Still Waiting... When Will The Wolves Break Through?

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Tuesday March 28th, 2017

One of the perks in a team slow-playing its cap space to rely heavily on young players—as the Timberwolves did going into this season—is the sheer scope of its evaluation. We’ve literally seen more of Andrew Wiggins this season than any other player in the league, while Karl-Anthony Towns has logged just 17 minutes fewer. Two of Minnesota’s lineups rank in the top 12 in minutes played. One can find a similar prevalence when breaking down lineup data at any increment; there is more tape on how the young, core Wolves have played together this season than virtually any other combination of players in the NBA.

And yet what have we really learned about Minnesota’s future save for its deferral? There won’t be a winning ledger or a playoff berth for the Wolves at the end of their first season under Tom Thibodeau. Whatever breakthroughs they’ve had came in fits and starts, each rolled back in time as winning patches sprung losing streaks. Eureka has proven elusive; the moments that everything seemed to come together have, in retrospect, preceded some of Minnesota’s worst backslides. The youngest team in the league, it turns out, can hardly escape the inconsistencies of its station.

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The broadest trends tell us where things fell apart. Over certain 10-game samples, the Wolves have made runs to meet playoff standards. Just earlier this month they beat the Jazz, Clippers, and Warriors in a little more than a week’s time. Some of that stretch was indicative of real development in Minnesota’s play (Towns’s recent tear, for one, is as important as it is inarguable), but the team’s defensive performance could hardly outrun its regression to the mean. Thibodeau’s club turned a corner coming out of the All-Star break only to turn another soon after, offering up brilliant coverage and dead weight in such equal measure to end up right where they started. Roughly half a point per 100 possessions is now all that separates the Wolves’ pre- and post-All-Star defense, according to NBA.com

Six straight losses will do that. In those games, Minnesota—one of the slowest-paced teams in the league—has surrendered 120+ points three times and 110+ points five times. They allowed the Lakers, who are trying their damnedest to lose games, their highest point total (130) of the season.

Letdowns are inevitable in the slog of an 82-game slate. What teams like the Wolves need in spite of them are some other through lines of progress. Even if the decision-making on defense isn’t perfect, a coach like Thibodeau wants to see the commitment and the focus that might eventually get it close. In lieu of ideally timed rotations, Minnesota might draw some satisfaction from players making a smart read after an initial breakdown. A team this young can only work towards trends in the hopes of making them habits.

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Unfortunately, the overall trends of the Wolves’ season speak largely to their inability to sustain. That evidence can be damning in this kind of volume, even for a group anchored by 22-year-olds. The talent in play is obvious. Towns has the all-around game to unlock systems. Wiggins seamlessly blends agile changes in direction with the physicality of bully ball. Zach LaVine, sidelined now by a torn ACL, shoots so effortlessly that teams second-guess whether to surrender the lane to an unbelievable dunker.

Yet of all the three-man combinations to log at least 1000 minutes this season, Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine were the absolute worst defensively. Parse out LaVine and you’ll still find any other combination of top Timberwolves near the bottom of the pile. Filtering for after the All-Star break shows some reasonable improvement, but still finds the defense of lineups featuring Minnesota’s three best players (Towns, Wiggins, Ricky Rubio) swimming in the league’s sewers.

Most of the noticeable issues with the offense have resolved gradually. Rubio has again taken on a substantial creative role, one allowed by the fact that he’s more willing to shoot now than he was earlier in the season. Wiggins seems to have thrived posting up and running pick-and-roll in more simplified arrangements. Towns has found the balance of flexing his versatility without losing sight of his clearest advantages.

Minnesota has the basis of a solid offensive team, with LaVine or without. Going without, however, only demands more of Towns and Wiggins at a time where their defensive investment is far from guaranteed. Some allowances can be made for big-minute players in high-usage roles to pace themselves over the course of a game—or to wear down through exhaustion. What’s going on in Minnesota appears less willful; the follow-through on Towns’s rotations is so spotty and the focus in Wiggins’s defense is so erratic as to create compounding problems. A system predicated on informed anticipation has too often become last-minute guesswork.

Those two, though central in most every regard, are far from the only culprits. Over-help and slow closeouts have made Minnesota one of the most vulnerable spot-up defenses in the league. The Wolves are equally bad in allowing opponents to get out in transition and affording them open, efficient shots once on the break—despite the fact that Thibodeau told MinnPost’s Britt Robson that he’s had to spend more practice time on transition defense with the Wolves than any of his previous teams. Minnesota starts games big, too, without many of the discernible defensive benefits in playing that way. This isn’t a problem of prioritization; even Minnesota’s better defenders too often get tangled as possessions wear on, collectively reaching a point where they don’t contest shots, protect the rim, or rebound misses all that well.

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Expecting a playoff leap from Minnesota this season underestimated both the lapses of youth and the shallowness of an untouched roster. Still, it seems fair to judge the Wolves based on what they’ve shown themselves to be capable of at times. The problem is, thus far they appear uninterested in proving it consistently. In his interview with Robson, Thibodeau explained his evaluative process in just this kind of situation: 

…the first thing I ask is, ‘Are we doing it hard enough?’ And then, ‘Are we executing it properly?’ And if the answer is yes to those two things and it is not working, then it is time to change it. But if the answer is no we are not doing it hard enough or we are not executing it properly, then I want to stay with it so I can get the answer.

Thibodeau, after 72 games, is still waiting.

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