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.