The boom-or-bust risk for the star-studded Timberwolves

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
By now it is obvious to the point of patent truth that Tom Thibodeau has decided that this season will be devoted to Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine playing together as much as possible.

When people on the Minnesota Timberwolves have gotten injured during this curiously dysfunctional 2016-17 season, it complicates the plans and strategies of head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau. Not because the Wolves get worse and play in disarray, but because, at least for a while, they become strikingly more purposeful and coordinated.

Back on January 9 at Target Center, shooting guard Zach LaVine pulled up wincing with a bruised hip and walked off the court toward the locker room just 53 seconds into the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks. The youngest player on the roster, second-year point guard Tyus Jones, stepped in as the pint-sized replacement versus the Mavs’ small lineup and played well enough over the final 11 minutes to bump a six-point lead into a 9-point victory.

In the next two games, with LaVine in street clothes on the sidelines, the Wolves thumped a pair of teams headed to the playoffs this season, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, by double-digit margins.

In many respects, the catalyst for these wins was veteran shooting guard Brandon Rush. After playing a total of 21 minutes in the previous three and a half weeks, Rush, the senior member of the team at age 31, was suddenly fulfilling every second of LaVine’s workload rotation, logging 36 and 39:53 minutes in the best back-to-back performances the Wolves have logged thus far this season.

The most succinct way to describe Rush’s value is that he knows how to play team basketball. But the longer explanation gets to the conundrum of balancing success with development that has vexed the impatient Wolves players and their fans the entire season.

After the win over Houston, Thibodeau talked about the style and attitude toward which he has been bum-rushing his youthful roster. “When guys are playing for each other and everyone has the discipline to do their job. When you have a drive-and-kick game [or] you can get into a spacing game off the post, or a spacing game off the trap [or] the pick-and-roll, there are a lot of times when you can share the ball.”

Two nights later, following the impressive victory over OKC, he elaborated some more. “Offense is timing and spacing; everyone moving at the appropriate time; everyone doing their job, not making things up; everyone reading the ball and seeing what is going on. Whether it is a double-team [trap], or dribble penetration, or at the point of the screen if there is a flare in the timing of the roll [on the pick-and-roll], whether you are running to the rim or sliding behind, and finishing up your spacing. Oftentimes there is an initial cut [movement off the ball by a player] and if you stop you are going to screw up spacing for the next guy.”

The coach’s description of the synergistic collaboration that timing and spacing can have on each other suddenly made me realize why Rush had been such an elixir for the team. It is not just that he flashes out to the corner to position himself for a three-pointer; it is knowing exactly when to do so and the benefits for the offense regardless of whether or not he gets covered, or whether or not the ball is passed to him.

That knowledge of timing and spacing also works to Rush’s advantage as a defender. It is not just that he effectively left his man on the wing and hurried to double-team a big man, or rotated over to cover for a teammate on the pick and roll; it is knowing the vision of that big man in the paint relative to the man he was guarding on the wing; the time left on the shot clock; the relative skill sets of those players, and, finally, where his teammates were on the court.

I said to Thibs that Rush seemed to be conducting a master class in this timing-spacing calculation and the coach was more than ready to answer. “He is a very smart player, outstanding timing and spacing. I think that comes from being a veteran.”

He described how when Rush saw a pick-and-roll play happening between his teammates, if he was in a certain slot in the offensive placement as a teammate was rolling, he needed to “place behind,” meaning move out for a possible three-pointer. This either creates more spacing for the roll man by pulling his man away, or makes himself open for the trey if his man chose to deter the penetration to the basket.

We had just witnessed two fantastic games by the Wolves, who played with a spirit and selflessness that was revelatory and rarely witnessed this season. It wasn’t all attributable to the presence of Rush and the absence of LaVine, of course. But it did put in stark relief the difficulties of playing three 21-year old kids — Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as well as LaVine — whose phenomenal talent has always enabled them to passively ignore or downplay the obsessive details and awareness that synergize timing and spacing.

