shooting guard and paired with Rubio.
If Zach LaVine can learn to put his enormous abilities in the service of even mediocre defense, it will be a tremendous boon to the prospects of this franchise. And my broken-record complaining about that aspect of his game will diminish accordingly.