The Minnesota Timberwolves will unveil their new logo design Tuesday night for the final home game of the 2016-17 season. It is the type of petty distraction —new upholstery on the deck chairs of the Titanic — that typically punctuates a lost campaign.
Six months ago, long-suffering Wolves fans believed they were beyond the need to be diverted to the window dressing and willing to focus their attention on the flesh-and-blood production out on the court. Today, longer-suffering Wolves fans know better.
The new logo should be an exhausted question mark.
The defining game of the Wolves 2016-17 season occurred on Sunday, when the team’s two cornerstones, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, each delivered a spectacular offensive performance with at least 40 points apiece—and Minnesota still fell to a Los Angeles Lakers team that is desperately tanking. (Due to the terms of a previous trade, the Lakers will lose their top draft pick if it doesn’t fall among the first three selections.)
The usual culprits — a lack of depth and fitful defense that was alternately clueless and lackluster — were primarily responsible for the defeat.
This is as good a time as any to flash back to my rosy season preview of the current campaign, in which I listed four specific reasons why the Wolves would break their playoff drought and compile a winning record. Two of those reasons were “Enhanced Defense” and “Depth.”
Let’s take a look at how, and why, that hasn’t happened.
No bench, no defense = precious little improvement
Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau substitutes less than any of his NBA colleagues. This season, the Wolves rank dead last in minutes played by non-starters. Worse yet, they also rank last in bench scoring per minute-played, putting them way behind all of their opponents in overall offensive production from the non-starters.
Nearly every team has a three-point specialist who can come off the bench for instant offense, or at least the ability to spread the floor in accordance with the “space and pace” style of today’s modern game. Not the Wolves, whose three-point accuracy from players off the bench is an NBA-worst 31 percent.
Some of this is a byproduct of injuries. Minnesota hasn’t been especially hard-hit this season, but the most impactful injuries on the roster have affected the team’s long-range shooting capabilities. Zach LaVine tore up his knee in early February yet still remains the Wolves leader in three-point attempts and conversions. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Brandon Rush, the most accurate three-point shooter off the bench.
More recently, stretch power forward Nemanja Bjelica was sidelined with a fractured foot in mid-March. Only Rush launched a higher percentage of his shots from behind the three-point arc than Bjelly, and while his accuracy wasn’t great (31.6 percent), it compelled opposing front court members to come out and guard him, spreading the floor for the offense.
The Wolves could have addressed this injury-related weakness by grabbing a three-point specialist out of the D-league, a common practice in the NBA. Instead, on the rare occasions when Thibodeau (who doubles as the team’s President of Basketball Operations) chose to supplement his roster from the outside, he chose veterans with more of a reputation for hard-nosed defense, in Lance Stephenson and Omri Casspi. They collectively are 1-for-11 from three-point range while in a Wolves uniform this season.
During the preseason, it appeared as though Thibodeau had assembled a nifty second unit. Center Cole Aldrich was a reliable veteran who could defend opposing big men in the low post. Rush and Bazzy Muhammad were wing players with decent size and were complementary in the respect that Rush could bomb from outside while Bazzy was capable of posting up in the low block and sprinting out in transition. The point guard, Kris Dunn, was only a rookie, but hard-nosed on defense and able to cede some of the ball distribution duties to Bjelica, who was a superb “point forward” as a Euroleague MVP.
But Rubio lost five games early in the season to an arm injury, quickly exposing Dunn as out of his depth as an NBA point guard, despite being a relatively old rookie at age 22. The transition to Thibodeau, the Wolves’ fourth coach in as many years, proved rockier than anticipated, and by mid-December the Wolves had lost 18 of their first 24 games.
At some point during that awful swoon, Thibodeau decided on a full-immersion strategy for his young core. Towns and Wiggins played fewer minutes per game in November than any other month. Ditto Muhammad, the only bench player whose minutes spiked in December. Meanwhile, playing time disappeared for the stabilizing bench veterans Aldrich and Rush.
Since the swoon, Thibodeau has never relented in his force-feeding of playing time for players he regards as his young core of talent moving forward. Wiggins and Towns rank first and second in the entire NBA in minutes-played, and LaVine is tied with Lebron James for the most minutes per game at 37.8.
