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Wolves win offers a welcome break from the miserable monotony of the season so far

The Wolves this year are like one of those doorstop Russian novels — only poorly written, with precious few plot twists and a predictably disheartening resolution.

Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns driving to the basket against Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut in the first quarter of Monday night's game at Target Center.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Pity the poor souls whose job it is to peddle tickets to games played by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

It is bad enough that the Wolves own the lowest winning percentage of any NBA franchise in modern history: .390, based on a 28-year record of 859-1,345. And it is apparently not enough that the team has not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season. No, for at least the past five seasons, the Wolves have underperformed even cynically modest expectations.

In that regard, the 2016-17 campaign has been especially excruciating. The Wolves strode into this season with the past two Rookie of the Year winners, a two-time slam dunk champion, another lauded draft pick, and the most coveted coach on the market agreeing to run the team for the next five years.

The odds makers in Vegas, who prioritize smart money over partisan emotions, pegged the over/under betting line on the Wolves’ win total at 40.5, which would represent a nifty jump up from the 29 victories lodged in 2015-16. Rounding down, it would compute to a 40-42 mark over the 82-game season, a .488 winning percentage that would equal their best finish in a dozen years.

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Instead the Wolves are 12-26, a .316 winning percentage that once again places them among the five worst clubs in the 30-team NBA.

What makes this particularly galling is the ongoing close proximity of promising potential and pratfall performance. Wolves fans are appropriately burned out on legitimate hype.

The fact is that Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns earned their Rookie of the Year awards. And Zach LaVine has progressed from a slam-dunking novelty into multifaceted scoring threat at shooting guard, making him one of the better-value picks in the 2014 draft. Few if any franchises have ever been able to boast of having three extraordinary athletes with such preternaturally advanced offensive skills who have all yet to blow out 22 candles on their birthday cakes.

Towns, Wiggins and LaVine are quick, coordinated leapers liable to lift you out of your seat with a thrilling play at any time. The collective presence on the roster makes it no mystery why the Wolves fill 93.4 percent of the available seats when they go on the road, the 11th best draw in the NBA.

At Target Center, however, the Wolves put fannies in just 71.4 percent of the seats, a home attendance capacity that ranks ahead of only Denver and Detroit. Part of that apathy is a decade-plus of missing the playoffs, but part of it is the numbing repetition of losing, right now, more than twice as often as the team wins.

The “Big 3” merit the hype, but all the glitz in the world won’t obscure the sins of their youth, which include a melodramatic lack of focus and composure and a stubborn refusal to appreciate that they will continue to be mock-worthy underachievers until they learn how to play team defense.

As the losses mount at an aggravating rate and volume, it is hard to remember that youth, or lack of experience, really is a viable excuse. Eight of the 30 NBA teams are currently winning at least 60 percent of their games. All of them have at least one starter who has been in the league at least 10 years. All but one of them — eighth-best Memphis — have at least four of their five starters with four or more years of NBA experience, and Memphis would qualify if Chandler Parsons were healthy.

By contrast, the Wolves most grizzled veteran starter, Ricky Rubio, has five years’ experience, followed by Gorgui Dieng with three, Wiggins and LaVine with two, and Towns with one. Compounding the carnage wrought by this callow assemblage is the fact that Thibodeau is the Wolves’ fourth head coach in the past four years. Core players who are still trying to get accustomed to basketball played at the highest level have had to learn a new system every season along the way.

Whether Thibodeau understood the enormity of his challenge coming into the job or not, he has never faced this type of adversity, this broad-based weaning gap between gaudy potential and gruesome reality. His response has been a strategy of total immersion to fast-forward the development.

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The quintet of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng and Rubio have logged a total of 720 minutes together thus far this season, far and away the most frequently deployed five-man lineup in the NBA this season. Second-place goes to the starters in Washington at 604 minutes, then down to 447 minutes for the Clippers’ starters, and 395 minutes in Oklahoma City.

