Heading into tonight’s game against the Sacramento Kings, the Minnesota Timberwolves are belatedly playing their best basketball of the season.
Were it not for a fourth-quarter meltdown last Saturday against a Houston Rockets opponent that had won nine straight games, the Wolves themselves would be riding a four-game winning streak. As it is, they have had to settle for the humbling satisfaction of posting their first consecutive victories — in games 27 and 28 — at home versus Phoenix and on the road in Atlanta earlier this week.
In my last column, I wrote that the Wolves’ road win against the Bulls on coach Tom Thibodeau’s return to Chicago felt particularly resonant because it broke a pattern of inept defense and spectacular dysfunction under pressure. The headline of the column posed the question of whether it might be a “signature win — or an ephemeral outlier?”
Thus far, it has been a meaningful pivot in a positive direction.
From Chicago onward, the Wolves have allowed opponents to shoot just 41.8 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range. They have contested shots without fouling; opponent free throws have dropped from 25.7 to 21.7 per game over the last four contests.
Better yet, this sturdier, more diligent defense has emanated almost exclusively from the starters, the majority of whom are 21-year old kids constantly told how wonderful they are and are going to be, even as they besmirch the plaudits with a steadfast disdain for well-calibrated fundamentals. The Wolves of 2016-17 have been less than the sum of their gaudy parts — amiable egotists ambling along the long road to genuine team synergy.
But recently they have been getting a grip, which has allowed Thibodeau to relax his own well-intentioned choke-hold on the proceedings just a bit. Those who handle the scoreboard and other record-keeping duties at center court of Target Center report that Thibs has been a little more restrained during his manic id-fests on the sidelines in recent games, and the coach has also taken pains to better separate the sin from the sinner as mistakes are committed on the court. “I am always disappointed in losing, but I am not disappointed in our team, in our effort and the way we keep working to improve and build habits,” was one of his many recent statements seeking to draw this distinction.
Another reason for the Wolves improved play of late is the diminished caliber of the opposition. After an 11-game stretch against teams that all currently sport winning records (the Wolves won twice), Minnesota is currently enmeshed in a 12-game run in which all but two foes currently possess losing records. (The pair of high-caliber opponents are OKC on Christmas Day and Utah on Jan. 7.)
The remaining five games on the 2016 calendar year will offer a pretty decent test of how well the Wolves can sustain their improvement on defense. The opposing offenses are mediocre but not wretched, ranking anywhere from 12th to 23rd among the 30 teams, and no lower than 18th if you leave out a reprise against Atlanta the day after Christmas.
If Thibodeau’s renowned principles of team defense are indeed becoming ingrained to the point of habit, there is an opportunity to climb the standings — at a point where the bifurcated Western Conference finds the Wolves, with a still-miserable record of 9-19, merely two-and-a-half games away from the 8th and final playoff seed.
Exhaustive habits and veteran disappearance
It is becoming increasingly apparent that an ongoing theme of this season will involve the heavy minutes Thibodeau plays his three kids — swingmen Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and center Karl-Anthony Towns. LaVine (1st) and Wiggins (5th) currently rank among the NBA’s top five in minutes per game, and Towns is 14th.
The situation is pertinent because a significant cause of discord between Thibodeau of the Bulls front office in Chicago was the belief by team executives that he was overplaying his core personnel, at the risk of underperformance, if not injury.
During the recent four-game boomlet, Thibs has relied even more on the youngsters, with LaVine and Wiggins both averaging more than 40 minutes and Towns clocking in at 38.5. (The numbers are somewhat inflated by the five extra minutes each played in overtime versus Houston, boosting their 4-game average by 1.25 minutes per game.)
Is this iron-man regimen borne out of desire or necessity? The dangerous temptation for Thibs is that one bleeds into the other; that his desire to foster the good habits for genuine teamwork that he craves as quickly as possible compels him to regard an onerous workload as a necessary part of the process.
The off-season moves that Thibs and his general manager Scott Layden enacted always pointed to the notion that this would be a season of heavy immersion for the young core. The three veteran free-agents they signed were all journeymen with inexpensive contracts that, in the case of two of the players, were guaranteed for this season only. Only center Cole Aldrich, signed for $22 million over three years, is expected to be a meaningful bench player moving forward.
The obvious plan was for Thibs to get a thorough look at his lauded batch of young talent and then use the copious money he had saved this season under the salary cap to splurge on the right veterans to caulk the seams. He and Layden will bank the rest for the huge contracts the Wolves future stars are inevitably going to receive.
To avoid potentially huge personnel mistakes over the next couple of seasons, that strategy almost requires arduous minutes in group interaction among the three kids.
Even in that context, however, it is remarkable how deftly Thibs has shunted his free agents to the side.
