2016-17 Season

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

(credit: Paul Williams)
(credit: Paul Williams)

For a few weeks now, I have had Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times Bestseller The Tipping Point on my nightstand. The book investigates The Tipping Point Phenomenon and its premise is best summarized by its tagline, “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” I couldn’t help but think of the Minnesota Timberwolves first two games when I groggily glanced upon its cover Sunday morning, after spending the previous night watching the Wolves blow yet another double-digit lead, this time resulting in a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Many have tossed out reasons as to why the Wolves have ultimately lost the first two games of this sapling season – “Tom Thibodeau doesn’t have this team prepared”, “The Wolves are just destined to be terrible” – but the most prevalent reason is also its most obvious: the Wolves have struggled to do “the little things.”

There are two blatant examples, but let’s start off first with free throws. This one is pretty cut and dried. Last season, the Wolves were fourth in the NBA in team free throw percentage, connecting on 79.2% of their attempts at the line; thus far this season, the Wolves have connected on 42 of their 60 free throws, which is exactly 70%. For reference, that would’ve placed the Wolves only ahead of Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Detroit Pistons last season, all of whom had big men who were subjected to Hack-A-(insert surname here). Had the Wolves connected on 80% of their free throws so far this season (for math purposes, an additional six points to the season total), the Wolves very may well be 2-0. As Bill noted in his recap of the Kings’ game, YGTMYFT.

Luckily for the Wolves’ faithful, the team’s free throw woes figure to correct themselves organically. Andrew Wiggins is the only player who has his attempts in the double digits (25!) and is hitting 4% points below his career average, Karl-Anthony Towns has only attempted three shots from the charity stripe and has only connected on one, Ricky Rubio is 3/6, Nemanja Bjelica 2/4, and rookie Kris Dunn 1/4. The Law of Players Are Generally Pretty Consistent In Their Free Throw Percentages From Year To Year (leave it to academia to pen a clunky, yet accurate title) dictates that the Wolves’ free throw percentage can pretty much only go up.

The second example is a little more abstract and nebulous. Call it consistency, discipline, mental/emotional toughness, what have you, the Wolves have struggled with it. Both tilts against the Memphis Grizzlies and the Kings have seen the Wolves start off the game hot, building a double-digit lead, watching it slowly dwindle until halftime, and then seeing the team turn into a pillar of salt in the third quarter.

The argument could be made that this is the fault of head coach Tom Thibodeau, after all, the Wolves gave him an exorbitant amount of power and money to have this team ready to fight for the playoffs, right? That argument could be made, but it would be thoroughly misguided and reductionist. This is not on Thibodeau, but rather on the players themselves. In the, as he put it, “abomination” that was the third quarter against the Kings, Thibodeau elected not to call a timeout to calm down the obviously fretful Wolves, but rather let the team flounder and attempt to figure out how to stop the hemorrhaging on their own.

This decision was heavily criticized by the arm chair coaches of Twitter, but ultimately I think it was not only a good decision but the only correct decision.

Much like with a toddler learning to walk, you can’t pick them up off the ground and hold their hand too often, lest they become reliant on you to “fix the problem.” Great, heck even good teams, can “fix them problem” on their own most nights. Right now, the Wolves are still learning to walk in the NBA and, through two games, Thibodeau has said: “Figure it out.”

The trouble with having a team comprised of souls in their young 20s is that they aren’t always able to figure it out and fix the problem in the moment; that’s what film sessions before, during, and/or after practice is for. And often, just having experience in the league isn’t enough, sometimes this learning takes time, and when the team is going on its third coach and third system in three years, the time it takes to learn will mostly likely only be exacerbated. Consistency breeds consistency. “Fixing the problem” often takes split-second critical thinking and emotional intelligence to compose yourself when things are going awry. Speaking from personal experience, that’s hard enough for a 20-22-year-old to do in real life, nevertheless in a high-pressure situation on the basketball court.

I present this not as an excuse for the Wolves performance thus far, but as a truth. And, as with many other aspects of life, the “Well, Player X could do it when he was that young, why can’t Player Y?” argument doesn’t hold weight. People are different, people learn differently, and I have the utmost confidence that the Wolves will figure it out. But it may take time.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell offers these words on children and repetition:

“For younger kids, repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they not only are understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, I think they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth.”

Right now, the Wolves are children in the NBA. They are seeing the “show” over and over again. They are trying to understand it better. They are trying to predict what is going to happen. And so far their predictions have been wrong. As Andrew Wiggins said after Saturday night’s game, “We got to be tough the whole game. Our first two games, we started out the game punching them. We started the game aggressive. Then as the game went on, it slowly just went away. We took our foot off the pedal and we allowed them to get into position (to win).”

As it stands right now, the Wolves are predicting that if they come out and bop the other team in the nose at the beginning, the other team will wilt and the Wolves will win easily. That is a classic mindset of 20-something-year olds (I would now, I am one). Sometimes, the best lessons are the ones that contain the biggest gut punch and the Wolves have been punched in the gut twice to start the season.

