I thought up a good ‘Sports Jeopardy‘ question category after watching last night’s Timberwolves-Sixers game. It would be called “Point Guards With Who?” with the following questions:
$100: “John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, and Steve Kerr.”
$200: “Derek Fisher and Smush Parker.”
$300: “Mo Williams, Mario Chalmers, and Kyrie Irving.”
$400: “Jason Williams, Mario Chalmers, and Goran Dragic.”
$500: “Darrell Armstrong and Rafer Alston.”
You probably know that the first answer is “Who is Michael Jordan?” You probably know at least the next two as well, but I’ll save the answers for the bottom of the post in case you feel like playing.
The basic idea here is that all-time great wing players usually pair next to more ordinary — “trivial” even — point guards. This is due to a couple of very basic reasons. The first is that teams only have so much money to spend on talent, and the best ones distribute it to a mix of backcourt and frontcourt players. Generally speaking, it’s better to have one great guard and one great big man than it is to have an All-Star backcourt. The second is the adage that “there is only one ball,” and most teams have a primary playmaker who initiates the offensive sets. When that player is a wing, the point guard takes on the less crucial and more forgettable task of spotting up for jumpshots and playing off the ball.
We are witnessing a transformation of the Timberwolves as we’ve come to know them.
Since his ballyhooed arrival in 2011, Ricky Rubio has been the Wolves’ playmaker. He has run their offense as a pass-first point guard. While his lack of scoring bothers some pundits, there is no denying that Ricky’s vision and anticipation make up for a lot of his other shortcomings. The team has always performed well offensively with Rubio leading it. They probably would’ve made the playoffs once or twice if they weren’t bit so hard by the injury bug.
A major problem for this team, however, has been that it has lacked any playmakers outside of Ricky. When he suffered injury or even had to go to the bench during games, everything fell apart. In his early Timberwolves years, they had J.J. Barea slotted as backup point guard, but was clearly cast in the wrong role. In the past couple seasons, we’ve seen a mix of The Zach LaVine Point Guard Project, Tyus Jones, and even some comical emergency options like Corey Brewer and Robbie Hummel bringing the ball up the floor.
Nobody but Ricky has been able to reliably create good shots. Rubio’s importance has been so evident to anyone paying attention that it doesn’t even require yet another dissection of the on/off stats. The team has not been able to function without him.
It is this historical context that makes the early part of this season so fascinating to watch unfold. For the first time, we are witnessing signs that the Wolves have a second playmaker on the roster.
That player is third-year swingman Andrew Wiggins.
When Rubio was injured late in the second game of the season — a close loss at Sacramento — Thibodeau had Wiggins bringing the ball up the floor each time down, playing off of ball screens and attacking the hoop. He scored 7 points in a little over three minutes, tying the game and giving the Wolves an unexpected chance to win (they were down 7 when Rubio checked out). They went on to lose, but Point Wiggins was an interesting takeaway and possible silver lining to an otherwise frustrating defeat. We hadn’t really seen this before.
Since that game, we have continued to see more of this offensive action — usually in the fourth quarter when the pace slows down — where Wiggins has the ball at the top of the key and works with a ball screen to create his own shot. In a recent interview when he was asked about the change from the post (where he spent much of his time as a rookie and NBA sophomore) Wiggins said that he likes it on the perimeter because defenders can’t put their hands on him as much.
On Sunday against the Lakers at Target Center, we saw a culmination of this early-season progress. Wiggins scored 47 points on just 21 field goal attempts. The Wolves won by 26. Two nights later when the Wolves blew a big lead and lost to the Charlotte Hornets, it was only Wiggins who seemed to be playing well and up for the challenge of facing a strong opponent. He had 29 points and 3 assists, and seemed like the only Wolves player who could do anything down the stretch of that game.
And last night, in a win over Philly, Wiggins put together a total masterpiece for the nation to watch on primetime “NBA on TNT.” Again handling a lot of the primary playmaking duties at the top of the key and working off of ball screens, Wiggins absolutely destroyed the overmatched 76ers. He had 35 points on 14-20 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and 4 assists in +21 basketball.
After the game, Britt Robson asked Tom Thibodeau if Wiggins playing so well reduces the need for typical point guard duties. While the coach ostensibly denied the premise, his reasoning was the more enlightening part of his answer:
“Nah, I thought Ricky [Rubio] and Kris [Dunn] gave us good tempo, good push, and I thought their defense and ball pressure, swarming, multiple-effort, getting into the post, getting out, challenging shots, I thought that helped set the tone for the defense. But Wig can handle, it’s a different look too, so as we go forward we’ll continue to add more to that. And I think there’s situations in which we can have Karl [Towns] handling [the ball] too, but we really haven’t gotten to that yet.”
It’s natural for Thibs to brush aside the notion that his point guards are less important, but consider the way he explained himself. He talked about defensive responsibilities of his point guards and pushing the ball in transition, while acknowledging that Wiggins (and Towns!) are both capable of initiating offensive sets. This is spot on to what we have been seeing on the floor: Rubio leading fast breaks in the first half, before handing the ball over to Wiggins when the game slows down in Winning Time. This is an issue where actions speak louder than words, and it’s pretty clear for anyone to see that Thibs wants Wiggins to be this team’s go-to guy. So far, the results have been shockingly good and seem to be rapidly improving.
Wiggins is averaging 27.4 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting. That’s almost 7 full points better than last year’s career high (20.7) and he’s doing it with tremendous efficiency. While Wiggins is currently averaging just 2.5 assists per game, that number figures to rise as he continues to initiate the offense. He’s averaged 3.8 assists over the past 5 games, after averaging just 1.3 through the first 6 games of the season. (In the first two games of the season when Rubio was the primary playmaker, Wiggins had no assists.) Wig’s PER (23.0) and win shares per 48 minutes (0.170) are way above league average for the first time ever.
In an ESPN TrueHoop podcast yesterday, Kevin Arnovitz, Brian Windhorst, and our own Zach Harper discussed the start of the Wolves season. Despite the bad third quarters and disappointing losses, Arnovitz felt that there was more cause for optimism than people seemed to realize. He cited Wiggins as a main reason:
“If you told me Wiggins — who has been RIDICULOUS — was only gonna perform at 60 percent of what he has, but they would be 7-3, I would rather have THIS Wiggins and 3-7 than that Wiggins and 7-3.”
After last night’s game on TNT, the Inside the NBA crew had the “best young talent in the league” discussion. While Charles Barkley initially named the Utah Jazz as the best “top to bottom” collection of young players, he changed his mind to agree with Kenny Smith after rewatching the Wiggins and KAT highlights. He liked the Wolves group best.
When Wiggins sets up KAT like this:
Wiggins alley to Towns pic.twitter.com/jyCuEiIpuS
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) November 18, 2016
It is hard to resist thinking about dynamic wing/big man pairings like this:
Did I just compare a November highlight against the 2-10 Sixers to one of the most iconic dunks in playoff history?
Yeah, I guess I did.
It’s funny. Entering this season the biggest fear in Timberwolves Nation was that Thibs would fail to appreciate Ricky Rubio. He drafted Kris Dunn, after all, and it seemed reasonable to wonder if he might hastily change point guards before he even knew what he had.
We might’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe it wasn’t about which point guard was best, but rather:
Does it even matter who the point guard is when you have Andrew Wiggins?
***Answers: ($100: Who is Michael Jordan?) ($200: Who is Kobe Bryant?) ($300: Who is LeBron James?) ($400: Who is Dwyane Wade?) ($500: Who is Tracy McGrady?)