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This holiday season is going to test the Wolves' mettle

Forward Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Forward Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns, above, along with Zach LaVine, are all logging more minutes per game than ever before.

As we flip the calendar to December, the Minnesota Timberwolves own the third-worst record in the NBA. That’s not the bad news: It is going to get worse before it gets better.

According to basketball-reference.com, in compiling a 5-13 mark through the first 18 games of the season, the Wolves have played the 24th toughest schedule among the 30 NBA teams thus far. Now it is time for the law of averages to exert its payback: Just one of the next 10 opponents has a losing record.

In other words, this traipse through the holiday season is going to test the mettle of a Wolves team that thus far has exhibited a frankly shocking lack of poise and cohesion. They have yet to win two games in a row and barring a change of character and/or fortune, that is likely to remain true as we flip the calendar again into 2017.

At that point, if not before, Tom Thibodeau and his staff will confront some consequential decisions about the short- and long-term course of this franchise.

Thibodeau is 18 games into a five-year contract that gives him near-absolute control over both the personnel and the playbook of this team. His roster is topped with three 21-year old players whose raw talent is envied and coveted by Minnesota’s opponents. But it is a trio that has generated far more sizzle and hype than substance and synergy.

By now, Thibodeau’s initial strategy for the Wolves has become apparent. He was going to lean on his “Big 3” of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine to an extraordinary degree. He was going to wield his formidable ability to prepare, motivate and indoctrinate his teams to fast-forward the development of these precocious kids.

This tempering trial by fire would inevitably expose weaknesses even as it showcased strengths and measured ceilings on what this coveted core of talent could accomplish together. Then and only then would Thibs utilize the salary cap space he hoarded this off-season, to more surgically caulk the seams and boost the rockets — to take a team already on its way to respectability and lower-rung playoff status into the pantheon of genuine championship contenders.

This rugged month of games will help determine whether that plan just had an improbably slow germination and can still be salvaged, or if it is tattered beyond repair. Do the Wolves patiently stay the course and trust they will make it through this bleak blizzard of underachievement, or do they heed the undeniable warning signs, grasp their miscalculation and chart a new path?

The current status woe

Let’s get specific and hang some data on these generalities. Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are all logging more minutes per game than ever before. Wiggins has always been a workhorse so the quantity of his uptick in minutes — 36.5 per game as compared to 35.1 last season and 36.2 as a rookie — is negligible. As for quality, however, Wiggins usage rate has jumped from 22.6 to 26.9 to 28.6 in succeeding seasons, and he is much more frequently called upon to be the ball-handling decision-maker at the top of the key in the Wolves half-court offense. (Usage is a measure of the player’s involvement in the percentage of his team’s plays when he is on the court.)

The minutes for Towns have risen from 32 to 35 per game and his usage has jumped from 24.7 to 26.8. LaVine’s minutes have seen the highest escalation-- from 24.7 to 28 to a team-high 36.7 per game this season--over the course of his career. And while his usage has declined slightly, from 23.3 to 22.3 after a rookie season of 22.4, it is solely the result of his switch from being a combo point and shooting guard his first two years to strictly manning the shooting guard position this season. LaVine’s shot attempts have risen from 8.8 to 11.7 to 15.6 per game over the past three seasons.

The point is, the three precocious kids are getting more quantity and quality time than ever before in the roles they were meant to play. (Unless you think LaVine is better suited for the point than shooting guard, in which case you’d be wrong.)

Not surprisingly, Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are the most utilized three-player combination on the court for Minnesota thus far this season. (Actually they are tied in total minutes with the Wiggins, Towns and Gorgui Dieng triad, but that’s because LaVine missed a game with an injury. Per game they are still most utilized.)

The result of that shared time on the court is illuminating. Offensively, the team is potent, scoring an average of 107.3 points per game, which is more than four points better than the Wolves have performed in total thus far this season at 103.1 points per game. That’s because a unit featuring Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 38 percent from long range, as opposed to the team’s overall marks of 44.8 from the field and 35 from beyond the arc.

The rub is defense. In the 446 minutes Wiggins, Towns and LaVine share the court, the Wolves yield an average of 109.7 points per game (or per 48 minutes), compared to the overall team mark of 104.1.

Add it up and the Wolves are minus 22 in the 446 minutes the trio are together and plus 4 in the 318 minutes the core three are not on the floor at the same time. Thibodeau’s most consequential miscalculation thus far this season has been his belief that he could get the youngsters to sync up on defense at least enough not to completely torpedo their enormous offensive prowess.

Blaming the surrounding personnel in this scenario doesn’t hold up. The player fourth on the team in minutes is Gorgui Dieng, a capable glue guy who concentrates on doing the little things.