But here’s the rub: The Wolves quintet are minus 50 on the court together versus the opposition. Compare that to Washington’s plus 110, the Clippers’ plus 137, or OKC’s plus 33. Among the eight most frequently deployed five-man units in the NBA, the one from the Wolves is the only one that yields more points than it makes.

What that means is that Wolves fans see the same group of players collectively fail night after night as Thibs force-feeds trial-and-error again and again.

But wait! It gets worse.

Pretending to be a good team

The failure is not mercifully swift and decisive but tragicomically cruel, at once haphazard and predictable. Because for long and frequent stretches, the Timberwolves pretend to be a good team.

Consider that coming into Monday night’s contest at the Target Center, both the Wolves and their opponent, the Dallas Mavericks, possessed records of 11 wins and 26 losses. But while the Mavs clearly deserved that ugly winning percentage, having been outscored by a whopping 202 points in those 37 games, the Wolves were a mere 66 points behind their opponents over the course of the season. After beating the Mavs by 9 Monday night, they are now 12-26, with a net point differential of just minus 57.

There are 12 teams with worse point differentials per game than the Wolves, but only four of them have lower winning percentages. There is a statistic devised by the seminal baseball analyst Bill James, known as Pythagorean expectation, that calibrates what the typical record of a team should be based on the amount of runs (points) it scores compared to the amount it allows. This season, the Wolves’ Pythagorean record thus far is 17-21 — good enough to bag the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Pythagorean record is an indicator of the beguiling raw talent on the Wolves roster. The real record is a reminder that this squad is decidedly not ready for prime time.

But Thibodeau is hell-bent on getting them there as soon as possible. Hence, the Wolves have three of the five most-deployed three-player combinations in the NBA; a parlay involving Gorgui Dieng and the Big 3. Dieng-Towns-Wiggins is the second-most trio in minutes at 1012; just ahead of the Big 3 at 992 minutes together, with Dieng-LaVine-Towns ranking fifth at 941 minutes.

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Again, it is revealing to look at plus/minus, which can be a specious stat over the course of a single game or similarly small sample size, but a more reliable barometer when you are in the 700-1,000 minute range. Dieng with Towns and Wiggins is minus 7. Dieng with Towns and LaVine is minus 51. The Big 3 together are minus 71.

Let’s connect the dots. The future of the Wolves franchise would seem to be their precociously talented but still very inexperienced trio of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine. In order to hasten their development, Thibs is playing them together an extraordinary amount of time. And in the short run, their collective inexperience — and, one could argue, their redundancy of skills and their need to sort out a proper pecking order — is hurting this team. The Wolves are minus 71 in the 992 minutes they are on the court together. The Wolves are plus 14 in the 842 minutes they don’t play together.

But even this plus/minus differential doesn’t lay out the full extent of the pain on this learning curve. Just on the basis of points scored and allowed, the Wolves are a playoff team (albeit a terrible one squeaking in at the tail end of a top-heavy conference).

What practically every Wolves fan knows — so we’ll spare you the raft of confirming statistics — is that the team routinely forfeits big leads and is especially lousy in the clutch. Or, put bluntly, they lose their focus and then lose composure. Over and over again. That is what young, inexperienced players do.

Thibs has determined that he will trade the losses for the hastened experience up the learning curve. But for fans, especially those laying down good money to patronize this franchise, this process is a recipe for cynicism.

Sure, there are die-hards who understand what is going on, who take succor in the dazzling slam dunks and nifty layups in traffic, the sky-walking rebounds and blocks and the sweet, rainbow jumpers. But even those folks can’t help feeling like Charlie Brown and the proverbial football being snatched away when they inevitably get invested in the outcome of the game.

Bottom line, because the team is so young and so relatively healthy, loyal fans are treated to the same cast of characters yielding mostly the same result. It gets tedious, like one of those doorstop Russian novels — only poorly written, with precious few plot twists and a predictably disheartening resolution.

Bjelly, Bazzy and Tyus, oh my!