So when Thibs was done raving about Rush, I passive-aggressively asked the coach the abiding question of this Timberwolves season: Do you have to sacrifice wins to get the kind of development you want [from the kids] this season? The question really had two connotations. One was, “are you choosing to do this sacrifice?” The other was, “is there a way to use your rotation to give you better balance between the two?”

As I expected, he ducked both connotations with boilerplate clichés. “Every day we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We can’t feel good about ourselves. We have got to get ready for Dallas.”

Thibs and the kids, the slam dance continues

But Thibodeau doesn’t have to talk to provide an answer that is loud and clear. About 40 hours after his postgame remarks from the win over OKC, LaVine and his recovering hip returned to the starting lineup in an afternoon road game against Dallas. He played 33:39. Rush played 3:21. The Wolves scored a mere 87 points and ceded 98.

By now it is obvious to the point of patent truth that Thibodeau has decided that this season will be devoted not only to Towns, Wiggins and LaVine playing together as much as possible, but doing so as the coach points out every mistake and foible in their processing, both on the sideline as they commit them, and in the film room later.

It is a bold gambit designed to take the most talented young triumvirate on any one team in the NBA and fast-forward their development into savvy veterans. Furthermore, Thibs wants his star trio to utilize their phenomenal skills in sync with a disciplined system that maximizes everyone’s contribution and fosters teamwork.

There are some huge risks, or at least complications, in this strategy. One is that by tutoring his vast knowledge of the game so hard, so fast, and so relentlessly over the course of the season, Thibodeau could muck up the positive, intuitively flowing elements of their spectacular performance and dampen their enthusiasm for the learning process.

Each of the three young stars has a distinct personality. LaVine has the carefree affability of a gym rat. Towns has the earnest over-accountability of a teacher’s pet. And Wiggins has the implacable stoicism of a well-fortified enigma.

But what they share is a lifelong ability to blow observers away with what they can do on a basketball court. If anything that has only gotten stronger and more ingrained as they find their way through this highest level of hoops competition.

Because they play for the least successful franchise in modern NBA history and are logging the heavy minutes that produce gaudy statistics, the core trio are ideal maws in the ongoing hype machine. Whenever the Wolves come to an opponents’ town, or play on national television, visiting media and other folks who don’t keep up with the team’s exploits have the easiest way to simultaneously promote and label the Wolves — a long-terrible team now slowly on the rise due to three incredible talents.

And they are incredible. LaVine is a two-time winner of the slam dunk championship who has added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal, teasing him out to be a potentially un-guardable matchup. Towns is the prototypical modern big man who can score from anywhere on the court and has skills that resemble a guard as much as a center. Wiggins may well be the best athlete of the three, with laser-quickness to his leaps and spins, and a thirst for being the go-to guy in crunch time.

But in 43 games under Thibodeau, they have been less than the sum of their individual parts. On offense, they are more baton-passers than synergistic enablers. On defense, they are each wretchedly inconsistent and chronically prone to mental lapses that are often ruinous to team play.

Put bluntly, the great danger here is that the heralded coach and the star trio are a bad match. The detailed, demanding Thibs is expecting that his kids want to achieve real greatness, which only comes with team success, and will thus trust and endure this often rocky and discomfiting crash course toward NBA maturation. That’s a lot to ask from a trio of publicity-pampered kids, who have entourages, be it social media or two-bit fame-by-association junkies, whether they want to or not.

So alienation is one risk. Another is that, even if the kids buy in, the task Thibs is trying to pull off — the simultaneous maturation and cohesion of three alpha talents in breakneck speed with minimal veteran seasoning — is simply too ambitious to execute, and may cause more harm than good. (Over on the bench, Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich are nodding their heads.)

As if that weren’t enough, there is another ongoing drama on this team that is a crucial complication: The mess at point guard.

Missing the point

In the realm of things that are not plainly stated but remain palpable reality, the always frayed rapport between Thibodeau and holdover point guard Ricky Rubio has been an ongoing awkward component of this season.

