The Minnesota Timberwolves have emerged victorious once in their past nine games, a pair of four game losing streaks sandwiched around an overtime victory at home over the hapless Los Angeles Lakers. They began the season 8-8, with impressive victories over Chicago, Atlanta (twice) and Miami. Gripes about the team’s outmoded offense and Sam Mitchell’s rotations could be seen, but were mere flickers compared to the inferno that erupted a week ago, when the Wolves blew an 18-point lead in a loss to Denver.
A plethora of commentaries exist regarding what Minnesota ought to do with the offense, the coaching staff, and the development of the team’s three most important players: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns. What’s known: the Timberwolves do not shoot enough threes (16.7 per game, fewest in the league), especially corner threes (2.5 per game, dead last). They take too many midrange shots (28.5 per game, most in the NBA). Due to the lack of spacing, their sets often result in congestion or clutter, labored (and time-consuming) attempts to enter the ball into the post, or repetitive curl action designed to get ballhandlers moving down the lane and attacking the hoop (a fine idea, but one that’s been easily countered by clouding the paint with bodies).
Opposing coaches seem to make adjustments that slow down the offense, and the Wolves have no counterpunch. It either happens between the starting unit’s first and second stint (at home versus Denver on Tuesday and in New York on Wednesday) or after the halftime break (at Denver and Phoenix last weekend). Minnesota has found a way to make games interesting, but their dry spells leave their margin for error extremely low. Lately, they haven’t been able to overcome them, thus the angst about Sam Mitchell’s performance. There is little that can be said to assuage the fan who is certain he isn’t the right fit, but it i’s important to remember the difficult circumstances under which Sam ascended to the job. That doesn’t make him immune from criticism, of course, but as long as the ‘interim’ label sticks, there’s reason to suspect the team may take a more open approach to finding a long-term fit this offseason, when the time is right.
But in the meantime, as mentioned above, there are some very important young players to develop. The main criticisms with Mitchell’s handling of Wiggins concern his lack of threes (of course) as well as the repetitive nature of the plays called for him. When Wiggins shares the floor with Garnett, Rubio, and/or Prince (three non-scorers), everyone knows what’s coming: isolation post-ups and curl action that often leads to contested shots in the paint. He’s terrific at getting to the line (7.5 free throw attempts per game, 5th in the NBA), but putting all of the offense’s eggs in that basket (no pun intended) leads to low efficiency numbers for Wiggins, and some pretty simple defensive adjustments by opposing teams.
Regarding LaVine, it’s the same question that’s sparked debate among fans and writers since day one: is he a point guard? Is it helpful or hurtful to play him there, even for developmental purposes? Subjectively speaking, it feels like LaVine is improving; part of what hurts his standing as a point guard in the eyes of fans is the person to whom he is being compared. Ricky Rubio was put on this Earth to be a point guard; the Timberwolves organization is trying to mold the wet clay of Zach LaVine into one, which is a slow, messy process. A year and a quarter into the effort, it’s starting to take shape:
|Rubio v. LaVine|
|PPP||Team EFG%||Ast%||Threes/36 mins|
|Rubio at PG||1.018||45.2%||63.4%||10|
|LaVine at PG||1.038||49.2%||50.5%||14|
Also, the idea that playing with LaVine is bad for his fellow young players is overblown; in reality, the results are somewhat mixed:
|Eff FG% w/ Rubio vs. LaVine at PG|
|eFG% with Rubio||eFG% with LaVine|
Wings seem to perform better when LaVine is on the court, bigs do better with Rubio, and Kevin Martin struggles either way. Rubio is outstanding at entering the ball into the post, as well as making highlight passes to teammates standing near the hoop. LaVine, on the other hand, helps improve the play of shooting guards and small forwards who play alongside him, likely because they have more room to operate once they have the ball. Rubio’s man can zone up and help cut off driving lanes for the likes of Martin and Muhammad; when LaVine is out there, that option is risky, because Zach must be respected as a shooter.
Obviously, there are light years between them on the defensive end. Ricky Rubio has the kind of potential to be an All-NBA defender, while LaVine is still lost and physically overmatched at times. That fact should be considered by the vocal “LaVine HAS to play shooting guard, what are the Wolves DOING?!?” crowd. He’s overmatched against fellow point guards; imagine if he had to deal with checking opposing two-guards for 30 minutes per night? Until he grows into his body and adds a little bit more muscle, that seems unwise. And in the meantime, he’s showing enough progress at point guard to make the experiment worthwhile – even if he doesn’t fit your platonic ideal of what a point guard ought to be.
There’s little to complain about when it comes to Karl-Anthony Towns’ play, or even how he is being used. Through 25 games, he’s second on the team in minutes (behind Wiggins) and is averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game on 55% effective field goal shooting. He turned 20 one month ago. That’s INSANE, continues to be insane, and will be insane for the foreseeable future. He is everything the Wolves could have possibly hoped for, and the fact that the team has finally landed a top draft choice of their own who looks like the real deal, without reservation, is something to be celebrated.
That doesn’t stop a few nitpickers from picking their nits. The first complaint arises when he sits late in games in favor of Gorgui Dieng. Towns has sat the entire fourth quarter four times this season, and once checked out with 7:40 to go and did not return. Each time, Dieng played well enough to keep Sam from calling on KAT to re-enter. Each time, the Wolves’ starters dug the team a big hole in the early part of the second half, and each time Gorgui and his fellow reserves came close to clawing out of it:
|Date||Opponent||Result||When Towns exited||Score when Towns exited||Score rest of game|
|11/5||MIA||L||7:40, 4th||Down 65-81||19-15|
|11/25||ATL||W||3:43, 3rd||Down 64-67||35-28|
|11/27||@ SAC||W||3:30, 3rd||Down 63-67||34-28|
|12/1||ORL||L||3:51, 3rd||Down 58-72||35-24|
|12/13||@ PHX||L||4:38, 3rd||Down 61-73||40-35|
Dieng’s individual numbers in those situations are eye-popping:
|Total minutes||FGM/FGA||FTM/FTA||Total +/-||Per-36 min averages|
|58:28||10/16||10/10||+34||26 points, 14rebounds, 2.5 blocks|
While it’s true that developing KAT is the team’s primary objective, Mitchell still has a basketball team to run, and there’s something to be said for sticking with unit that got you back into what would have otherwise been a blowout. His defensive presence at the rim aside, Dieng has been very solid for the past month, and (I imagine) it’d be difficult to yank him when both he (and the team) are performing well.
The second complaint some fans have regarding how KAT has been handled is that he doesn’t get enough touches on the offensive end of the floor – that the team doesn’t run enough offense through him. But as the following charts show, Towns leads the team in elbow touches:
And post touches:
And paint touches:
Plus, while Towns has shown flashes of being a transcendent passer, making crisp decisions while whipping the ball across the court, finding cutters to the rim, or deftly dropping the ball over his shoulder to a wing player slicing through the lane, he hasn’t actually racked up very many assists – just 1.2 per-36 minutes.
While it seems as though Towns will someday be able to initiate offense at the elbow, while being able to pop outside to shoot threes, and put it on the floor a little bit, and run in transition, and guard four (or five?!?) positions effectively, he isn’t quite there yet, and he probably shouldn’t be asked to do a whole lot more than he is already. He won’t be able to buy beer until he’s a month into his second NBA season, and for all intents and purposes, he’s under team control (contractually) through at least 2023. There’s time.
Despite the angst, despite the desperation, despite the worry, it’s important to remember those two words regarding all three of the Timberwolves’ enticing young talents…