That’s why Monday’s win over Dallas was such a uniquely satisfying tonic, a break from the monotony not only via the victory but in the variation of players most crucial to securing it.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is usually not prone to boneheaded gambits, but by not double-teaming Towns and starting a dreadfully slow frontcourt of Andrew Bogut and Dirk Nowitzki, he paved the way for Towns to pour in 20 points in the first eight minutes en route to a 33-19 Wolves lead at the end of the first quarter.

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But it’s become a semi-serious joke that a double-digit advantage amounts to a death wish for these Wolves, and after building the lead back up to 21, they saw it sliced to seven at halftime, largely because Nowitzki buried three treys over Dieng in the final two minutes of the second quarter.

The halftime stats revealed notable performances by two players off the bench. Stretch power forward Nemanja Bjelica was the more flexible and thus better defender to combat the scoring frontcourt tandem of Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes; Bjelly was plus 11 in 10:39 despite scoring only three points. The other valuable sub was Bazzy Muhammad, whose offensive aggression overwhelmed first rookie Dorian Finney-Smith and then second-year pro Justin Anderson. Bazzy had 7 points and was plus 12 in 11:42 of the first half while holding his counterparts to two points.

In the third quarter, it looked like the Wolves were yet again going to fall apart. Indifferent defense fueled a 17-4 Mavericks run over a 7-minute stretch that reduced the lead to three at 71-68. But Towns, quiet since the first quarter, muscled in a layup, buried a 17-footer and blocked a shot that led to a Bazzy rebound and subsequent Bazzy slam off a feed from Bjelly.

Thibs wisely played Bjelica the entire fourth quarter and likewise extended Bazzy’s run halfway into the final frame. But there was a third crucial sub during crunchtime — Tyus Jones, deployed as a shooting guard.

In terms of sheer results, Tyus, the youngest player on the Wolves roster, has also been the team’s most positive contributor. His future status in the Wolves rotation is a subject that deserves its own column — others are probably writing it now — but for the moment, he is stuck firmly to the bench as the third-string point guard behind the steadily veteran presence of Ricky Rubio and the remarkable on-ball defense of Thibs’ favorite, rookie Kris Dunn. Before Monday night, Tyus had played exactly four seconds in the Wolves’ previous six games.

But 51 seconds into the fourth quarter, LaVine pulled up with a grimace and simply started walking from the court to the Wolves locker room. Later it was reported that he suffered a hip contusion.

It was an exceedingly rare circumstance where Thibs couldn’t deploy his Big 3 as another lesson in learning how to play under the heightened strain of the fourth quarter. With Dallas using an unconventional lineup of their top scorers on the front line and three ball-handling guards in the backcourt, the coach opted for Tyus over veteran Brandon Rush to play beside Rubio.

And, as he has done all season, Jones delivered. Normally the floor general, he ceded that assignment to Rubio — whose vintage fourth quarter brilliance included 9 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals to go with his 3 turnovers — and admirably filled in as the shooting guard. Jones had zero assists but nailed all three of his shots, including a three-pointer on a feed from Towns that Thibs declared afterward was his favorite play of the fourth quarter. He also had an offensive rebound and a steal, didn’t force anything, and played capable defense.

Bjelly, Bazzy (a game-best plus 17) and Tyus were the fresh faces in the crunchtime cauldron. The Wolves won for the 12th time in 38 games despite Wiggins and LaVine combining for just 18 points.

Big decisions for growth or bust

Will this boomlet signal a change in the rotation? Not likely, assuming that LaVine regains his health quickly. Thibodeau is playing the long game. At the very least, he is gaining all the info he can for some extremely consequential decisions at the end of this decision, if not at the trading deadline in February. He must determine if the Big 3 can indeed function together. If so, he needs to know what kind of players best complement them. If not, which player needs to be moved.

Huge stakes are involved. Sooner or later, this franchise has to make good on its potential. Otherwise, the young core will leave, and some fat cat in Seattle or elsewhere will buy out the Target Center lease and take the team elsewhere.

That’s a scenario even more dreadful to local hoops fans than the wretched play we’ve watched lo these many years, including this literally star-crossed season.