Rubio, of course, is a polarizing figure because of his remarkably dilapidated pros and cons as a teammate. Never has a player been better qualified to be a pass-first point guard. The breadth and dimension of his court vision, coupled with the nuance of the spins, angles and touch of his dishes make him a nonpareil ball-distributor. Those skills and his intense competitive desire also make him a frequently superb defender despite his relative lack of quickness.

But, as everyone knows, Rubio is a historically inaccurate shooter, a crippling liability that has only grown more onerous in the modern NBA game, with its emphasize on magnetizing defenses out of position through space-and-pace marksmanship. Rubio has done everything he can — better shot selection, cajoling fouls, value-added leadership — but the problem persists and his reputation for clanking is now burnished to the point of embarrassment.

From the start last spring of his five-year tenure here, Thibs determined that Rubio was not the point guard of this team’s future. Through his agent and with an occasional statement (during the off-season he said he wanted to play for a winner for a change) Rubio has indicated that he doesn’t appreciate the animus and would sooner be traded than put on the shelf.

National reporters with access to anonymous rumors that are frequently specious agenda-setting volleys from their “inside sources” have had a field day doling out the imminent scenarios that have yet to come to pass.

Meanwhile, the point guard Thibs clearly favors as soon as he can resemble a competent performer at the position, 22-year old rookie Kris Dunn, has been a magnificent disappointment thus far. And the point guard that Thibs has seemingly discounted out of his master plan for the future, 20-year old Tyus Jones, has outperformed both Dunn and Rubio in his very limited minutes thus far this season.

The argument for Rubio, who began playing professionally in Spain at the age of 14, is that he possesses the experience, savvy and willingness to execute Thibs’ tutorial on teamwork to the core trio. Indeed, he has endured the indignity of standing in the corner while Wiggins frequently initiates the half-court offense, robbing the Spaniard of his prime value.

It was also telling that when LaVine went down and Rubio had either Tyus or Rush as complements, his game was raised to new heights. From the game where LaVine limped off against Dallas up until last night against the Clippers in Los Angeles, Rubio had racked up double-digit assists, and 70 dimes overall, in five straight games. When players know how to use timing and spacing, Rubio will get them the ball.

This brings us to the tilt against the Clippers, who were bereft of their two injured superstars, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. In the first half, Rubio was left wide open, as opponents are wont to do, and he badly missed all three shots he attempted.

When the second half began, Dunn was the point guard. This time Rubio was the player sidelined with a balky hip. Dunn performed relatively well in the third quarter, and certainly better than his customary effort thus far this year.

(More context: The game was nationally televised by TNT, meaning that the yuck-it-up contingent of “Charles, Kenny and Shaq” would take a whack at overlaying their extensive and accomplished personal experience on the court decades ago with the prevailing reputations of Rubio and the three stars and their otherwise woeful ignorance about the Wolves performance thus far this season.)

Barkley, whose formerly incisive snap judgments have increasingly taken on the forays of a Ouija board the longer he’s been retired — especially if the team he is analyzing doesn’t play on TNT very often — proclaimed that the Wolves didn’t play with enough pace and that Rubio should be replaced by Dunn (the halftime take) and Dunn and Tyus (the postgame take).

In the third quarter, Kevin Garnett was invited in by his friend and color commentator Chris Webber to provide his thoughts. KG, who clearly wanted a veteran mentorship role on the Wolves that was probably denied by Thibs, compelling his (perhaps temporary) retirement, opined that the Wolves needed a “culture.” He then noted that his former teammate and friend and last year’s Wolves coach Sam Mitchell was providing a culture for the 2015-16 edition of the team.  

Webber, who is a smart and erudite commentator, took up the cudgel against Thibs on both fronts, agitating for more pace and a culture that sifts in more veteran leadership.

All the while, the Wolves were climbing back into the game, mostly on the astounding offense of Towns, KG’s prime mentorship project last season, and Tyus Jones, who entered to start the fourth quarter and promptly provided the compelling spark that has become a staple of his second NBA season.

