This holiday season is going to test the Wolves’ mettle

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. 

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hylton on 12/01/2016 - 11:36 am.

    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.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/01/2016 - 12:42 pm.

    Coaches don’t score points.

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

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/01/2016 - 01:04 pm.

    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).

  4. Submitted by Lee Suds on 12/01/2016 - 01:48 pm.

    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.

  5. Submitted by Andy Grimsrud on 12/01/2016 - 02:18 pm.

    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.

  6. Submitted by Tim Milner on 12/01/2016 - 02:29 pm.

    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.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/01/2016 - 05:06 pm.

    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.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/01/2016 - 11:11 pm.

    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.

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/02/2016 - 10:43 am.

      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.

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