Earlier this week, the site nba.com marked completion of the first full month of the 2016-17 regular season by releasing some of the deeper stats in its trove of data. And Dieng’s name popped up in a lot of good categories. He led the Wolves in contested shots (and was 7th in the NBA overall), in charges drawn (tied for 5th in the NBA), in deflections (19th overall), and in “screen assists” (meaning his screen sprung a successful open jumper, 11th in the NBA).

Dieng helps a little. Instead of being minus 22 in 446 minutes as a threesome, the core trio is minus 11 in the 390 minutes they are joined by Gorgui, making them effectively minus 11 in the 56 minutes they play together without Dieng.

Backcourt decisions

Another troublesome consequence of Thibodeau’s decision to rely so heavily on his core trio has been the deleterious effect it has had on Ricky Rubio at the point.

This has been an unhappy marriage from the jump. From the moment he was handed the reins to the franchise last spring, Thibodeau damned Rubio with faint praise or by minimizing mention of his upcoming role on the team. On draft night this summer, Thibs took combo guard Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick and, if widely reported rumors from a variety of sources are to be believed, openly shopped Rubio in an attempt to procure swingman Jimmy Butler from the Bulls.

Shortly before the season started, other anonymously sourced stories broke, widely believed to be from Rubio’s agent, claiming that Thibs wanted install Dunn as the starter 15 to 20 games into the season, relegating Rubio to either trade bait or backup status.

Meanwhile, the point guard situation has been close to an unmitigated disaster. A sprained elbow in just the second contest of the season cost Rubio five games, but before and after that, it was clear he was bothered by the greater emphasis Thibs placed on having Wiggins, and to a lesser extent Towns and LaVine, initiate the offense.

Meanwhile, Thibs’ emphasis on switching coverage more readily on pick and roll defense hurt Rubio’s effectiveness at that end of the court. Ever since he came into the NBA six years ago, his instincts have been to hound his man in on-ball coverage as much as possible.  

The bottom line is gruesome. Rubio’s usage rate has plunged to 12.6 (in his five previous seasons it ranged from 16.2 to 21.3). He is attempting fewer field goals and free throws per minute played than ever before. Although he has shown improvement of late, his season stats still indicate that he is hurting the Wolves at both ends of the court. The team is -49 in the 391 minutes he has logged, with an offensive rating (points generated per possession) of 101.6 and a defensive rating (points allowed per possession) of 109.2.

Rubio’s pratfall could have dovetailed nicely into Thibs’ master plan, except that Kris Dunn has likewise shit the bed. The rookie is shooting 31.3 percent from the field, 30.8 from three-point range and 60 percent from the free-throw line. The Wolves are minus 23 in the 319 minutes he has logged, numbers aided by his plus 26 total in a 36-point win over Memphis when the Grizzlies rested starting point guard Mike Conley and All Star center Marc Gasol. (Rubio was injured and didn’t play.)

Furthermore, after a strong and promising start to the season on defense, Dunn has regressed. He was repeatedly flummoxed by the crossover dribbles of left-hander Brandon Jennings Wednesday night against the Knicks, finishing minus 11 in 10 minutes of a two-point loss. In his past eight games, Dunn is shooting 5-for-24 from the field as has ten turnovers compared to eight assists.

The surprise champion of the point guard scrum is second-year player Tyus Jones, who has seized upon the minutes Rubio and Dunn have defaulted to stake his unlikely claim as the most effective floor general on the current roster. Even after Wednesday’s miserable minus 10 in 6 minutes versus the Knicks, the Wolves are plus 40 in the 202 minutes Tyus is on the court.

The obvious knock against Tyus’ ongoing viability is his relatively puny frame as a defender. But he is an extremely smart player who tries to compensate for his physical deficiencies by anticipating peripheral passes for steals, executing diagonal back-pedals that suddenly cease to draw charging fouls, and trying to master Thibs’ switch-frequently protocols on team defense.

So far, not bad. The team’s defensive rating with Tyus on the court is 104.3, better than its overall mark of 106.1. And the offense is off the charts — 111.7 points scored per 100 possessions.

Thibs has regarded the Tyus boomlet as an intriguing but likely inconsequential phenomenon. For a while he simply kept him out of the rotation. But after Tyus was the catalyst in the Wolves lone victory in the past two weeks, leading the fourth-quarter comeback on the road against Phoenix, the coach has tossed him into similar late-game situations, with mostly encouraging but not definitive results.

Bottom line, the point guard situation is completely unresolved. Tyus thus far has rebutted the pretty reliable (via the eye test anyway) conventional wisdom that Rubio and Dunn are far superior defenders. Furthermore, one can argue that offensive firepower is not the aspect of the game where the Wolves are currently lacking.