The whole thing amounted to a classically dreadful-hopeful Wolves parfait. When the Clippers went super-small at crunch time, Thibs countered with the duo of Tyus at the point and Dunn using his physicality as a guard-forward beside the core trio.

Got that? The 22-year old rookie Kris Dunn was the oldest player on the court for the Wolves, who proceeded to beat the Clippers for their ninth win in the past 19 games even as Webber was somewhat legitimately ripping Thibodeau’s process.

The clear star of the game was Towns, who gave big credit and a shout-out to Dunn in the post-game interview.

The rumor mills continues to churn out Rubio trade tidbits. Dunn continues to prove that as a point guard, he’s a hell of a defensive shooting guard or small forward. Tyus Jones continues to make his doubters look silly.

And the Timberwolves continue to be the most compelling boom-or-bust future play on the NBA tote board.  

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 01/20/2017 - 12:05 pm.

    Ehhh…

    I don’t think I (or probably many others) realized how much of an evaluation year this was going to be for the decision-makers. There are good reasons why; they need to either max Wiggins and LaVine next fall or trade them while another team would find them to be an acceptable return for an All-Star. It’s obviously highly likely that they’re both maxed (LaVine getting 4 years to save one of the 5-year maxes for Towns), but playing them together a lot does allow for a lot of data about whether they need to think more seriously about trading either.

    The parts that are confusing right now center around those other young players. Why is Dieng considered part of the core while Muhammad was barely playing early in the year? Why does it seem like Dunn is a rubber-stamped member of this core when he was an old prospect in a weak draft and next year’s lottery is filled with superior PGs?

    As for Tyus, the only answer to his playing that makes sense is that they’re all-in on Dunn. Teams will always try to nurture physical gifts first. Tyus can’t grow 5-6 inches or add 6-8 inches to his wingspan, and it seems like Dunn could end up being one of the strongest PGs in the league with effective strength training. In a league where no one stops PGs, my guess is that Thibs sees a defensive advantage at a position that everyone else has punted on. It may not be a good answer, but it’s the likely answer. If they were in position to grab one of the top PGs in next summer’s draft, I like that option better, and they could easily regret passing on one of them to continue down this path.

    The question that comes in to play with all of this is how much basketball IQ can be developed and what are the ways to develop it. It seems likely that they’re locked in to this top 4 (with Dunn as the 4th) until the end of LaVine’s inevitable max extension, but it’s not a top 4 with a guy like the Giannis Antetokounmpo who forces his will on the game at both ends or even a guy like Jokic with a lot of clever and useful skills. They can supplement with veterans, but that only goes so far.

    It’d be remiss to overlook what a joy it’s been to see Rubio play these past few weeks. Zach Lowe wrote a lot of the same things you did in his column today. Between what Beasley said when the Bucks were here and what Muhammad and Rush said last week, there’s been a lot more Rubio appreciation recently. When his limitations don’t hamstring his game, he seems to control everything on the court. I think Muhammad deserves more credit than given for his role in those wins as well; for some reason, he’s on the units who defend the best (though that seems more weird than indicative of something important), and he runs like he’s been shot out of a cannon when Rubio has it in transition. If they had more guys run as hard as Muhammad does or Pek and Brewer used to in transition, this would be a much more fun team to watch. The bigs don’t even get back in the play to present a trailing 3 threat like Love used to.

  2. Submitted by Chuck Pratt on 01/20/2017 - 08:06 pm.

    OK, what could Thibs get for Rubio?

    I was at the Dallas game on the 9th, after going to the OKC disaster on Fan Appreciation Night last season, and it was obvious to me that Rubio can do everything except easily and consistently score…

    …so, given that the Timberwolves want KAT, Wiggins, and LaVine to be the superstars, a few questions:

    1 – Do the Timberwolves really need Rubio to score consistently in order to win?

    2 – If the Timberwolves trade Rubio, what would make sense for Thibodeau to look for in return?

