Coming into the 2016-17 NBA season, the overwhelming consensus regarding the state of the Minnesota Timberwolves was not whether they would improve, but by how much.
Some folks noted that the Wolves’ talented cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, were just 20 and 21, respectively, and pegged the team for a single-digit increase over last season’s victory total of 29. Others, including yours truly, saw the arrival of demanding and detailed coach Tom Thibodeau and the preternaturally mature makeup of Towns — among other reasons — as catalysts for a thrilling quantum leap into the playoffs, and put their shoulder to the bandwagon.
Less than a week into the season is certainly no time to render a verdict on the relative wisdom of these sunny viewpoints. But those who cautioned against excess enthusiasm have the Wolves’ opening two-game road trip as currently potent ammunition. Thibodeau’s would-be juggernaut, who amassed 40-point leads in each of their last two preseason games, and then buttressed it with first-half leads of at least 17 points in both regular season games, is coming home 0-2, trying to shake off the dents and bruises to their confidence, their bodies and their vaunted precocity.
Boys among brutes
In retrospect, it was probably unfortunate that Minnesota faced Memphis and Sacramento to start things off. The Grizzlies and the Kings both boast large, rugged and talented centers in 255-pound Marc Gasol and 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins and frequently played a robust, contact-oriented power forward beside them — 260-pound Zach Randolph for Memphis, and 265-pound Kosta Koufous for Sacramento. By contrast, Towns is listed at 244 pounds and his frontcourt mate Gorgui Dieng weighs in at 241.
Both games played out on a similar arc, with the Wolves racing out to sizable early advantages only to have their opponents wear them down with physical defense and an extra level of intensity in the second half. As the score tightened, the young Wolves lost their focus on teamwork, resulting in wretched shot selection, lack of ball movement and an inability to box out while rebounding their opponents’ missed shots. They played soft and shoddy, with chronic gaffes in discipline that were frankly shocking to see in a Thibodeau-coached team.
Some of this can be attributed to unfortunate matchups under difficult circumstances. Along with the beef they brought in the frontcourt, Memphis was playing its home opener, and Sacramento was trying to win its first-ever game in a spanking new arena. In Memphis, Gasol and Randolph are playing in a new spread system that result in shots anywhere from the three-point arc to right beneath the hoop, and Towns was clearly exhausted at times with the combination of jousting in the paint and fighting through picks while flashing out to defend the perimeter. Cousins, meanwhile, has the blend of skills and bulk and quickness to overwhelm most any defender.
That said, there is legitimate reason for initial concern about these successive pratfalls to start the season. A team as lithe and talented as the Wolves wants to quicken the pace, especially against mediocre foes with burly frontcourts. But Minnesota currently is dead last in pace of play, in part because they allowed their offense to bog down into isolation plays — futile “hero ball” — and because their defense is vulnerable to deliberate physicality.
But as Thibodeau noted after the Sacramento loss, the team’s lack of toughness has comprised mental and emotional weakness along with dissolving physical resistance. That the Kings would vanquish Minnesota in much the same way as the Grizzlies did three nights earlier — with a third quarter onslaught that hijacked the Wolves’ composure, reversed momentum and essentially decided the outcome — indicates that this year’s roster is not yet engaged in the comprehensive immersion necessary to compete effectively.
Both third-quarter breakdowns were swift and relentless. The Wolves were leading Memphis 61-50 a minute into the second half. Less than three and a half minutes later, the Grizzlies had polished off a 16-0 blitz that put them up 66-61. In Sacramento, Minnesota was ahead by fourteen, 71-57, with 8:32 remaining in the third quarter. Little more than five minutes later, the Kings were in command, 81-72, a 24-1 run.
For those counting at home, that’s two bursts adding up to a 40-1 disadvantage in slightly under nine minutes. In the other 87 minutes of those two games, the Wolves outscored their opponents by 32 points.
What happened? Sometimes it was negative trends catching up with the Wolves. For example, they have begun both games with superb ball movement, generating 18 assists on 66 first quarter points, or an average of one dime per 3.7 points. That falls to 9 dimes and 58 points in the second quarter (about 6.5 points per assist) and tumbles to a putrid four assists for 28 points (7 points per dime) in the third. Throw in 8 assists on 49 points in the final stanza (about 6.1 points per assist) and the outlier is the efficient flow and teamwork in the first quarter as much as the anemic scoring in the third.
In Memphis, the Wolves became careless and dumb, the errors compounding like debt on a credit card. Conley beat Rubio off the dribble and was fouled on the layup by Dieng, completing the three-point play at the foul line. Wiggins missed a tough turnaround jumper with a hand in his face, then the Wolves defensive rotation lost James Ennis on a three-pointer, with Towns running futilely out at the last second. Suddenly a double-digit lead had shrunk to five, 61-56.
