If one were inexplicably in the mood to be charitable toward the Minnesota Timberwolves after they spat in the eyes of their followers during their recently concluded, hideously performed three-game road trip, there are excuses that can be dredged up to mitigate the excessive ego and sloth on display.
When the Wolves began the trip in Boston, they were on the fringe of the playoff picture, three-and-a-half games behind 8th-place Denver with only 16 games left to play. Midway through the second quarter, with the Wolves up by five points against the Celtics, reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica went to the bench with an undisclosed foot injury.
Bjelica had been extremely valuable during the Wolves surge after the All-Star break, logging more minutes than starter Gorgui Dieng. Minnesota outscored Boston by 11 during the 11:19 Bjelly played that night. But with his injury and Dieng’s foul trouble, the Wolves were hamstrung in the front court, a factor in their second-half collapse and 117-103 defeat.
Denver didn’t play that night, but Portland and Dallas were both victorious, launching them further ahead of Minnesota in the standings. The Wolves were now not only four games in back of the Nuggets with 15 to play, but they had to leapfrog two other teams as well. The next day it was announced that Bjelica was out for the season, due to what turned out to be a fractured bone in his foot.
So yes, losing a key, recently improved member of your core rotation at the same time your already dim playoff chances were flickering further away from reality was a dispiriting double punch.
Then there is the fatigue factor. Coach Tom Thibodeau has continued to impose an enormous workload on his two cornerstone players, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, at a point in the season when the schedule is clearly grinding down all of the NBA stars. Indeed, the proclivity of Thibodeau’s peers in the coaching fraternity to rest their marquee players for entire games — especially on the road, depriving paying customers in other cities from watching them perform in the flesh — has recently blossomed into a league-wide controversy.
Thibs has his own controversial methods, minted during his tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, of working his stars to the breaking point. And so it is that Wiggins currently leads all NBA players with 2605 minutes, and Towns is third overall, after James Harden of Houston, with 2580 minutes. During the three-game road trip, their workload actually increased, with Towns averaging over 39 minutes per night and Wiggins eclipsing the 38-minute threshold.
Return of the defensive buffoons
Let us grant, then, that the Wolves, and especially Wiggins and Towns, have cause to be both physically and mentally enervated. Apparently they decided to share that experience with their fan base, while dashing all hopes that this team was acquiring a sense of integrity on defense, by ceding a season-high 363 points over a three-game span in defeats at Boston, Miami and New Orleans.
All three opponents shot at least 54.4 percent from the field — collectively the accuracy was 56.1 percent. All three systemically dismantled the Wolves defensive schemes with ball movement, cuts to the basket, transition baskets and long-range shooting. Boston had 34 assists and only 10 turnovers. Miami had 64 points in the paint on 58.8 percent shooting. And New Orleans had 33 fast break points, shot 46.7 percent from three-point territory and racked up a whopping 75 points in the second half.
What makes this ridiculously sieve-oriented show of defensive ineptitude particularly worthy of scorn is the rugged caliber of play that immediately preceded it. In the first nine games after the All Star break, the Wolves finally flexed the sort of cohesion and comprehension required of quality team defense. They allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions, second-best among the 30-team NBA behind only the San Antonio Spurs, even as seven of their nine opponents ranked among the top 13 teams in offensive rating. Better yet, their core players — Wiggins, Towns, Ricky Rubio — were the ones spearheading the defensive stops.
Then — splat! Even if you count Tuesday night’s home loss to the San Antonio Spurs after coming home from the road trip (which actually improves the Wolves recent defensive numbers), Minnesota’s defensive rating over the past four games is 119.4 points yielded per 100 possessions. That’s an incredible 20-point swing from the post All Star break heyday, and a plummet from second-best to second-worst in the NBA.
Yeah, statistics can careen over the course of a long 82-game season. But anyone who saw the Wolves discover a crisp and exciting defensive identity immediately after the break and then viewed the pathetic semblance of pride and passion that became their defensive façade on the road knows this wasn’t your usual sine wave fluctuation.
Reputations at stake
The brief and predictably specious boomlet of playoff talk surrounding this year’s Wolves was always a marketing fantasy, a mirage pitched to a parched fan base trying to pretend that life could suddenly be a beach after a dozen years without a postseason appearance out here on the frozen tundra.
But that isn’t the only, or most damaging, deflation wrought by the recent defensive lapse. The supposedly smarter denizens of “Wolves nation” had begun to feel they could discount the 2017 playoff malarkey and still be justifiably excited about what the crystallization of Minnesota’s team defense meant to the long-term future of the franchise. They too were suckered.
And “they” weren’t alone. Just nine days ago, on the cusp of the road trip, I wrote:
In the big-picture, it was utterly predictable that a proven motivator and tactician like Thibs, working with superlative athletic talent and relatively high-character players like Towns and Wiggins, would eventually foster something special. But forgive Wolves fans if they needed to see it with their own eyes before totally buying its inevitability.
Well, forgive Wolves fans if they are still not buying.
The wise will preach patience, if only because such counsel can never be definitively rebutted on the spot. Ever since Wiggins and Zach LaVine came to the team nearly three years ago, we have heard how unprecedented it is to have players so young assume and absorb so much of the responsibility for the performance of a franchise.
The addition of Towns — even younger and more talented than Wigs and Zach —now nearly two years ago upped the stakes and the argument for letting youth have time to develop. The hiring of Thibs now nearly one year ago was deliberately meant to accelerate the learning process, especially in the realm of defensive capability. The newly installed head coach and President of Basketball Operations has dutifully made the development of his young cornerstones the abiding priority for this season.