    3 – The Timberwolves are way under the salary cap ($13 million under), and most teams are over it. Rubio’s cap number for this season is $13.5 million, and a combined $29 million for the next two seasons. Who can the Timberwolves get that makes salary cap and team building sense? And would Thibodeau willingly take on a salary dump from someone else?

    3a – Fansided had an article by Quentin Albertie suggesting that the Cavaliers and the Timberwolves do this trade: Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic for Iman Shumpert, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Mo Williams, I’ll let the experts pass judgment on that, but it looks better than anything the Kings could offer.

    4 – If Rubio goes, is Dunn ready? Looking back at the games I’ve watched this season, I’d say, shooting, OK (better than Rubio, not as good as Lavine), defense, good enough (not as good as Rubio yet, though, and better than LaVine), passing, adequate, but I’d much rather have Rubio (some of his assists when I was at the Dallas game would have been noticed had they been made at a Celtics/Lakers game from the ’80’s, and made the $14 per ticket x 2 price for section 212 a good entertainment value for money (FlashSeats worked, that included the add-on charges)

    As for Tyus Jones, he can definitely score, not sure about his passing, and his defense, it looked to me that he struggled in the Dallas game somewhat (getting through screens especially, it looked to me). If Tyus can get more minutes consistently if Rubio goes, that might be a useful benefit, to see how he does…

    5 – …then, could the Timberwolves sometimes run a three guard set, using KAT and a mix and match of Dieng, Bjelica, Muhammad, Wiggins, and/or Aldrich for the bigger two, and Dunn, LaVine, and Jones for the guards? (If that’s an option, then why not keep Rubio to rotate him in and out of the three guard set, as he’s the best passer the Timberwolves have?)

    I am afraid that the Timberwolves, if they trade Rubio, won’t get full value back…and we’ll be in a reversed Wimpy situation – again…instead of “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today…”

    …it will be “Pay for Murray’s Silver Butterknife steaks now, wait four years, and you might get the steaks (always through the first round of the playoffs, at minimum), or a nice pasta dinner at Pazzaluna (get into the playoffs consistently, and get bounced in the first round for a few years), or a Jucy Lucy from 5-8 or Matt’s (closer, almost into the playoffs, and seeing progress in building the team, and entertaining and .600 basketball at Target Center, including Rubio’s passing), or a sloppy Big Mac that was in the hold bin for 20 minutes (what we have had the past several years, and might wind up with, at best, through 2018, if we trade Rubio).”

    I won’t go back to Target Center, at any discounted ticket price, for the sloppy Big Macs…but I will go for the 5-8 with their onion straws (LaVine improving his defense a bit more, Wiggins not being the point person anymore, and KAT not trying to do too much, as he sometimes does – and the onion straws at 5-8, if they sold those at Target Center, they would be $25, there’s that much!)…and Timberwolves fans deserve Pazzaluna, at least, really soon.

    • Submitted by D Stern on 01/22/2017 - 09:50 am.

      Shooting Stats

      To contradict your eye test:

      According to bball reference:

      Shooting Percentage: Rubio .371 v Dunn .376, 3 pt Rubio .375 v Dunn .218 and free throw: Rubio %87 v. Dunn %61

      I’d take Rubio’s shooting over Dunns.

  3. Submitted by Fern Vander Hart on 01/21/2017 - 09:23 am.

    Thibs is definitely a bad fit for this team

    I was not a fan of Sam Mitchell, but at the end of last year he had the team playing together, running hard, playing with abandon, and actually winning some games. Thibs, with his perfectionism and rigidity, has taken the joy out of these young guys. He’s like a piano teacher who only teaches his students the technical elements of playing the instrument and demands they only play classical music, not allowing any fun pop music in the student’s repertoire. He is affecting the careers of guys on the bench who came to play (Rush, Aldrich, Hill) by using them so little. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bench that could gel because it got sufficient time playing together—should have happened earlier this year. Rubio could perhaps do better in terms of shooting if he wasn’t under the cloud of Thibs’ disapproval and under pressure to save his job. Thibs is hovering over everything with sternness and disapproval. I am just waiting for him to take out his ruler and rap the players’ knuckles. Bad fit for this team?? Yes, he is. Could we trade him to Chicago for Hoiberg, who seemed to do well with college age kids (not so much with the veterans)? I’m joking, of course. Just thoughts from a very non-expert but rabid Twolves fan.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 01/21/2017 - 10:51 am.

