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Was sacrificing wins in order to let the ‘Big 3′ mature Thibs’ plan for the Wolves all along?

It didn’t seem like it in the preseason, but a wretched start to the season perhaps reordered Tom Thibodeau’s priorities.

It is by now clear that Tom Thibodeau has opted for full immersion as his development strategy.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

It is tempting to refer to the 2016-17 Timberwolves season thus far as a roller coaster: stupendous plays made with thrilling athleticism mixed with the boring predictability of brain-dead nervous breakdowns just when the fundamentals of teamwork are required to secure a victory.

Depending upon the frame you put over the proceedings, the contrasts can be particularly stark. The Wolves thumped the similarly young and spry Milwaukee Bucks Friday with a glittering array of offensive highlights that produced 18 assists and only two turnovers in the second half. On either side of that gem were fetid embarrassments of indifference and incompetence, resulting in blown leads of at least 13 points in eventual losses to lousy opponents from Denver and Portland.

Elevate the perspective up to a broad, overhead view, however, and you see that the roller coaster is more accurately a kiddie ride. The many thrills are dazzling enough, but rendered with the immature glee of short-attention spans preferring to linger in the revelry of the moment rather than parlay the energy boost into a recommitment to the mundane fundamentals.

When faced with adversity, these Timberwolves don’t keep their focus and composure; they tromp the throttle and risk heroic short-cuts, bent on rapid rescue instead of step-by-step stabilization. Consequently, at best, their season becomes a sweepstakes for tots, an endorphin highlight reel in lieu of durable achievement, where a signature win occurs in Charlotte, or at home against Milwaukee. Elite opponents toy with these Wolves, deciding on their own terms when to snatch the win.

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The supposedly wise counsel to long-suffering Timberwolves fans is continued patience. In Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, the franchise boasts three exceptionally talented players who are all currently just 21 years of age.

Logic stipulates that there will be growing pains, trials by fire that will sear the lessons of what it takes to succeed at this highest level of hoops into the DNA of their approach to and attitude about the game. Sure, the failures are frustrating for all concerned, but the fantastic gaps between the highlights and the bottom line are part of a time-honored process. The learning curve is as inexorable as the decaying curve that befalls aging athletes on the other side of the career spectrum.

That’s the spiel from the level-headed sages, anyway. For those who watch these Wolves, however, it still feels like the “Big 3” are, for various reasons, incredibly slow learners.

Slow reboot or stunted development?

Even those who can rightfully take smug satisfaction from cautioning folks that this season’s Wolves weren’t ready for prime time did not likely envision a two-month intro where the ball club lost more than twice as many games as it won.

Coming into the season, there were tangible reasons for optimism, most concretely the team’s 15-17 record over the final 32 games of the 2015-16 campaign. That was the one where the sages were reminding us that the Big 3 were just 20 years old; the one where the grouchy and much-maligned Sam Mitchell was the interim coach and Milt Newton handled the personnel with his hands tied as the franchise sought to clear its head and regain its equilibrium after the tragic and sudden death of Flip Saunders.

That 2015-16 season wasn’t even completed before Mitchell was reportedly informed he was out the door and negotiations with current coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau were invited. The demanding and detailed Thibs seemed like an ideal elixir to hasten that learning curve for the precocious kids by administering a steroid-like dose of drilled fundamentals.

The first 32 games of Thibodeau’s five-year contract produced a won-lost record of 10-22, five games worse than the Mitchell-Newton denouement.

With the invaluable assistance of the Wolves’ stat guru, Paul Swanson, we can compare these two 32-game stretches. At first glance, what stands out is that the current Wolves offense takes significantly more three-pointers and significantly fewer free-throws than last-season’s edition. On defense, while the current team has been better at reducing the accuracy of field goals and three-pointers, they have allowed their opponents to get to the line far more frequently, resulting in a higher true shooting percentage (which weights the combined accuracy of threes, twos and free throws) than opponents managed in the final two months of last season.

More specifically, the Wolves shot 220 more free throws than their opponents over the final 32 games of the 2015-16 season. In the first 32 games of 2016-17, that margin had been whittled down to just 10 more trips to the free throw line. The gap was narrowed almost equally at both ends of the court, with the Wolves shooting 104 fewer and allowing 106 more than in 2015-16.

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This fall-off on offense is partially a consequence of Ricky Rubio’s diminished role initiating plays in the half-court sets. In the final 32 games of last season, Rubio shot 139 free throws in 995 minutes of action. This season, that number has plunged to 63 attempts in 847 minutes. Because Rubio shoots better than 85 percent at the line, this has cost the Wolves 60 points.  

Much of that has been recouped by the more frequent trips taken by LaVine (32 more made free throws) and Towns (23 more). It is interesting to note that Wiggins, who has been accorded more of the playmaking duties over Rubio, actually has made 21 fewer free throws than he did over a 32-game span a year ago, despite playing more minutes.

Other significant drop-offs occurred from Gorgui Dieng (46 fewer made free throws in 51 fewer attempts, despite 63 more minutes played) and Bazzy Muhammad (34 fewer makes, 45 fewer attempts, 154 fewer minutes).

On defense, it is logical to assume that the surge in trips to the line by opponents is a result of the Wolves contesting shots and rebounding more diligently. The effective field goal percentage of opponents (which factors in twos and threes without free throws) has dropped from 53.6 in the final 32 games last season to 52.8 under Thibs. And the rebounding percentage has noticeably risen from 48.8 last season to 52.2 this year.

But two things about this comparison should concern even those who counsel patience. One is that the Wolves are deriving less benefit from ostensibly better performance. During last year’s closing 15-17 record, the team was outscored by 90 points overall. In the first 32 games of this season, Minnesota had cut that gap to minus 66, yet at 10-22 had dramatically fewer victories to show for it.