Thibs didn’t sign any significant veterans in his first off-season on the job. Of the Wolves top eight in minutes deployed during this 2016-17 campaign, one, Ricky Rubio, entered the season with five years of NBA experience. Of the other seven, two have three years in the league, two have two years, two have one year and the last one is a rookie. It is a good bet that neither Brandon Rush nor Jordan Hill will be on the roster next season. Cole Aldrich, who signed a three-year contract last summer, is 11th in minutes with 505, just 33 of them logged since the All Star break.
There is some merit to this strategy. Thibs has been able to take the full measure of his extensive crop of inexperienced players, providing the most valuable among them with complete immersion in his methods. Meanwhile his restraint on the free agent market provides him with the financial flexibility to fashion his team for both short-term improvement and long-term development.
But the window of opportunity is beginning to narrow, and the upside of this team’s future, especially on defense, remains stubbornly vague. That nine-game stretch out of the All Star break against quality opponents was too lengthy to be illusory — the Wolves can indeed be, as Thibs puts it, “connected” on defense.
What the awful road trip put into italics, however, is do they have the desire and the character to sustain quality team defense? And if not, why not?
To be more specific: At the end of this October, the Wolves can offer contract extensions to Wiggins and LaVine or face having to match offers from other teams by allowing them to become restricted free agents. Wiggins almost certainly will be offered a maximum deal, averaging $25.8 million per season. LaVine, his season cut short by injury, will either be offered less or given a chance to demonstrate his worth post-injury next season. At that point, the Wolves could be looking at having to match a large tender for LaVine at the same time that they are maxing Towns on a contract.
Are there any reliably decent defenders among this trio? If so, why has their development in that area been so maddeningly slow and inconsistent under a renowned defensive guru like Thibs? If not, then what is Thibs going to do about it?
Some surprising numbers
You don’t have to have that sophisticated of an understanding for NBA defense to notice that Towns is frequently late on rotations down near the basket and that the defensive intensity of Wiggins waxes and wanes according to his implacable moods. The old-fashioned “eye test” also shows us that KAT and Wigs are incredible athletes with extraordinary quickness and leaping ability who theoretically should mature into solid, if not lockdown, defensive players. Indeed, the late Flip Saunders trumpeted their capabilities as “two-way players” at the moment he acquired each one, and each came into the NBA with a better reputation for defending than scoring.
But we now live in an age of analytics, involving increasingly precise and innovative ways to try to calculate player performances. Personally, I try to balance my “eye test” observations with a rudimentary-to-mediocre dive into analytics that doesn’t send me so far down the rabbit hole that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am also aware of the temptation to use numbers as confirmation bias to what I believe.
Add to that the difficulty of measuring NBA defense, which necessarily is more team-oriented and reactive than NBA offense. Because different coaches deploy different schemes that are themselves triggered by the reactive reads and communication frequency of different players adjusting on the fly, assigning “credit” or “blame” is exceeding difficult to do crunching the numbers.
With that dumptruck full of caveats in place, the defensive numbers for individual Wolves players, in and out of a team context, is pretty jumbled. But there are still some surprises.
For non-insiders like me, Synergy is the most sophisticated measuring system available. Through the first 70 games of this season, the overall defensive rank for Towns is that he allows .882 points per possession on plays in which he is directly involved, which puts him in the 65th percentile and slots him as “Very Good” on defense.
This contradicts the more basic team ratings for defensive efficiency that show the Wolves yielding 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Towns in on the court, a number exceeded only by LaVine among those who have played more than 100 minutes this season.
By the way, LaVine’s “overall defense” Synergy rating is .885 points per possession, putting him in the 63rd percentile and ranking him as a “Good” defender. Meanwhile, Wiggins has a “PPP” (points per possession) of .975, slotting him into the 22nd percentile and labeling him a “Below Average” defender by Synergy’s measure. Yet on the team defensive efficiency rating, Wiggins ranks as the second-best among the starters, behind Gorgui Dieng, at 109.2 points per 100 possessions, according to the stats page at NBA.com.
There are other discrepancies. Shabazz Muhammad is rated even lower than Wiggins by Synergy, a “Below Average” defender in the 17th percentile despite having the second-best rating in team defensive efficiency (behind Bjelica) at 104.6 points per 100 possessions.
Bjelly has a sterling 103.4 team defensive efficiency rating and a “Very Good” designation from Synergy while ranking in the 72nd percentile in overall defense, so perhaps his injury was a legitimately compelling factor in the recent collapse.
Synergy goes much deeper than the one-measurement gloss I have just provided, and there are some interesting theories to be gleaned by delving hard into the numbers. I lack the space, and, at the moment, the time required to validate the “expertise” of any conclusions I would draw from the data — maybe another column.
The greater point is that the Minnesota Timberwolves cannot get enough stops to deliver on the potential of their extraordinarily talented roster. They are currently 23rd in team defensive efficiency at 107.8 points per 100 possessions. Defense matters. The top six and eight of the top 10 in defensive efficiency are playoff teams. The lone team among the bottom eight currently with a playoff berth is Denver, the last eligible seed in the West and owners of a losing record.
Thibs is getting paid the big bucks and granted enormous clout because he has a long and impressive track record of inspiring great team defensive performance. He has a young and defensively recalcitrant roster whose most expensive players down the road are still unknown commodities on defense. How that dynamic shakes out remains the skeleton key to the future of this star-crossed franchise.