    Culture of losing

    Great article Britt. You did a great job of explaining a lot of the issues that this team has and why we have them.

    While I can understand the thought behind the “max learning” philosophy that Thibs has undertaken with the big three, I’m very concerned that the “culture of losing” will get into the psyche’s of the players. Its very frustrating to believe that with a couple of lineup changes Thibs could potentially still be teaching his players the game (or how to play his way) but win more games in the process. I think that a playoff series, even if it ends in a 4 game series loss to the Warriors, would do this team and the town good. Lets face it, the first time a young team gets to the playoffs it’ll probably end in a first round exit as they learn what the playoffs are all about. Why not get that out of the way this year and appease the fans in the process? As a season ticket holder for 12 years (yes..just missing the WCF year) I’d love to finally get to see a playoff game.

    Overall, the stubbornness that Thibs is showing is a gamble that had better pay off for him. I already (surprisingly) have more negatives on the ledger for Thibs than positives and a move like trading Rubio for Reggie Jackson would simply tip the scale over. While I’m a professed “Rubiobo”…I get that his weakness may be something that could haunt the Wolves when they do make the playoffs. So I’m open to moving him if you can get another peice of the puzzle. But if Thibbs truly think Dunn is the answer, trading Rubio for another PG seems very silly. Have Rubio remain the “bridge” PG until Dunn is ready. (Has anyone actually asked Rubio if he’d consider coming off the bench?)

    Great work as always.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Dorgan on 01/21/2017 - 11:09 am.

    Wolves Line-up

    I’m a fan and I feel like lots of others must: We are not seeing the best team that the Wolves could put out on the floor. We’re seeing the second or third best. It was a revelation having Brandon Rush play with the first team. The Wolves were actually a good NBA team. His affect on Rubio and KAT were immediate and dramatic. Suddenly, players were in position and (gasp) playing a credible defense.

    Yes, Zach LaVine is a genuine talent. But he and Wiggins are only part-time defensive players and are likely to remain that way unless Thibs begins to show that he is serious about putting a competitive team on the floor. Zach as a 6th man makes all kinds of sense.

    The idea that continuing to play the precocious three together is the best way to hurry their development as a cohesive unit is suspect. It certainly has not been in evidence so far.

  6. Submitted by D Stern on 01/22/2017 - 09:43 am.

    Thib’s Hubris

    There has been something that has bothered me about Thibs since early on in the season and I could not place it until recently. While he is a qualified coach, I think he has a very dangerous hubris about him and getting things done his way. Based on some of his comments to the media and in game coaching decisions, (sticking his pg in the corner, benching the bench, refusal to ease minute restrictions, insistence on a system that seems ineffective, I could go on,…) I get this vibe of he thinks (and maybe he is) the smartest guy in the room. I wonder how much of a listener he is? How much of this is pride?

    The point guard thing highlights this for me. Ricky plays a fantastic stretch and can barely get a compliment, while Dunn plays 9 minutes in a game and commits 3 fouls and gets a far kinder word than Ricky ever would. Tthing about Ricky is he gets his teammates open shots and truly facilitates for the other players. Britt, do you think his early season reluctance to shoot was based on a need to try and facilitate and bring some calm to the offense? I don’t think Ricky needs to score 16 ppg on this team. In fact I would rather he didn’t, but he does need to be around 10 ppg.

    This rumored Reggie Jackson trade has me in despair. I cannot imagine a worse point guard for this team. Not to mention the salary increase increase in dollars and size, defensive downgrade, and potential chemistry issues. Yikes.

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