Rubio forced a terrible, line-drive shot and made it worse by foolishly digging for the offensive rebound, but the Grizzlies blew the easy transition opportunity he had created for them at the other end. No matter: The Wolves failed to box out on two straight possessions, resulting second-chance free throws and then a third-chance putback to slice the lead to one.
The crafty Gasol gulled Towns into taking an ill-advised set shot from midrange. Dieng thought he was fouled and stayed back to argue the call, forcing Rubio to commit a foul to prevent a 5-on-4 situation. Again, no matter: Rookie Andrew Harrison was wide open on the wing and when Zach LaVine ran him off the three-point line he strolled in for a layup and the lead for Memphis. Towns was whistled for carelessly charging into Conley while setting up position on offense. Rubio fouled Gasol on a double-team for two more free throws, then LaVine tossed an errant pass that the Grizzlies turned into a slam dunk, ending the run as Thibodeau called time out.
The third-quarter embarrassment in Sacramento was a combination of a stagnant, sloppy and unimaginative offense at one end and Cousins running roughshod over the Wolves defense at the other end.
Wiggins was snuffed twice going to the basket in the opening minutes, making it clear that the Kings came out of the locker room with explicit instructions to stop him. When he tried a third time anyway and drew the foul, he missed both free throws. Then he made an acrobatic bank shot driving the baseline through traffic, a highlight-reel play that should have been an open jumper for a teammate.
By then Dieng had picked up two quick fouls, his third and fourth, the latter on a charge as he mishandled a Rubio dish going toward the hoop. He was replaced by Cole Aldrich, moving Towns more overtly to power forward. The season’s first extended minutes for this “twin towers” tandem turned out to be a disaster.
Aldrich couldn’t stop Cousins, fouling him when he wasn’t getting undressed by slam dunks off the dribble. On offense, Aldrich’s hands turned to stone, flubbing at least three passes to him in the paint during Sacramento’s game-changing run.
But Aldrich was far from the only culpable party. Towns unwisely decided to try to match Cousins’ offensive heroics, spinning into a double team that led to an awkward miss and then a frustrated foul on the rebound. Then he sailed a pass into the stands far out of the reach of Aldrich’s clumsy mitts. When the Kings went small, putting Matt Barnes into the game at power forward, the Wolves’ attention to Cousins freed Barnes for a pair of threes and some nifty assists out on the perimeter.
Various individual starters blatantly lost their focus and made mistakes in pairs. LaVine was easily picked off on a screen that allowed an open jumper by Aaron Afflalo, then committed a turnover that was flipped into a Barnes trey in transition. Wiggins committed an unwise foul that lazily moved his pivot foot for a travel, followed by another Barnes three-pointer. A bad pass by Rubio yielded a Cousins dunk in transition.
When Aldrich and LaVine were replaced by Nemanja Bjelica and Brandon Rush, Cousins tortured both Towns and Bjelly as they futilely attempted the double-team. Just as Afflalo had been too strong for LaVine, Rudy Gay was now exerting physical dominance over Wiggins. Bjelica was a mess of indecision and inaccurate shooting. Towns committed another stupid foul out of frustration, going over the back of an opponent while trying to get an offensive rebound.
By the time Dieng came back into the game, he stabilized the defense some, but the Wolves were already down nine. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the Wolves finalized a 4-year, $64-million deal for the fourth-year center-forward, Minnesota’s best pick-and-roll defender among their frontcourt personnel. Against the Kings, Dieng was plus-15 in 35 minutes of action, which means Minnesota was minus 19 in the 13 minutes he sat — almost all of the deficit accumulated in that third quarter stretch that Thibodeau eloquently dubbed “an abomination.”
Harbingers or hiccups?
When you have the worst won-lost record in NBA history among all of the league’s currently active franchises, and your team stumbles out of the gate on what is widely supposed to be a breakout season, doubts move back in and the knees start jerking. That’s what Wolves fans are mightily resisting right now. It’s silly to overreact on the basis of two road games. Plus, we’ve all seen Towns and Wiggins play and Thibodeau coach. That level of talent and expertise doesn’t disappear; it asserts itself and flourishes over time.
And yet, if followers of the Wolves are headed for heartbreak via a bumpier than anticipated season of transition toward eventual playoff contention, one way to cushion the blow is to sort through the concerns and try to parse the potentially legitimate flaws from the random aberrations.
Right now, the biggest worry might be the play of Bjelica. The 2015 EuroLeague MVP had a shaky rookie campaign in the NBA last year, exciting Wolves fans and team members alike in the preseason with his court vision, outside shooting, awards pedigree and potential to fill the void as a stretch 6-foot-10-inch power forward.