The criticism most frequently raised by Thibodeau’s detractors during his successful tenure with the Chicago Bulls was his proclivity to burn out his best players with heavy minutes. There is some ammunition to this allegation on the Wolves, as Towns, Wiggins and LaVine all generally dip in production near the end of their rotations, if you break down their performances in five-minute increments.
The most important part of a full immersion strategy for a young core on the Timberwolves is obviously the development of a capable team defense. This has been the glaring flaw in the past two Wolves seasons in which Wiggins and LaVine were on the squad, which also encompasses last year when Towns was a rookie. It is also the area for which Thibodeau is widely regarded as a masterful teacher and tactician. Creating a respectable team defense is a prerequisite to becoming a playoff team and topped the reasons why Thibodeau was hired here.
It is also, by far, the most troubling aspect of this wretched season.
The general consensus is that the most accurate way to measure team defense is by points allowed per possession — often referred to as defensive efficiency or defensive rating — because it factors in pace of play. (Teams that slow the pace generally allow fewer points, but also deprive themselves of scoring opportunities. Limiting points per possession on defense is always a good thing, regardless of pace.)
In November, the Wolves yielded 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 20th among the 30 NBA teams. In December, they became even less efficient, ceding 110.6 points per 100 possessions, to rank 27th in the league.
January offered a tantalizing glimpse of a Thibs-related renaissance in the Wolves defense. He was playing the young starters heavy minutes and the immersion seemed to be working, as Minnesota ranked 10th in defensive efficiency at 105.1 points per 100 possessions while posting a winning record at 8-7.
It didn’t last. In February, the Wolves dropped down to 25th (111.1 points allowed per 100 possessions), stayed down at 23rd in March (109.6) and have plunged to 28th in April (a whopping 117.4, although in a small 6-game sample size).
Taken from different angles, the performance on defense looks even more discouraging. Even with a glorious nine-game stretch immediately coming out of the All-Star break, when the team had the second-best efficiency in the NBA, the Wolves defensive rating has been worse after the All Star break (110.6, 27th in the NBA) than before it (108.3, 23rd). And over the last 15 games, their 116.3 defensive rating is dead last, a full 3 points per 100 possessions worse than the 29th place Lakers.
Consequently, despite 80 games of full-immersion Thibodeau, the Wolves have climbed exactly one spot, from 27th last season to 26th this year, in defensive efficiency. (They actually have allowed more points per 100 possessions this season, but offense is enhanced around the NBA so their rating relative to other teams is a titch “improved.”)
My lofty prediction of a playoff season aside, the 2016-17 Wolves campaign was always regarded as merely a stepping stone to greater glory as Thibs the obsessive coaching savant spent more time molding the past two top overall draft picks and rookies of the year in the NBA in Towns and Wiggins. And in the daily scrum of the play-by-play, that’s the foundation upon which the future success of this franchise will be determined.
Folks can make arguments for including Ricky Rubio, the point guard who has upped his already impressive overall game to include league average scoring prowess this season; or LaVine, the uber-athlete who can get to the rim and is the team’s best long-range scoring threat.
But here’s reality: Tom Thibodeau has four years left on a lucrative five-year contract that gives him total control over the personnel and a dominant voice persuading owner Glen Taylor to go whole-hog on the payroll.
Andrew Wiggins is a freakishly quick and high-leaping athlete who can get his own shot whenever he wants it and is up for a contract extension in October of 2017 that will pay him $25.8 million per season over a four-year period beginning with the 2018-19 season. If he doesn’t get exactly that maximum offer, there is a near-certain chance he will declare himself an unrestricted free agent and another club would make him a similar proposal that the Wolves would have to match, or lose him for no value in return.
A year after that, the Wolves would face at least the same situation with Towns, whose first two seasons project him to be a Hall of Fame-type talent. During the preseason last October, NBA general managers named him the player they would most like to build a franchise with from the ground up.