Be patient. The kids will learn. They will be alright.

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6 thoughts on “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

  1. I think the ‘youthful figuring out’ aspect of the Wolves in the first two games is getting to fans because they spent all last season in that mode, but showed improvement toward the end. So far it looks like a regression into the earlier months of last season, mentally. Fans are also cranky to have a hyped team that’s not yet won. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch until we get that win and it makes us grumpy.

    I’m not real happy with the coaching so far, but this stuff takes time and we aren’t in a position to judge yet. But I will. So far our offense looks pretty stagnant. Rubio isn’t being used well enough to break down the D–too many plays with a quick dump off from Rubio, and he goes and stands in the corner while the guys waste the shot clock. The guys are a little tight and not executing like they need to, but we need more pick and roll, more movement and action, more set plays. We look aimless, improvisatory, stagnant. Much too iso heavy still. Too predictable. Too much aimless wasting of the shot clock without getting into a real set. Some of this is execution failures of young players. But we’re going to need more dynamic system offense at some point. Hopefully Thibs is working up to it. On defense, it seems we have a long way to go, but Thibs is slowly giving the guys the right tools.

    Specifically, I don’t agree with Thibs not taking a timeout during the 3rd quarter meltdown. We are trying to win games here not create opportunities to be punitive. Teach the guys lessons in the film room. Let me put it this way–most good coaches would have taken a timeout in the 3rd meltdown to stem it, whether it be a veteran team or a young team.

    Other annoyances include the lack of halftime adjustments and not finding ways to force our strengths on opponents more. Oh, and we seem to be out of timeouts at the end of these two close games even though Thibs avoided taking some ‘settle down’ timeouts we could have used. Adjustments and subtle game plan strategy is hard to implement with such a young team, but I see no attempt at all from the coaching staff the make useful adjustments at halftime or prepare for how we can use our young athleticism (and Rubio’s passing) to pressure different types of teams rather than playing their game. Maybe it’s just the optics, but this stuff seems like it’s not even being attempted by the staff less than the young guys just not doing it right. I’m looking for this all the change quickly, and I’m not jumping to conclusions about this team. In all honesty though, I think most folks who follow the Wolves expected a little better product out of the gate. Thibs has a super long leash with me, but if I’m to be totally honest, he’s used a couple of inches of it in these two opening games.

  2. Change of direction is often painful… What we believe and what we are seeing is presently at odds. We believe this team has improved its roster – KAT/Dieng/Wiggins/LaVine/Rubio – all still becoming better – Aldrich/Rush/Dunn joining with Bazz and Bjelica gives us a stronger 2nd unit – add Lucas (for mentoring PG’s in Thibs system) – Payne/Hill/Jones for depth and the expectation that something will be worked out mid-season with PEK”s contract and this team is improved on paper. We believe that Thibs is an upgrade at coach – (yet our eyes tell us something different presently) – and it is way to early to judge the system based on how well it is put into play. Old habits/fatigue/mental weariness are perhaps some of the factors which explain the 3rd quarter meltdown – the fast start on the focus and discipline of the starters. The system will become 2nd nature – Thibs will become better at rotations (perhaps understand the fatigue level of his best players) and a couple wins will increase confidence. Some change will take longer – physical maturity – the experience of veteran NBA combatant, and the ability to make the big play consistently not relying on an emotional bust of energy will help this team. – Would we have been better under Sam? — My heart says we would have won one of both these games as our young studs understood their task instinctively – my head says, let them learn they system – I want 40+ wins, not just the first two.

  3. Ultimately you only learn by doing. Coaching only teaches you how to do it you still have to do it. Timeouts are best used to give teams a break and for setting up plays. Players play. The end of last year the Wolves learned how to play and they need to get it back.

  4. I haven’t been impressed with Thibs in game decisions either. However, KAT needs to be more physical. Get to the FT line and put his bigger opponent into foul trouble. Boogie and Zebo shouldn’t be able to push him around without getting charging calls. He and G, need to hit the floor a little bit and force the refs to make some calls. The offense needs to pass more and set up more open shots. Belly needs to get his act in gear and play some positive minutes for the second unit. Now with Rubio out, I think the whole team will need to guard against one on one basketball and keep the tempo fast and rebound as a team. Only two loses, but these aren’t the Warriors and Spurs we lost to. Hopefully, some home cooking will get the team going again.

  5. Mostly, this weekend just clarified for me that this isn’t a playoff team, but I wasn’t expecting that anyway. Here’s the concerning part, though: if the team’s going to shift their sets and playing style, it’s not something that will happen as effectively in season as it could have during training camp. They’re still by far the worst defensive team in the league while playing against 2 below-average offensive teams. So far, they look a lot like last season’s team with a few wrinkles and added skills, and it’s not like the rotations are much different than what Mitchell was doing. Playing LaVine with the 2nd unit isn’t exactly much different than the hockey subs from the past.

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