Still Searching: Minnesota Needs Time to Meet Its New Expectations

The arrival of Tom Thibodeau changed the standard in Minnesota, and the new roster is still trying to meet those expectations.
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The arrival of Tom Thibodeau in 2016 gave the Timberwolves a new set of standards, and with them, a certain cachet. It did not, in itself, create any sort of identity. We know this because one year (and one star) later, Minnesota is still searching. They play like a team that has heard what it needs to do but hasn’t yet absorbed it. The wrong instincts emerge at the wrong time, and even moves made with the best of intentions play out in overly deliberate fashion. Like so many young teams before them, the Wolves are in their own heads.

They won’t be forever. Already we’ve seen Jimmy Butler in the role of guidance counselor, doing his part in-game to ensure that certain mistakes aren’t repeated. The work of keeping a stout, synergic defense never really stops. It is an effort of perpetual tuning, continued long after the principals involved grasp the schemes they’re to employ. Every point of connection has to be reinforced, over and over, so that it might withstand the blitz of the NBA’s most punishing offenses.

Don't Try to Change Jimmy Butler

Minnesota isn’t there yet. Karl-Anthony Towns is still learning Jimmy Butler who is still learning Jeff Teague who is still learning Taj Gibson who is still learning Andrew Wiggins. The newness of the roster betrays itself. There’s a certain cruelty in pitting an unfamiliar team against the Spurs in their season opener, regardless of whether Kawhi Leonard is in uniform. Most teams won’t move the ball with the precision of San Antonio, demanding rotation after rotation without leaving room for a defender to blink. The triggers of the defense—the when and why that guide players to act as they do—won’t always be activated in such rapid succession.

It’s not such a bad thing that they were lined up against San Antonio, all told; the Wolves could do well with a reality check, lest they let their own hype get ahead of them. It takes only eyes to see that Towns is unlike any other player on the floor. Butler and Wiggins are a uniquely demanding pair that leaves nowhere for lesser opponents to hide. Their first lesson in playing together, however, came through the need to get out of their own way. The Wolves’ starting and finishing units were crushed for their defense, caught swirling between over-help:

And under-rotation:

It wouldn’t be fair to expect resolution of Minnesota’s long-standing defensive issues in 20 games, much less one. Let it breathe. Note that Thibodeau didn’t hesitate to sit Teague when his defense at the point of attack left the Wolves wanting. Keep in mind that Minnesota tried out Butler as a nominal power forward, making them even tougher to guard and even flimsier on the boards. Remember that Towns spazzed his way out of helpful defensive position on multiple occasions, sometimes inexplicably. All of this is worth monitoring, though it’s also well within character for a team with so much left to learn about itself. 

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Even the veterans of the group are absorbing new processes. Butler led in the opener, but led cautiously—affording Towns, Wiggins, and Teague their own opportunities to create. The balance between them is somewhat precarious. Minnesota has enough luxuries to survive an off-night from any of its central scorers, though it also has so much room for exploration between those four options. It’s clear already that Butler and Wiggins have the freedom to bring the ball up and initiate offense. That shifts what we can expect from Teague, whose previous work without the ball was grounded in an entirely different offense with an entirely different rhythm. Even Gibson, who played five seasons under Thibodeau in Chicago, is working from new spaces on the floor and stretching out to the corners in the process.

With those kinds of changes come inevitable snags. Even then, Minnesota’s talent will bleed through. There’s really only so much that any basketball player in the world can do to stop Towns. Butler and Wiggins (whose shot looked as confident as ever on Wednesday) are, even when less featured, the kinds of scorers who can chip their way to 20 points without anyone realizing it. This team—wobbly defense and all—is a handful. What it lacks in immediate chemistry, it can make up in the breadth of its advantages.