But those numbers remain pesky. According to basketball-reference.com, the trio of Rubio-Towns-Wiggins has a net rating of minus 4.9 points per 100 possessions in their 331 minutes on the court together. Compare that to Jones-Towns-Wiggins at plus 17.9 points per 100 possessions in 87 minutes as a threesome. Yes, a small sample size. But gaudy enough to warrant further investigation?

Learning, choking, growing, adjusting

The Tyus boomlet is exactly the kind of beguiling distraction Thibodeau would prefer to avoid at the moment. There is growing evidence — enough for another column in the not too distant future— that the chronic defensive lapses of Towns and LaVine are the biggest impediments to the success of his master plan, and, if true, he needs to determine how intractable it is as soon as possible. That means reducing the noise of a lot of lineup alterations and pounding the rock of repetition until the learning curve bends upward.

Regardless of how wretched Towns is playing team defense, you can’t throw a player of his skill set overboard. LaVine may be another story, especially if one considers Wiggins better suited to play shooting guard than small forward.

Yes, LaVine continues to thrill the eyes and stain the team-based numbers on the stat sheet. But if you cut the cord on someone with that much raw athleticism, you’d better get value in return and be more than a little sure you know what you are doing.

Hence, repetition, preparation, and the gyrating angry munchkin storming up and down the sidelines. According to nba.com, the Wolves are dead last in “clutch” situations, with a record of 1-7 arising out of 32 total minutes of clutch play (defined as within five points in the last five minutes of a game).

Their net rating in the clutch is a whopping minus 27.3, including a hideous offensive rating of 84.8 points per 100 possessions.  Their defensive rating is a merely awful 112 points. Their field goal percentage is 33.9, dropping to 23.8 from long range. Their free throw percentage is 57.1.

A month into the season, the Wolves are adrift, with a slate of tough opponents on tap. It is time for the hype to start gelling into reality. Time for the kids to mature or face some consequences. Time for the coach to pound that rock a few more times and then think about a new drawing board and a different master plan. 

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Comments (26)

great article, as always

Interesting that you specifically mention the defensive lapses of LaVine & KAT, but not Wiggins when - by the numbers - he is arguably the worst defender on the team.

Likewise, I guess, with the notion you float about shopping LaVine. As frustrating as his lapses may be, it does feel like he is exhibiting evidence of rounding out his game and contributing in a number of different ways, whereas (while acknowledging AW's seemingly improved jump shot) Wiggins seems to be really stagnating in terms of any positive contribution on the defensive end or - really - anything on offense aside from being a threat with the ball in his hands.

What numbers you looking at

Dan--

Thanks for chiming in.

According to NBA.com stats, Wiggins the Wolves have a defensive rating of 107.5 with Wiggins on the court. For LaVine it is 108.8. For Towns 110.5.

The higher the number the worse it is. it translates to points allowed per possession.

Nor is this a one year pheonomenon. Wiggins has consistently been better on defensive rating than LaVine (2+ years) and KAT (1+ yr).

If you honestly believe LaVine is outperforming Wiggins this season,we are watching two different teams.

I'm looking at BBRef...

...which has Wiggins as a DBPM at -3.7, LaVine at -3.1 and KAT at -0.1. Until the last game or two, AW had actually been passed by (gasp) Bazz, who has been in the bottom four or five of all players in the NBA pretty much throughout his career thus far.

I know defensive metrics are notoriously incapable of capturing a lot of nuance, and I would actually agree that, watching Wiggins, he appears to be at least a more capable on-ball defender. I will also admit that I'm not that good at seeing how things unfold, away from the ball, on defense. That is, till JimPete points it out on a replay. So...just speaking as a fan who is pretty frustrated with the first part of this season and trying to triangulate between my observations and what I understand of metrics.

I would stand by my claim that LaVine appears to be on a more upward trajectory in terms of bolstering and rounding out his skillset. And not that I'm advocating actively shopping either (don't wish to elicit a torrent of out-of-proportion hate & vitriol from random other interneters), but there's no doubt who has a higher trade value. League-wide perception of Wiggins. If Thibs ends up coming to the conclusion that many frustrated analytics-types seem to be, he may never have a better opportunity to "sell high."

ah

It's funny what go-to stats each of us veer towards. i like BBRef for its net ratings and its lineup info; never paid much attention to DBPM. In this case I'm glad I didn't because, IMO, any metric that claims LaVine to be a superior defender to Wiggins is measuring something wrong.

I also see that a "replacement level" player would be more valuable than Wiggins according to their metrics. So let's just trade him for a bag of balls and save the salary eh?