But after a relatively successful first month of the regular season, the league caught on and began attacking Bjelica at both ends of the court. The quickness and physicality of the competition preyed on his confidence, and be became foul prone and out of sync with the natural rhythm of play, by turns too timid and awkwardly aggressive. His decision-making, especially his inclination to pass instead of launch open three-pointers, was suspect and aggravating, and a couple of mysterious injuries didn’t exactly engender sympathy.
At Media Day and throughout preseason, Bjelica said and did most of the right things, taking responsibility for his foibles in a manner that indicated he had dedicated himself to addressing them. Thibodeau bought in, giving him the role of point forward on the second unit, a crucial floor-general position that mimicked his duties when he was a star in Europe.
But the tentative schmoe who took the court in the first two games looked a lot like the disappointing rookie of last season. Bjelica needs to figure out how to make his unorthodox, giraffe-like movements — athletic but not graceful — work to his advantage. With confidence he is quicker than he looks, has a sophisticated appreciation for ball movement, and a soft three-point stroke. But he seems to possess just a veneer of self-esteem, and an inclination to shy away from the grapple and scrum required of even a stretch power forward in the NBA. When he’s out of sync, you can almost see the flop sweat, the not-so-hidden fear that he’s a fraud at this level. If so, it will corrode his game beyond hope, a la former Wolves Euro Alexie Shved.
Then there is the ongoing shadow melodrama regarding Ricky Rubio. He is without question the team’s best point guard, an elite passer and quality defender by any standard. But his unreliable shooting accuracy complicates his long-term future on a franchise assembling itself for the crucible of the playoffs, and Thibodeau was nettled enough by it to draft combo guard Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick this summer.
In the fourth quarter against Sacramento, Rubio fell down and had his right elbow hyperextended (“sprained” is the official word) while planting it on the court. He is out “indefinitely,” a word too often associated with his health history — similar prognoses have generated absences ranging from a week to three months. This will likely be on the shorter end of that spectrum.
The Wolves will flounder more frequently in games he misses, and if he misses enough of them and they plummet in the standings, the ironic temptation will be to give Dunn more and more playing time to hasten his development. Rubio has been competent but not the inspirational maestro that makes thoughts of replacing him seem so foolhardy. After a fumbling preseason, Dunn has been better than expected off the bench.
The most consequential disappointments thus far involve Towns and Thibodeau, but given the people involved, they are also the most likely to be remedied, sooner rather than later.
Towns seems to have been undermined by hubris and hype. He came into this season proclaiming that he had worked on every aspect of his play, not one or two specific areas, and had conducted an offseason interview tour of the NBA’s best leaders among past and present stars, gaining information for his own future exploits. In a survey of NBA general managers at the beginning of the season, he was overwhelmingly voted the player they would choose if starting a franchise from scratch.
All that came into play as the Wolves were coming apart at the seams. Towns began to perform like a person entering a burning building rather than a canny competitor coordinating a counterattack. To the extent he choked, it wasn’t from shrinking from the moment so much as swallowing it whole. He needs to remember that true leadership is preternaturally calm at its core, and use his freakishly talented skill set like a black belt in judo, letting the game come to him so he can determine the best direction to steer it.
Thibodeau will respond to this brief bout of adversity the way he responds to everything — with relentless preparation and strategizing. But it is fair to note that were Sam Mitchell still running this team, the players’ lack of grit and composure and the coach’s decision not to call a timeout during the blitzkrieg in Sacramento would have been roundly criticized.
More broadly speaking, by signing only journeymen free agents while avoiding the inevitable drama and distraction of keeping Kevin Garnett on the roster, Thibodeau has installed himself in the exclusive role of veteran leader and tone-setter. But on the court and in the locker room, that role is necessary by proxy.
Thibs doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his control over the development of this young, talented core. Garnett would have been a complicated soldier. Spoiled by the deference that Flip Saunders and then Mitchell accorded him, and smarting from the diminished chance of an ownership stake that occurred with the death of Saunders, he occasionally (too often?) would have been more trouble than he was worth. (And yes, he likely would not have retired had the Wolves signaled that they really wanted him to return.)
But two games in, his contagious intensity, defensive rebounding and steadying influence on Towns are already missed.
But that’s rear-view thinking. Less than a week ago, I called the Wolves a probable playoff team this season, and all the reasons listed have not been that dramatically altered. This is Thibodeau’s team now and the rematch with Memphis in the home opener looms, along with 79 other games in a season that still promises the kind of excitement and competence not usually seen around these parts.