The other area of concern is the relative lack of at least statistical improvement by the team’s two cornerstones, Towns and Wiggins. Towns’ numbers look remarkably similar to his rookie season in this 32-game comparison. In a miniscule 9 fewer minutes this year, he has one more rebound, the same number of assists, six more turnovers and six fewer steals. He has scored 25 more points but less efficiently, with a true shooting percentage that has dropped from 59 to 56.3.

For Wiggins, there is apparent regression. He has logged 51 more minutes and scored 30 more points, but with a plunge in true shooting percentage from 57.6 to 53. His assists actually fell, from 75 to 72 (in line with his turnovers, which went from 76 to 72), and while he has grabbed 28 more rebounds, he has 13 fewer blocks and a dozen fewer steals.

More significantly, Wiggins was plus 38 with a PER (a measure of total efficiency) of 17.69 in the final 32 games of last season. In the first 32 games under Thibs, he is minus 34 with a PER of 15.73.

By comparison, LaVine has made larger strides toward realizing his potential this season, earning the expansion of “the two cornerstones” into a legitimate “Big 3.”

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In 50 extra minutes, LaVine has added 138 points over last year’s 32-game sample. He has scored more efficiently, boosting his true shooting percentage from 57.7 to 59.8. His assists and turnovers per minute played are almost exactly the same, and his steals and blocks are down while his rebounding is up slightly.

In other words, LaVine is solidifying his role on this ball club. He is a scoring shooting guard who can space the floor with his three-point accuracy and get out and finish with a flourish in transition. He still has huge issues with his defense, which results in him having a lousy plus/minus mark and net efficiency rating.

But at this point, while his overall versatility and subsequent ceiling is probably lower than either Towns or Wiggins, his skill set is the best defined and most predictable of the trio. Yes, he is arguably being utilized more intelligently than Thibs is deploying Towns and Wiggins right now. But within his limits, the reliability of his virtues are a boost to the team’s plans moving forward. He is improving faster, if not yet further, than I anticipated, and if he can upgrade his defense to mediocrity, I will happily concede that I underestimated his value in the NBA.

Still part of the master plan?

Another thing that is striking about the 32-game comparisons is how little Thibs has deigned to supplement his core starters with steadying veterans coming off the bench.

In my optimistic season preview back in October, I wrote that “Center Cole Aldrich and swingman Brandon Rush are savvy veterans coming over from successful stints on winning teams. Both can step in with the starters and actually boost production under certain matchups.”

Nope. Aldrich has played beside Towns just 125 minutes this season, and has logged just 362 through the first 34 games overall. His usage is declining as the season progresses — he’s played 57 minutes the past ten games. That’s 57 more than Rush, who hasn’t set foot on the court since December 11 and has been in action a whopping 35 minutes since Thanksgiving. During huddles and timeouts on the sidelines, they and fellow vet Jordan Hill have clearly checked out in terms of seeking to provide a role, encouragement or other input.

It is by now clear that Thibs has opted for full immersion as his development strategy. Not only the Big 3, but the other starters are being fully vetted for potential synergies and corrosions in their teamwork. Thibs had made no secret of his desire to supplant Rubio with rookie Kris Dunn — asked to comment about Rubio during a stretch when he racked up 20 assists and zero turnovers, Thibs unilaterally presaged his answer by noting that Dunn was also playing well — but the coach has nonetheless accepted the reality that his Big 3 are best developed with a competent veteran point guard in the mix, and Rubio is averaging more minutes-per-game than he did a year ago.

Thibs has shortened his regular rotations essentially to eight players, with scoring specialist Muhammad getting 20 minutes and Dunn and stretch power forward Nemanja Bjelica about 16 minutes apiece over the last ten games. The oldest player among these eight is actually Bjelica, but he is a European import with only 1,600 total minutes of NBA experience. Dieng and Rubio are the other greybeards at age 26. Dieng has always been at best a capable glue guy, and Rubio’s role has been diminished in favor the kids this season.

Translation: Thibs is sacrificing victories for speedier maturity in his young core. The guy who controls both the payroll and the playbook, he was viewed with skepticism because of his “win-now” philosophy in Chicago. But flipped the keys to the franchise over the next five years, he seems determined to watch this callow core repeat their mistakes over and over, in silly defeat after silly defeat, until they get sick of it and batten down their composure and commitment.

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Was this the plan all along? It didn’t seem like it in the preseason, when Thibs created a formidable five-player bench unit with Aldrich and Rush anchoring the aforementioned three subs. A wretched 6-18 start perhaps reordered his priorities and helped him determine that if the kids were slow learners the lessons had to be boldfaced by the team’s status in the standings.

Whether or not Thibs knew the Wolves would succumb to pratfalls out of the gate, the Big 3 certainly were ambushed by their own ineptitude. The good news is that Towns seems to have absorbed the consequences of his early-season hubris and gone back to playing like the future Hall of Famer he appeared to be as a rookie. LaVine has grown. One would hope that Thibs is discovering that “point Wiggins” may not pan out.

In any case, it isn’t hard to see how the Wolves could have stolen two or three more victories by extending their rotation to develop stable roles among the bench unit, and plugging in key substitutions when the kids began to swoon on the court. Those two or three wins would have the Wolves in the thick of a desultory race for the final playoff berth in the bifurcated Western Conference, which has seven good teams and a host of suspect pretenders for the eighth seed.

If the Wolves somehow manage to make it, the Big 3 will be responsible. More likely, the kiddie ride will continue until April.