2016-17 Season, Player Analysis

As Wiggins Ascends, Need for True Point Guard Lessens

Photo: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Photo: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports

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:

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?)

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6 thoughts on “As Wiggins Ascends, Need for True Point Guard Lessens

  1. Assists per 100 possessions in the 3rd season of the players being compared: 9.1, 8.3, 5.8, 5.5, 5.2, and 3.4. Guess which one Wiggins is. A closer comp would be Dominique Wilkins (3.2). If they had more of a facilitator next to him at the 2 or 3 (more likely the 3 since those guys are easier to find in today’s NBA), maybe it works; however, he and LaVine aren’t good passers for their positions, so thinking that they can shoulder the playmaking load for anyone beyond themselves, short-term or long-term, is inviting problems against the best defenses. They’ve played 3 top-10 defenses so far. Wiggins’ numbers in those games? 10/24 against Charlotte, 8/24 against the Clippers, and 3/13 against OKC, his 3 worst shooting games.

    It’s been awesome to see what he’s done so far with his shooting and ballhandling. But if he and LaVine are the wings, the offense is going to bog down against good defenses and in playoff series if the other perimeter player isn’t able to make plays, regardless of what Towns provides.

  2. Barring injury, Wiggins looks like he can grow into any role on the court; especially if he really has the work ethic they say he does. I think he’s that smooth and talented. I also think LaVine can acquire a playmaker trait as well if Thibs coaches him to do so. He also has the ability. But having a true point never hurts. I think Dunn will take the reigns more sooner than later. Maybe not this year, especially if Rubio is not traded by the deadline. I think Tyus Jones is nice, too…

    1. This isn’t necessarily directed at you, but your opinion is similar to ones that I think many are using to justify dumping Rubio this season.

      Most great players have Wiggins’ work ethic,, and most of the guys Andy is comparing him to were more talented and continued to get better at passing. It’s not just about him catching up to where they were at that stage; it’s about catching up to where they ended up in their primes. Making decisions and throwing accurate passes aren’t skills like shooting and ballhandling that can be learned through muscle memory and drills; it’s more a skill like defensive awareness, and we’ve all seen his lapses continue there. As for Dunn, compare his passing at 22 to Rubio at 21 when he entered the league; one was finding wide-open shots for the core of a 17-win team (plus Derrick Williams and JJ Barea) while the other struggles to make simple passes to this talented group. It’s clear that Tyus likely has value, but he’ll never have the size or speed to be a full-time starter. There are enough doubts about Dunn that we can’t just assume he can be the PG of a good team. The difference between he and the other youngsters is he doesn’t have nearly as much youth on his side.

  3. Quite simply, there is no reason to run the offense through Wiggins, seeing how there is a much better passer and ball handler on the team. Use Wiggins on offense a lot. Pass to him in many areas of the court and situations. Do not run offense through him in lieu of a real PG.

    More to taste, man, point forward offense (not to mention iso) is boring. Man, open, ball movement, flowing offense built around passing is exciting. There’s no real reason to eliminate PG from your team offense as much as possible. Give the guys who need the feeds the ball, but don’t be boring for no reason. This point is mostly moot at the moment because Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine still are such underdeveloped passers. Still, I think the veiled threat here is that if Dunn gets a little more NBA ready soon he can take over for Rubio because due to our offensive firepower we don’t need Rubio-level play making. I reject this out of hand. Elite passing at PG is a secret weapon it is always best to have rather than give away. While Rubio makes plays with his passing, he also helps run the offense and defense, and defends well all without demanding any shots, only hoping the ball is in his hands long enough to facilitate. Sounds like a good deal to me that will help us get the most out of our offensive talent without demanding anything in return.

  4. It’s been fun watching the Wolves so far this year. Your points about the PG and associated playmaking role are well made.

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