When the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, it felt like a significant, potentially resonant, victory.
The win interrupts a downward spiral that has been ugly enough to call into question the team’s psychological equilibrium, the balance and character of the roster, the players’ relationship with new coach Tom Thibodeau, and the ongoing wisdom of “staying the course” during a pivotal season of supposed maturation that seemed perilously close to going off the rails.
Thibodeau is renowned for being especially capable of enhancing team defense by instilling disciplined principles with relentless logic and attention to detail. He was awarded a five-year contract to be both head coach and president of basketball operations primarily because that quality seemed like such a good fit in molding the Wolves trio of burgeoning young talent, including cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins and two-time slam dunk champion Zach LaVine.
But in losing three out of every four of their first 24 games, the Wolves not only displayed the careening inconsistency and lapses in concentration and composure that are hallmarks of youth; they regressed on the fundamentals of team defense that is destined to be the foundation of any future identity for a team guided by Thibs.
After yielding 105 points or more on just 7 occasions in their first 15 games, the Wolves let it happen nine times in a row — 8 of them losses. What made it worse was that these breakdowns began to happen most frequently in the fourth quarter. In the four games before going to Chicago, the Wolves had surrendered 33, 36, 35 and 38 points in the final period. This wasn’t a garbage-time trifle either — the Wolves led in two of those four contests and were within 8 points in another when the quarter started.
During the second half against Detroit last Friday, the Target Center crowd briefly booed the Wolves for the first time this season. Two nights later at home against Golden State, Minnesota blew a 10-point lead by ceding those 38 points — a season-high for an opponent — in the fourth quarter.
That set the stage for Tuesday in Chicago. It was a nationally televised contest mostly because it marked Thibodeau’s first return to the Windy City as an opposing head coach after leading the Bulls to the playoffs five straight seasons from 2010-15.
Midway through the first quarter, ESPN showed a clip of Towns saying the Wolves players knew how much this particular game meant to Thibs. Those words seemed damning because the Wolves were in the midst of playing their worst defense of this already sorry season.
It honestly felt like the players were pretending to enact Thibodeau’s principles, diligently going through the motions until the crucial follow-through that deterred the opponents. Players were scrambling back in transition, their eyes locked on the man they were guarding while seemingly keeping their distance as the action moved up the court.
They never closed out on the midrange shooters, nor put themselves in a position to defend the passes going to cutters heading from the wings and baseline toward the basket. They allowed Chicago’s big men to establish such an advantageous position in the low post that even subsequently contested shots were easily converted.
The Bulls sank 16 of 22 shots in the first period, matching the season high of 38 points yielded by the Wolves for a second straight quarter. Chicago scored on 12 of its first 14 possessions to begin the game, racing to a 26-6 lead after just seven minutes of play. The teams then played on mostly even terms, but only because the Wolves offense began to click. With 6:30 to play in the second quarter, the Bulls bumped their lead up to 21, with the game at 51-30, by hitting five shots in a row.
Then, inexplicably, the long-dormant Wolves defense began to gel. At first, the Bulls helped by missing some open looks. But the surge began almost immediately after Thibodeau brought his starters back in (LaVine was already on the court with the four reserves). Most noticeably, tandem big men Towns and Gorgui Dieng began rotating better and more aggressively to shut down points in the paint.
Another key improvement was transition defense, a horrendous weakness throughout the season. When the Wolves have functioned well at getting stops at all, it has usually stemmed from their offense generating enough made baskets that the team has time to prepare at the other end. But on Tuesday, the Wolves shot just 40.5 percent in the second half and still limited the Bulls to 31.8 percent accuracy.
Throw in the final 6:30 of the second period, when Chicago converted just two of 12 shots, and Minnesota allowed just 28.6 percent shooting over the final 30:30 minutes of the game. For just the second time this season, they triumphed despite scoring fewer than 100 points.
Through the fire
It is, of course, dangerous to assign too much weight to single contest over the course of an 82-game season, and especially to claim it as a potential bellwether of improvement for a squad that still ranks 27th in defensive rating (points allowed per possession) and at 7-18 holds the third-worst record in the NBA.
But there are reasons for optimism. The Wolves stiffened instead of wilting in the second half of a close game, and played taut defense for the final three quarters for the first time this season. They were led on defense by their starting unit, who had collectively been outperformed at that end of the court by the reserves thus far.
Furthermore, Saturday’s home game against Houston marks the end of what has arguably been the most brutal stretch in the schedule that Minnesota will encounter all season — 11 straight games against teams with winning records. By contrast, 10 of the next 11 opponents currently have losing records, although Atlanta (who they play twice in this span), Milwaukee and Portland are all just one game under .500.