None of which is against you, who came up with a perfectly reasonable answer to my question, and your caveats are duly noted--it is true that very few things can and do accurately measure defense.

Still have to agree to disagree about LaVine. And I'm not sure LaVine's astounding athleticism wouldn't fetch a higher upside value than Wiggins in the eyes of some GMs.

In any case, thanks for the response and the education of BPM at BBRef.

Coaches don't score points.

Thibodeau still hasn't learned that he is not the center of the team.

Brilliant

Absolutely right. Coaches don't score points.

Are they thus inconsequential? Gregg Popovich has scored just as many points as Kurt Rambis, so one is just as good as the other?

Actually check that--Rambis did score a few points as an NBA player. Maybe fire Pops and get Rambis?

Tom Thibodeau was just flipped the keys to this franchise for five seasons. I suggest you get used to him having influence on the ballclub.

I'm no guru...

...like the favored few here, but it looks like this coach learned how to handle Rubio by watching Adelman: take away his creativity and keep him on the bench during the fourth quarter. I thought the last two seconds last night were stupidly played. You have the best jump shooter on the team be the guy passing in the ball. At least it should have been Rubio but the play seemed designed to eliminate him. Better the better passer passes in to the fastest and best shooter who would have had the best chance of getting an open look. Better yet, for me, have tall KAT pass in to Rubio for a quick set up to moving Zach for an open look. But what do I know. And ride the big three into the ground, another good idea until someone blows a knee out after playing 38 minutes a game for 50 or 60 games.

One big selling point this year was that they would build up the bench which I think they did. I'd like to know if this year's bench guys are getting more minutes than last year's, especially if you remove the factor of Zach being the first point guard off the bench for much of last year.

Townes looked great last night but it sure seems like he and Wiggins have wasted a lot of possessions this year when either they wouldn't give up the ball and tried to force something (Townes in particular) or threw up a hasty shot with plenty of time left on the shot clock (Wig).

I reward intelligent commentary

If you are going to immediately bitch about the "favored few," you lead with a chip on your shoulder and I respond accordingly.

Thibs said in the postgame press conference that the final play had three options--one each for Wiggins Towns and LaVine to take the final shot.

I am not a big fan of the way Thibs is using Rubio, but the consequences will either reward him or punish him. Right now they are punishing but he is 18 games into a five year contract.

Wiggins currently ranks 10th in the NBA in total minutes. Last year under Sam Mitchell he was 8th. The year before under Flip Saunders he was 2nd. Yes, Towns and LaVine have played more time. The idea is to fast-forward the development of youngsters by playing them together as much as possible. We'll see if that leads to injury.

I thought the bench would be better than it has been. A toe injury to Brandon Rush and the disinclination to play Jordan Hill has limited minutes for the veteran signees. Yes, the subs played more a year ago, but that's because the Wolves started two guys who were only going to get 15-25 minutes a night anyway in KG and Prince.

I have written about Towns' "hero ball" this season. Lack of ball movement has definitely been a problem.

Thanks for commenting. All are welcome and all are responded to as honestly as possible. Some can handle it, others go away.

Wow

Forgot about the KG + Prince starting lineup. Good point

You don't need to post this but I definitely see you being more rude to the people you disagree with like the guy that is always suggesting they trade Rubio, certainly not something I'd want. By favored few I mean the guys like in the comments above that seem to spend as much time and effort as you perusing metrics and stats and analytics and whatever else you call them. Certainly not a hobby I'll pursue.

So you "reward intelligent commentary" and I'm a bitch. Got it. Still like your column but I'll try to keep my uninformed judgments to myself (not always possible).

One man's rude is another man's honesty

Bill--

I'll give you this much--since Trump's election I've had a shorter fuse than I would prefer. I'm working on it.

But as for being rude to the guy who always chimes in with anti-Rubio comments; have you ever heard him contribute any supporting evidence aside from "he can't shoot" to the conversation? Have you ever heard him be generous in his disagreement? You need one or the other to get beyond a rude response from me. If someone is just coming on to tweak someone in a snide fashion, they'll get a snide response.

My goal in comments has always been to discourage drive-by commenters that don't appreciably add to the discussion. It is a very slippery slope that turns too many comments sections into unreadable places. In that regard I try to follow my instincts.

Nobody is asking you to follow metrics. But it would be nice if you didn't resent people who use them. Because they are part of most intelligent basketball discussions. When they are used to rebut a point you make, it isn't anything personal; it is that sometimes the eye test is faulty; just as analytics is sometimes faulty. You need both and how you weigh them is how differences of opinions get sorted out and people learn to agree to disagree.