Coming into this season, swingman Brandon Rush seemed like a potentially key component off the bench, an outside marksman who could spread the floor and also provide the guidance of his experience with a championship-caliber ballclub in Golden State the past few years. During the preseason, there was even some speculation that Rush might crack the starting lineup so that Thibs could bring LaVine in as an instant-offense sixth man.
Instead, Rush has logged but 121 minutes this season and scored a grand total of 17 points. Yes, he’s been hampered by a chronic toe injury, but one gets the impression he’s an afterthought for Thibs whether healthy or not, an impression he cements with a carefree attitude and disinterested body language during timeouts and other interactions on the sidelines. Signed for one year at $3.5 million, Rush seems destined to languish during his lone season in Minnesota unless an injury or sudden shift in strategy jolts the status quo.
Rush is a workhorse compared to combo forward Jordan Hill, who has seen the court exactly 16 minutes thus far this season. Given that Hill’s 2-year, $8-million contract (with the team holding the option on the second season) was actually a pay cut for him despite the inflated salary frenzy that occurred this off-season, nobody expects a dominant role player. But neither did many folks anticipate that Hill would be among the disappeared, falling behind even Adreian Payne in the Wolves rotation. He has assumed the Rony Turiaf role as the dread-headed bench anchor, with a laid-back demeanor that, accurately or not, adds to his stoner vibe.
The point is, neither Rush nor Hill have sufficient standing on the team to exert any veteran leadership. And while Aldrich has been much more useful, he clearly isn’t regarded by Thibs as vital to the rotation, having sat out two of the past five games entirely when opponents went with small lineups.
Big 3 relationships
Assuming they have the strength and endurance to soldier through this season under the current circumstances, the three kids are certainly going to provide Thibs with a complete picture of their skills sets as individuals, and, more importantly, in relationship to each other.
Towns-Wiggins-LaVine rank fourth among all three-player combos in minutes together with 728, and the duo of Towns and Wiggins is third in the two-player lineup category with 882. While the starters in general and these three in particular are beginning to coalesce, the growing pains are apparent, particularly on defense.
For example, according nba.com, in the 825 minutes Towns is on the court with LaVine, the Wolves are -68. In the 167 minutes Towns plays without LaVine, the Wolves are +6. The difference is defense. When Towns and LaVine are together, the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is 111.4. Without LaVine, Towns has a defensive rating of 106.1, a 5.3 points difference that swamps the 0.8 point gain in offensive efficiency when the two are paired.
But before we blast LaVine’s shoddy defense, consider that Towns drags LaVine’s defenses numbers down more than vice versa. That 111.4 defensive rating as a pair plummets to 100.8 points per 100 possessions when LaVine plays without Towns. The discrepancy comes from LaVine playing more often with the bench, which has better defensive numbers and worse offensive efficiency. Hence, unlike Towns, LaVine’s offensive efficiency suffers by 5.4 points per 100 possessions in lineups without KAT.
What is revealing either way, however, is how much better the Wolves have played defense when Towns and LaVine are separated.
Another compelling comparison (with a hat tip to Wolves status guru Paul Swanson and updated numbers from nba.com) is how much better Wiggins plays when LaVine is off the court. In 777 minutes of Wiggins and LaVine together, the Wolves are -56. But in the 255 minutes Wiggins plays without LaVine, Minnesota is +16. Again, defensive efficiency is the biggest negative factor.
By contrast, LaVine’s per-minute plus/minus numbers are essentially the same with or without Wiggins on the court.
To complete the roundelay, let’s look at the Towns-Wiggins combo. What jumps out here is how vital Wiggins seems to be for Towns’ effectiveness thus far. Yes, Towns and Wiggins are -26 in their 884 minutes on the court together. But in the 108 minutes Towns plays without Wiggins, he is -36, a whopping -12 points per 36 minutes.
What this all suggests is that if the Wolves can find a more rugged wing player to play small forward, pushing Wiggins back to shooting guard, he would be more effective. At the same time, making LaVine a dynamic sixth man off the bench with quality defenders also shows signs of promise.
All this is a work in progress, of course. And the progress currently consuming Thibs is how to make the “Big 3” mesh as a unit.
Last but not least….
The one place where the notoriously stubborn Thibs has seemed to alter his outlook recently is in his resignation that he needs to accommodate the reality of Ricky Rubio as his primary point guard.
For two columns in a row now I have threatened to do a deep dive on Rubio’s enhanced status and the way that he and Thibs have sought a middle ground. I promise to get to it sometime in 2017, after Minnpost returns from its holiday break. Until then, here are two fine stories from the Wolves beat writers from the two dailies, Jace Frederick at the PiPress and Jerry Zgoda at the Strib .
In clichés about holiday goodwill, I’ll close with a sincere thank you for the loyalty and intelligence of my readers, who have made this gig so enjoyable over the years. As we knock off another calendar, know that I treasure your eyeballs and your insights and look forward to more mutual revelry in life’s greatest game in 2017.