Finally, coming back from more than 20 points down in Thibodeau’s heralded return to his old stomping grounds relieves some of the pressure that had been building around this team’s underachievement. There has been increasing speculation, by me and others, that the coach’s seemingly joyless dedication to discipline might be harshing the buzz by which his inherently carefree core of kids have been playing this game all their lives.
Put simply, Thibs keeps talking about “speeding up the process” of development. But what if his impatience and perpetual sideline haranguing was instead retarding it? Tuesday’s win lets some of the air out of that theory.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn whether the Chicago win marks a signature pivot, an ephemeral outlier, or something in-between for the Wolves fortunes over the rest of the season. But for Thibodeau, it is encouraging motivation to maintain business as usual. So let’s finish off by looking at one of the two most controversial aspects of his coaching thus far.
Too many minutes?
The knock on Thibs from his otherwise ballyhooed tenure with the Bulls was that he overplayed some of his key performers, such as Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, wearing them down and making them more susceptible to injury. This theory acquired greater currency when it was embraced by the Bulls front office in what became an unpleasant turf battle that eventually prompted Thibodeau’s exit — and his subsequent demand that he be given control over personnel matters as POBO along with his head coaching duties with the Wolves.
Sure enough, in his desire to fast forward the development of his core youth, Thibodeau is playing them often and together. LaVine (2nd), Wiggins (8th) and Towns (18th) all rank among the top 20 NBA players in minutes per-game. And collectively, they comprise the third-most used three-player combo in the league.
The play of Wiggins represents the most unqualified endorsement of this strategy, because throughout his NBA career, he has performed better under a workhorse regimen.
There have been five games thus far this season where Wiggs has logged more than 40 minutes. In those contests, he has shot 49.1 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from three-point territory, has a whopping usage rate of 30.4, and the Wolves are plus 8 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. These are all well above his composite marks in each category.
The discrepancy is even greater in the five games where Wiggins is playing on the back to back with zero days rest. Yes, these five-game samples are small, but in his previous two full seasons the stats at basketball-reference.com reveal that Wiggins was arguably a better player, and without question a better, more accurate shooter in games where he either played heavy minutes and/or was operating on zero days rest. In that respect he and Thibs are a wonderful match.
The effect of heavy minutes on Towns and LaVine are more difficult to assess because, unlike Wiggins, they don’t have a steady diet of ample playing time to generate adequate sample sizes; Towns is only in his second season, and LaVine only became a full-time starter this year.
Overall, the biggest difference between Towns as a rookie, playing 32 minutes per game, and Towns this season, playing 35.1 minutes, is that he is shooting more often per minute and less accurately. The drop in his field goal percentage is related to both his low post and midrange game. From less than five feet, he is shooting 58.4 percent versus 65 percent last season. Move it out to eight feet and the drop is from 61.9 percent to 56.5 percent. And from 16-24 feet out, Towns has gone from 50.6 last season to 31.8 percent.
But this decline doesn’t seem related to a bump in playing time. On the contrary, the most unambiguous trend for Towns under a heavier workload is diminished accuracy on his three-point shooting, the one aspect of his game that has improved (albeit just a titch) this season.
Again using the splits at basketball-reference.com, we see that Towns shoots 11.8 percent from long range in the 8 games in his career playing over 40 minutes, and 23.7 percent in the 19 games he has logged with zero days rest. The accuracy steps up with each ten-minute increment taken off Towns’ playing time, while his most accurate zone in terms of time between-games is one day’s rest.
Likewise, there are no real red flags on LaVine’s added workload, despite the huge jump he has taken, from 24.7 minutes as a rookie to 28 minutes last year and 37.7 minutes this season.
LaVine has missed one game with an injury after playing all 82 last year, but it was a minor ding and the rest was precautionary. His field goal, free throw and true shooting percentages are all career highs. His three-point percentage is slightly below last season’s, but the long range jumper is a much bigger weapon in his arsenal.
LaVine (and his team) still suffers from a lousy net rating — the Wolves fare better against their opponents when he sits compared to when he plays. But it is some consolation that he has narrowed that negative number to a career best -6.2 points per 100 possessions, down from more than 10 points his rookie year and -6.9 points last season. In any event, the additional playing time hasn’t made him more toxic, and at least the eye-test indicates that he is getting better at team defense and shot selection, his two biggest foibles.
One more interesting statistic. After playing point guard the majority of the time his first season and a half in the NBA, LaVine is strictly a shooting guard this year. Yet his rate of unassisted field goals is actually higher this season than a year ago. This is the result of the other controversial element in Thibs’ coaching style to date — his desire to let his young playmakers create shots on their own rather relying on the point guard to be the offensive catalyst.
That strategy—and the ongoing mess at point guard that may or may not be a consequence of it — will be the subject for another column in the near future.