If I'm not mistaken I have agreed with you on some occasions and disagreed with you on others. I try to keep it on topic, so when you introduced the topic of my bias with the "favored few" cracks, I went there as well. If you don't want the subject to come up, don't raise it.

You are always welcome on here. Your views and opinions will be given more weight the more weight you bring to the discussion. My bias is toward commenters telling me something I either didn't know that I believe is accurate or something I knew but hadn't yet said as clearly as the commenter.

When there are holes in your argument, expect them to be pointed out. If you don't want or enjoy that kind of rigor, there are other comment sections where you can participate. Nobody knows it all. Everybody needs to learn. Feel free to chime in whenever you wish.

"So you "reward intelligent

"So you "reward intelligent commentary" and I'm a bitch. Got it. Still like your column but I'll try to keep my uninformed judgments to myself (not always possible)."

Wow, so much passive aggressive. What exactly is it that you are expecting around here? Britt, fairly pointed out the obvious fact that you lead your comment with a dig at Britt and the regular posters around here. But that was one sentence of his post followed by several paragraphs of analysis. Your response to that is one sentence about basketball and two paragraphs reiterating how rude Britt is to the posters here (so he called you a bitch, did he?). Next time, maybe just skip that first sentence and get right to the hoops?

I also don't bother much to dig around the stat sites (not because they're not interesting, but hoops isn't my only nerd hobby to obsess over), but am interested to hear what story they tell according to people who do dig around. It's the reason I've come around on Jim Peterson, who I was not a fan of in his early years as a commentator. And while I don't always agree with Britt, he's proven over the years to be the best writer covering the Wolves for a lot of us long time Wolves fans who've followed him around from City Pages to the Rake and here. This is because Britt's consistently brought some interesting analysis to the table (even before the stats revolution of recent years) and has encouraged thoughtful, nuanced discussion rather than the latest hot takes and outrages.

And for my money, it's pretty tough to expect to get a good pass (after the inbounds pass) before a shot on an inbounds play with two seconds left on the clock, so yes it made little sense to have LaVine inbounding the ball (also, he's not a very good passer). From my eye test, despite the positive offensive rating this team looks like it doesn't really know how to get a shot it wants down the stretch and for me that is directly to do with how Thibs has taken the ball out of the hands of our most creative playmaker down the stretch. Even when the offense works it tends to look ugly, one man show type stuff.

One important clarification

Bill, I didn't call you a bitch and wouldn't. it's a bad noun all the way around IMO.

I did say you were bitching, using bitch as a verb.

I believe the distinction is significant. I think you chose to hear it as a noun to heighten your victimization. But my intent is honest dialogue, not that level of cheap belittlement.

The eternal patience of the Thib.

Great read.

As I sit on YouTube watching illegal streams of NBA games, I hear this hoarse bark whenever I watch a Twolves game, it says stuff like "Zach Zach...Let's go Let's go...Come on Karl", constantly imploring his team to wok and execute. I love watching the Tpups because of the talent, but the begging of Thibs for his team to catch up to their minds to the body is its own theatre.

That said, do you think Thibs has the chops patience wise to let the kids grow into the force I think he can turn them into on both ends of the floor. How much of the problems on D do you attribute to growing pains, effort or other factors? Do you think having KG there as almost an interpreter would have made a big difference? His familiarity with Thibs and his system seems like it would've been invaluable.

Patience and KG

Thanks for the kind words.

It is just an opinion but I suspect Thibs felt the players would absorb the defensive schemes faster than they have. I know that his antics on the sidelines bother some folks, but as someone who talks non-stop through basketball games (some members of the media specifically don't want to sit near me as a result), I get the immersion habits that get developed. I frankly don't equate Thibs constant barking and displeasure in the same vein and the sideline antics of Randy Wittman, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Mitchell last season. Thibs is constant; the living and dying on every play is part of the way he takes in the game. The other coaches I just cited were much more targeted--and revealing--in their displeasure. You knew exactly who was in the doghouse and why. With Thibs, not so much.

As for the patience aspect, yes, anyone with a five-year contract better regard this as a marathon more than a sprint. And as for KG, my thoughts are pretty well known on the subject. Check the column archives, including the last one, for KG advocacy.

Rush, staggering the starting wings

Assuming Rush ever returns from that toe injury, it will be interesting to see if Thibs shakes up the wing rotations to stagger LaVine and Wiggins more than he has been.

It was preseason - so not very reliable - but the Wolves beat the Hornets by 35 when Wiggins sat out with his allergy thing, shortly before the regular season started.

In the lone regular season game without LaVine, the Wolves beat the Lakers by 26. Wiggins had 47 points.

I'm not sure this team's best chemistry (right now, anyway) involves both young wings on the floor at the same time. I suppose even if that's true, there's a good counter that that specific chemistry needs to be developed for the future, so the growing pains are necessary.

