Through the first month of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have played like a team that is less than the sum of its talented and exciting individual parts.
There is ample cause for Wolves fans to take comfort in the future — and ample opportunities to revel in the present. One of the team’s two cornerstones, Andrew Wiggins, has taken a huge step forward by adding a reliable jump shot to his offensive arsenal while figuring out some of the synergies that phenomenon creates in other aspects of his game.
Under new coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves have joined the modern NBA by exploiting the added value of the three-point shot. Better yet, every member of the team’s trio of 21-year old starters — Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine — is shooting better than 40 percent from long distance while collectively hoisting 14.7 attempts per game. Because all three are extraordinarily athletic and can drive to the rim, this ability to spread the floor with multiple weapons creates a multitude of options to score both in transition and the half-court sets.
Consequently, the Wolves currently rank 8th among the 30 NBA teams in offensive rating (points per possession), up from 11th a year ago. On defense, the points they allow per 100 possessions has dropped from 107.1 a year ago to 105.5, enabling them to climb from 27th to 21st in overall defensive efficiency.
Truth be told, on a play-by-play basis, Wolves fans have been treated to a richer mix of spellbinding talent and capable performance thus far this season than any team since the 2003-04 edition went to the Western Conference Finals. Through the first 13 games of the season, they have outscored their opponents by 14 points.
So much for the good news.
When it comes to the bottom line of winning or losing basketball games, this Wolves team is quickly establishing a reputation for being epic chokers. Despite their overall positive point differential, they have a record of 4-9. Only three NBA teams are worse.
Four of those nine losses have resulted from the Wolves coughing up double-digit leads in the second half. These bouts of ineptitude are sudden and melodramatic. It is if the Wolves have been injected with a toxin that alters the team’s brain chemistry, generating alternating currents of paralysis, uncertainty and panic. They last anywhere from three-and-a-half to seven minutes of playing time and result in opposing runs of 16-0, 24-1, 15-2, and 17-0.
In all four of these games, the Wolves had “comfortable” leads, ranging from 11 to 14 points, at onset of the carnage, and managed to stop the bleeding once the opponent had seized the advantage by a relatively small margin, anywhere from 1 to 9 points. In other words, they regained their equilibrium once the entire lead had vanished and the choke was complete. Against Charlotte, they even battled back to take an 8-point lead, only to choke for the second time in the quarter, permitting a 21-3 run that cinched the loss.
Yes, sustained runs by teams are a relatively common occurrence in the NBA. But it is worth noting that there have been no similarly galvanizing second-half comebacks by the Timberwolves thus far. In their wins, their opponents have held the lead a grand total 9 minutes and 28 seconds — and never in the second half — through four 48-minute contests.
A month into the season, despite holding third-quarter leads in nearly half of their first nine defeats, we have yet to see the Wolves snatch a game that is up for grabs in crunch time. In part that’s because the club hasn’t usually competed well enough to even create an “up for grabs” situation. There is a pattern here, a team-wide change in behavior under even the earliest hints of crunch-time pressure. It stems from a dearth of poise and composure, and points to a void in veteran leadership.
An absence of gravitas
In retrospect, this void is the deliberate handiwork of President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau, executed with the cooperation of head coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden.
In his first off-season roster makeover as chief architect of an NBA franchise, Thibs surprised nearly everyone with his conservative spending and absence of flashy acquisitions. He ignored some of his favorite players from his Chicago Bulls tenure who were on the free agent market, such as Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, in favor of lower-priced journeymen such as Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill. He selected a four-year collegian with the fifth overall pick in the draft, combo guard Kris Dunn.
In my optimistic season preview of the team, I approved of these measures as an integral part of a prudent long-range plan. Specifically, I noted that Thibs had upgraded the depth on the roster without impinging upon his ability to conduct a season-long review of the glorious cache of young talent bequeathed to him by the late Flip Saunders.
For role players such as Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Dunn — and to a slightly lesser extent older players Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica — that meant seeing how effectively they can develop and burnish their virtues and hide their foibles under Thibs’ sets and systems. For Towns and Wiggins — and to a lesser extent Ricky Rubio — it meant how quickly and how prominently they could establish leadership and a viable pecking order in a Thibs regime.
After just 13 games, drawing definitive conclusions is risky business. That said, the most consequential flaw in the roster design thus far is the absence of gravitas and sagacity that comes with respected veteran leadership.
The players with the alpha skill-sets, Towns and Wiggins, are too inexperienced for the job. Both show tremendous leadership potential — Towns is charismatic, voluble and versatile, while Wiggins is quiet but genial, and seems to gravitate rather than shrink from spotlight situations on the court. But each has to figure himself out before being able handle genuine authority.