Thibs, Wiggins and Towns are thus the Thee Kings of the Wolves future. They are inextricably tied to each other by the financial rules of the league and their foundational roles with the franchise. Can they synergize their extraordinary skills in a manner that elevates the Timberwolves, who have moved beyond the first round of the playoffs exactly once in their 28-year existence, into a viable championship contender? That seems less certain today than it did at the beginning of this season.
Yes, it is entirely possible that this indeed was a season when the inevitable growing pains and feeling-out process was on full display.
Before each game, the coach from each team comes out and meets with the media for a brief press conference. It is an occasion to hear just how much Thibs is revered by his fellow coaches. The best in the business — Gregg Popovich from San Antonio, Steve Kerr from Golden State, Rick Carlisle from Dallas; everybody really — express, in both words and tone of voice, how much they respect and admire Thibodeau’s methodology.
Towns, and to a lesser extent Wiggins, likewise are the recipients of gushing praise from some of the smartest and most dedicated minds in pro basketball. Wiggins just turned 22. Towns won’t get there until November. Yet what they have already displayed out on the basketball court has been magnificent, and precociously special.
But only playoff appearances, and then playoff series victories, will ratify and justify these prevailing high opinions. And right now there is a fine line between being a realist and a devil’s advocate.
Sure, Thibs and general manager Scott Layden were probably smart to keep their money hoarded during the free agency period last off-season so they had a better chance to fully evaluate what they had. But it nearly impossible to provide veteran locker room leadership when you barely get on to the court, and so Aldrich, Rush and Jordan Hill, already journeyman, had no clout.
Furthermore, the Wolves paid Kevin Garnett $8 million to go away; he is now coaching the big men under Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. Perhaps it would have been impossible, given the size and stature of the personalities involved and the storied history of KG’s tenure with the Wolves, for Garnett to take on a similar role here. But count me among those who firmly believes it would have made a huge difference on defense, especially with respect to the mentorship of Towns.
From the start Thibs has been himself, meaning he loudly indicates that he will brook no compromise in terms of preparation and effort and will emphasize the connectivity of team defense as his top priority. We saw it in his constant frenzy on the sidelines and in his take-no-prisoners statements to the media, and, presumably, his players, throughout the course of the season.
But the results aren’t there. Thibodeau operates in a pound-the-rock fashion, stressing constancy, demanding and expecting day-to-day improvement. But the effort and the connectivity have been anything but constant and the overall success rate has not been improving — if anything, the Wolves have regressed on defense. Thibodeau has made himself the only real voice of authority in that locker room but the message has not penetrated enough to compel compliance.
Then there are the defensive liabilities of Towns and Wiggins. Towns seems to be a capable on-ball defender, but he is chronically slow at recognizing and adjusting to rotations that are the meat-and-potatoes of team defense and he is more than occasionally slow at getting back in transition, in part because Thibs approves of his offensive rebounding. Bottom line, the team’s defensive rating with Towns on the court is the worst among the top 10 rotation players at 110.8 points per 100 possessions.
For Wiggins, the problem is lack of focus. Put bluntly, he takes plays off, especially if he seems to be out of the action on the weak side of the defense. But his focus in general seems to ebb and flow from game to game and play to play. He also has trouble guarding players larger than he is because he is relatively light for a small forward and would be better situated at shooting guard. When he is on the court the Wolves’ defensive rating is better than for any other starter but Gorgui Dieng, but still lousy at 110 points per 100 possessions.
More than two months ago, Thibodeau challenged his leaders, meaning Towns and Wiggins, to set the example on defense. He is still waiting for a positive response.
Through it all, Thibodeau, Towns and Wiggins have had nothing but nice and respectful things to say about their relationship. Most likely, each knows how vital it is not antagonize the others as they move forward.
But what Wolves fans need to see over the next two or three seasons is that Thibodeau’s fabled defensive methods have not become anachronistic in the space-and-pace NBA game that has evolved so drastically over the past three to four years. They need to see that both Towns and Wiggins truly want to become great leaders of a winning team, something that will only happen if they start walking the walk as much as they talk the talk about the need to become complete two-way performers.
There are many blanks that need to be filled in as the situation unfolds. But Towns, Thibs and Wiggins, in that order, will decide how popular that new logo ultimately becomes.