Anyway, something to look for - again, unless Rush suffered the toe injury of all toe injuries. He's been pretty useless through 18 games.

A Punch Drunk response

Rush has been a huge disappointment. Not only in his lack of playing but he is extremely casual and nonchalant on the sidelines. Different guys have different demeanors, but under the circumstances it isn't a good look for him.

I know exactly what you mean about the Wiggins/LaVine overlap. As someone who does sit next to me at home games and hears my non-stop spiel, you are too aware of my LaVine bias and my preference for Wiggins at shooting guard. And I too go back and forth between simply growing the "Big 3" as quickly as possible by tossing them in the pool together as much as possible, and seeing what synergies can be developed by isolating them with other teammates.

For folks who don't recognize Andy's name, he wrote under the PunchDrunkWolves blog for a handful of years and recently joined the staff at A Wolf Among Wolves, creating a powerful merger that I daresay is the best Wolves site along with Canis Hoopus on the web. I always appreciate his wisdom. Thanks for stopping by.

I thinks its time to call out the coach

Having sat through the last couple home games, I think its time to have a serious discussion about what is going on with our coaching strategy. I am not the analytics geek that many are, but I compensate with a pretty good eye for the game. What I see is not making much sense - on either offense or defense.

While the offense statistics look good, I see major issues. There is simply no flow to the offense - which is especially notable in crunch time or during an opponents run when we desperately need a basket. Our offense is center on high screens for a guard by a post with the other 3 players stationary on the wing - 2 of which (Rubio and Deng) don't need to be guarded all that closely. Wiggins body language against the Jazz screamed to me - "do I really have to try this again?" as he time after time was expected to make something out of the pick and roll that was by and large well defended.

In fact, I hope Thibs look a long hard look at the Jazz because, based on our talent, that is exactly the way we should play. Some screens and cuts away from the ball, some post up (both for scores and for kick outs), some penetrate and kick outs, some screen and pops, - all in addition to the high screens. The Jazz had a wonderfully diverse offense that generated a lot of good looks for a lot of different players utilizing all their athletic skills.

One very specific thing. Look at how the Jazz moved without the ball. As soon as someone one the Jazz penetrates everyone on the perimeter MOVED to a new spot. This is how they lost our defenders - because after helping out on the drive - our defenders had to relocate their man. In our offense, it is easy to relocate the offense players - the Wolves never move!!

We decry Hero Ball yet as best as I can see, the entire offense structure revolves around an isolation or 2 man game. So quite honestly I get why the guys occasionally try the Hero ball - its partly due to the lack of a go to offense set when a bucket is needed.

Defensively, I think the worse thing that happened to us was the victory at Golden State last year when Smitch choose to switch every pick. Frankly, I think it caught Golden State off guard surprising them enough to give us the edge in that victory. But it seems that Thibs used that game as the blue print for us defensively - an extremely athletic "switch everything" defensive team. A big mistake in my book - for 2 reasons.

First, while certainly athletic, none of of core (KAT, Wiggins, LaVine) has developed the mature strength that come with age. We get switches that frankly result in serious strength mismatches. Those mismatches many times requires help leaving open perimeter shooters. I have seen more that a few teams specifically run plays to get those strength mismatches knowing full well that the Wolves are going to switch into it.

Second, switching requires strong communication and court awareness. It's hard to tell over Thibs shouting but I am guessing that the on court communication is pretty low. And, especially in the case of LaVine and to some degree KAT (and might as well add Shabazz and Dunn to the list), court awareness is pretty low. Some of this will hopefully self resolve over time. I mean, for some of these guys, they are only 100 games away from playing HS ball. (Dunn is a different matter - and I must say I am really disappointed at his court awareness). But at the same time, the NBA has the longest pre season around. What were we doing during those 6 weeks? Because I just don't see a workable defensive scheme developing.

Thibs really need to change the focused defensively on fighting over the screens or hedging / recovering rather than switching. It will simplify the defense, cause fewer communication mistakes, and put our guys in better match ups on a more regular basis.

This is long enough. Color me pretty frustrated - some at the players - but far more at Thibs. It seems to me Thibs is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole based on the current offensive and defensive strategy I am watching each game.

After 18 games?

Tim--

So much good stuff here that I frankly don't have to time to provide appropriate response. I will try to get back to it later today or tomorrow.

But very quickly, I especially like the comment that if you don't want hero ball, stop running an offense that features shoot-first scorers as chief decision-makers. My thoughts on switching on defense are more complicated and my feeling on "calling out the coach" is that the sample size is way too small, and the "blame" for a lack of implementation too unknown, for that to happen just yet.