Rubio is sabotaged by the biases against him built into Thibodeau’s system, and by his notorious inability to punish opponents who dare him to beat them with jumpers and layups. His on-ball defense is less effective and crucial in a system in which the Wolves switch more often on pick and rolls, and his ability to choreograph a half-court offense is frequently usurped by Thibs’ desire to make Wiggins, and occasionally Towns, the decision-maker with the ball.
The veterans on the bench are a deliberately motley collection. Aldrich is a banger with one very good NBA season under his belt as a reserve last year with the Clippers. Rush is a shooting specialist with the Warriors’ championship pedigree on his resume, but he has shot poorly, been injured and was never a leader on prior teams. Jordan Hill doesn’t play unless it’s garbage time.
An interesting stopgap possibility is Gorgui Dieng. He was just signed by Thibs to a long-term contact, is notoriously diligent in executing assignments, and carries himself with poise, confidence and clarity. But if he is your alpha leader, you lack the kind of gravitas required for the inevitably rough patches over the course of an NBA season, especially in the eyes and minds of future alphas Towns and Wiggins.
For the second time in the first month of the season, I am compelled to state that jettisoning Kevin Garnett from the franchise has been a mistake. I’ve previously voiced my understanding of why Thibs didn’t want the distraction of KG around — as the icon of the franchise, he’s an outsized presence used to having his own way. He is still smarting from his diminished chance at owning a piece of the Wolves now that Saunders is gone, and didn’t appreciate the way the team let Thibs’ predecessor Sam Mitchell go at the end of last season.
I also understand that Garnett is of limited, and even then short-term, effectiveness as a player due to the enormous wear and tear on his body through his storied career.
But Garnett has gravitas, earned through what he has done, what he knows, and how he communicates. One need only read the cover story on Towns in the latest ESPN The Magazine to be reminded of how KG kept Towns on task at crucial moments throughout the phenom’s rookie season last year. And if you don’t think Garnett would have realigned the focus and composure of this young crew through one or more of their many second-half shit-storms thus far this season, you haven’t paid attention to his 20-year history.
The test for Thibs
By not working very hard at encouraging KG to stick around and by essentially ensuring that the Wolves will eventually buy out the rest of Nikola Pekovic’s contract, Thibs made it clear that he would be the lone truly alpha presence within this franchise this season. This gambit becomes more intriguing now that the team has started 4-9 and the natives (the fan base) are getting restless.
When it comes to gravitas and sagacity, Thibs can more than hold his own. His knowledge of the NBA game is exceeded only by his passion when trying to control it. Referees could whistle him for at least 30 technical fouls per game based on his profane criticisms, but dodge the mortal combat that would involve out of respect for the unrelenting consistency and depth of detail in his outbursts.
When the game is over and Dr. Jekyll regains status in his human form, Thibs has shown surprising patience with the chronic pratfalls of his players, chronicling (and, you can bet, having his assistants catalog) the numerous mishaps that went into the latest collapse and then repeating the mantra that steady improvement is the point of the process.
What is unknown is whether Thibs miscalculated or factored in the rudderless nature of play besmirching the season thus far. KG can summon ten minutes of former greatness and kick ass on the practice court to make his point. Thibs has rotation minutes and the encyclopedia of stratagems in the brain of his pudgy white frame as leverage to use against these ballyhooed and uber-athletic black athletes two or three generations younger than him.
But Thibs also has time. Disgruntled fans point out that if the Wolves were performing this way under Mitchell, the coach would be subjected to nonstop criticism. Indeed, many of those same fans regularly lambasted Mitchell a year ago when he had a better won-lost record.
It’s a fair point, at least as it pertains to Mitchell, who rarely got his due for his decent performance on the sidelines. But context matters here. Mitchell was thrown into the breach with the stunning death of Saunders the week before the start of the season, and always faced an uphill climb to retain the head coaching position the following year. Months before this season started, Thibs signed a five-year contract to control the playbook and the personnel. On that basis alone, the way each man coached his first 13 games with the team is going to be like night and day.
In the long run, Thibs needs the cornerstones more than they need him. But when you are 21, five years is an awfully long time. If the relationship ever did get to a worst-case scenario this season, it would be a cold war rather than a hot war, due to what could be perceived as mutually assured destruction.
We are a long way — and many, many more embarrassing losses — from that point. Still, Thibs has made himself the sole voice of authority and his decree and refrain is the need to learn and improve. He has three point guards who can’t shoot (four if you count John Lucas III), a wonderfully talented team in the midst of developing a snake-bitten psyche, and the easiest part of the schedule behind him. Tickets once again can be had for a song among the scalpers outside Target Center.
It’s the latest bump in what has been a long road.