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This holiday season is going to test the Wolves’ mettle

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.