But thanks for taking the time to delve and then put it out there.

agree more on offense than defense

Tim--

I think Thibodeau's track record as a defensive tactician in both Boston and Chicago (and to a lesser extent in Houston and New York) is strong enough to trust what he is doing. Yes, everybody you mention has lacked the intuitive sense necessary to make the switching work in consonance. But switching is something that has become much more common in the NBA for a reason; with the removal of hand-checking, it is very difficult to stop really capable scorers, especially if they are partnered with an especially kindred teammate on the pick and roll.
My initial comment--he's 18 games into a five year commitment--matters here. There may be no better time to jam this stuff into the players' heads than when they are 21 years old and have one or two plus years of NBA experience. None save Dunn are rookies totally adjusting to NBA opponents and life in the association. And yet none are so set in their ways that they can't buy into Thibs system.

You may be right; it might not be the best strategy. But the guy designing and trying to implement has the license and pedigree to try what he wants, and to take the time to implement it properly.

On offense, I think everyone can agree that moving without the ball is necessary and you are right about the Jazz's off-ball movement; it is beautiful in its own way. But surely you notice that Gordon Hayward is just Wiggins three or four years down the line, and that a lot of Utah's points that night came not on hot shooting, but pounding the boards and getting putbacks and other second-chance points.

All that said, yes, whether Rubio or Wiggins or whoever is initiating the offense, there needs to be much more ball movement. I get tired of the one or two pass set on offense, resulting in a semi-contested jumper. More ball movement and more movement without the ball. But that is boilerplate stuff that can be worked in to Thibs' existing sets. They key is to pound the idea of more passing, at the expense of hero ball. Although, as I said before, I am sympathetic to your argument that having a non-point guard like Wiggins initiate the play is an invitation to hero ball.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Thibodeau has mostly preached and practiced panic

It's amazing how doom-and-gloom his postgame pressers have been and his obsession with playing guys 38+ minutes recently isn't a good sign this early with a team this young. If he can't trust each of his bench players to give him 6-8 decent minutes each half, he's doing something wrong. The Warriors and Spurs have been able to take guys who don't dress some games, give them minutes, and not miss a beat. Also, isn't Shabazz a young player? During his year off, Thibs spoke as though he'd really tried to learn from other teams. But nothing with him seems to have changed. That doesn't doom them to mediocrity; it's just disappointing. Their offense is ugly to watch.

I'm okay with Tyus as a backup; he was fun to watch in summer league and has done some nice things. But the only reason he looks better than Rubio right now is due to this rigid offensive system that's only really working for LaVine and Dieng. A diet of mostly post-ups and 3s doesn't work for Towns. Giving so many ballhandling responsibilities for Wiggins turns him into a midrange jumpshooter, and it doesn't lead to developing vital off-the-ball offensive skills. I he wants to start Rubio and pull him after 4-6 minutes to go to Tyus, it'd make sense. But then he has to spearhead the bench unit; let him run tons of pick-and-rolls with Towns and move the ball side-to-side with Bjelly and Brandon Rush (be nice if he could get healthy and untracked) while getting Shabazz fastbreak dunks.

Barring injury, the only real decision they need to make is on Shabazz, and there's some logic to trading him during the season. For anything else: continuity matters. Most things they could do with Wiggins or LaVine would be ill-conceived. I don't think they've had enough time for everyone to start doubting whether the core will work.

Perfectionism

PSR--

Another great comment, which, as with the one above, I need to come back to when I have more time.

Always love your takes. Will respond soon.

Lots to respond to here

PSR--

As usual, good stuff. Let me take them in order.

I don't mind heavy minutes for three players expected to comprise the core of your ballclub going forward. He is working them together for the most part. As I said in the column, I worry a little about the skills overlap between Wiggins and LaVine and think I'd rather see LaVine paired with Rubio than Wiggins. But I agree with him that a Towns/Wiggins pick and roll can be devastating and don't mind him pounding it, which has happened frequently.
Not sur ethe offense is ugly because of his sets or because the ball movement has a tendency to disappear when the going gets tough. Maybe a few ugly losses will reverse this, but I don't believe Thibs wouldn't prefer a four or five pass offensive set to the one or two passes that is the norm. I think he harps on it. As on defense, I think they are slow to pick it up. But the bottom line for now is we don't know. It is just 18 games in and we don't know how that coach-player relationship dynamic is truly working out.

All that said, some things you mention resonate. Yes, he needs to be able to trust Aldrich/Bjelly and even Dunn/Tyus and Rush (assuming health on the latter) for 12-17 minutes per night. And I too am okay with Tyus getting more regular rotation time earlier in the game if it is meant to track an evolution in process--let's find out what works.

I fear Bazzy is the odd man out and I don't think that is on Thibs. Bazzy is what he is; when it is working for him it is unstoppable enough on offense to overcome his shoddy D. Otherwise, the sooner he finds his way back to the bench the better.

Let's see if you are right about Wiggins and LaVine. If this team is 7-21 or something, there will be a temptation to stir things up. But if progress is being shown despite the losses, i agree, "first do no harm" should be the rule for roster management.

The infatuation with Rubio continues....

The reason the wolves could not trade R.R. is that most of the league realizes that he is not a starting point guard in the NBA. It seems no one else in MN realizes this fact. Thibs knew this from day one.

Did you notice how most teams defended him during the 4th quarter? They do not defend him! They go under screens and beg him to shoot. The guy that was suppose to defend Rubio is sluffing off and defending other players. No wonder the offense does not have a flow when you are playing 4 on 5.

Blaming the coach for Rubio's failures is misguided.

Sorry Britt - just my opinion.

I know this opinion well

Ron--

at least you put a little meat on the bone of your take this time. I know how much you dislike Rubio.

I need to take issue with a few points however. There are at least a handful of teams who would love to have Rubio, especially Milwaukee and Sacramento. The inability to make a deal comes down to how much you value Rubio. Minnesota wanted Khris Middleton from the Bucks. he's their best player. That wasn't going to happen. But they could have had Greg Monroe or Michael Carter-Williams (who eventually was dealt to Chicago). Ditto Sacramento. The Wolves could trade Rubio tomorrow if they really wanted to.

You picked a poor time to highlight Rubio's 4th quarter treatment, given that he spurred a comeback in the 4th against the Knicks in their last game, hitting both shots he took and running the team extremely well. It was probably the closest we've seen to "vintage Ricky" this season.

No need to apologize for your opinion. Just expect to defend it, as folks who are Rubio believers are currently in the position of having to defend theirs.

"as folks who are Rubio

"as folks who are Rubio believers are currently in the position of having to defend theirs."

Yeah, as a full on Rubio fanboy (my second fave Wolf of all time after KG) it's been tough watching the Wolves this year. He's really struggled as has the whole team, but it's pretty obvious now why Thibs didn't rate him. Namely, because he's running an offense that has Rubio standing around on the perimeter as a release valve, rather than running an offense that puts his decision making (his true value added on the offensive side) at the fore. But while he's struggled, it's been nice to see Tyus do well. He looks like he should be able to make himself into a solid backup in the league (I don't think he'll ever be good enough defensively to play starter's minutes).

But as a non-college hoops watcher Dunn has been a mighty let down so far. I know it's a big leap and all, and he may well turn out to be a good player, but for a guy who spent four years in college I guess I expected a more polished player. As Tim above noted as well, his court awareness on offense is pretty sketchy for a guy who's supposed to be a PG, and frankly his defensive reputation seems a bit overblown too. He's good on the ball mostly but is much poorer when his guy doesn't have the ball. How many times have we seen the ball swing to his man and he charges out to the perimeter at full speed to close out, only to have the guy use his momentum against him and easily blow by him? So the long and the short of it is, that even in an offense that clearly doesn't suit his skills, Rubio is still the best we've got and not by a little. He's still our best point guard on both ends. But he's got to be better too. He seems to be feeling the pressure and gets a little desperate to do something positive so he can stay on the floor which has led to some un-Ricky like decision making….

Oh well, as any Wolves fan (or really any fan of a sports team) knows, it's the hope that kills ya…

If only your opinion ever used specific examples

Wednesday, the Wolves outscored the Knicks by 11 in the 4th after Rubio returned. Hmm, almost like he either wasn't a liability against them or that liability didn't seem to matter. Against Utah, he didn't return, and the team couldn't sustain their comeback to take the lead in a game where they were +4 when he was on the floor. Wait, I thought his absence would've spurred a huge win.

Nobody is disputing that his shooting limits his offensive contributions. Most who support him, however, don't think it's the liability that his ill-informed detractors use like a trope to bash him, for a couple of reasons: 1) His contributions in the first 3 quarters have often made them competitive when they shouldn't have been or led to close games becoming blowouts in their favor and 2) His liability is something that many teams are unable to exploit; it might be there, but it's not as a big a factor to losing as, say, the young players' atrocious defense and their inability/unwillingness to make the defense work. Most of the support of him comes with the condition that he's probably not a championship-caliber PG, but the Wolves have historically been garbage when he's out and competent when he's not.

Everyone gets your point. They got it years ago. They just disagree with level of problem it is and don't feel like responding to the same simplified argument and amateur provocation.