2016-17 Season

The Wolves’ Roster Is A Work In Progress

Feb 23, 2015;Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 23, 2015;Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Right around the end of November each year, people start discussing and evaluating each team’s roster, trying to find their holes that are in need of improvement. Being that it is the end of November, I figured now would be an appropriate time to look at the Wolves’ roster and determine the team needs that have presented themselves thus far.

Perhaps the most obvious need for the Wolves that has emerged is that of a veteran presence. By now it is well-known that the Wolves are a young team – three of their starters are 22 or younger, after all – but it isn’t just the starting lineup that is young. Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich, two of the Wolves first subs off the bench, are the ancient elders among those who play regularly (technically, Brandon Rush is the oldest at 31, but he’s sat out almost half of the games thus far in thanks to a toe injury) and even they are a youthful 28-years-old. Although the argument that the Wolves’ struggles are derived from the fact that they are young may be growing a bit stale among the fan base, it just simply cannot be denied. It is difficult to win in the NBA when your starting lineup is the youngest in the league and your veterans are 28-31-year-old career role players. That’s just fact.

The Wolves could really use a veteran – a 29-33-year-old with experience other than that as a niche role player – that has the leadership ability to calm the young guys down when things are going haywire on the court, be a positive influence in the locker room, and, ideally, be a stabilizing presence on defense. Yes, Kevin Garnett could have been that type of player, though it’s legitimate to wonder if he would’ve been able to stay healthy and contribute enough on offense to completely fill the void. Regardless, Kevin Garnett is not walking through that door. It would be wise of Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden to kick the tires on acquiring a well-seasoned player to be a stabilizing force on the team.

A more tangible need that would provide a more obvious improvement on the court is that of a rim protector. As it stands right now, the Wolves rank 28th in opponent field goal percentage on shots less than five feet (opponents are shooting 63.7%), 22nd in opponent field goal percentage on shots from five to nine feet (opponents are shooting 43.5%), and 28th in defending post-ups when looking at field goal percentage (50%) and 20th when looking at points per possession (.90). Essentially, the Wolves interior defense has been a garbage fire.

The bulk of the center minutes on the defensive end have gone to Gorgui Dieng and the aforementioned Aldrich with Karl-Anthony Towns logging most of his minutes against the opposition’s power forward. Both Dieng and Aldrich have struggled mightily at defending the rim (for this article’s purposes, defined as defense against shots six feet or less from the hoop; all numbers are from NBA.com) as evidenced by the chart below:

Player Opp. FGM Opp. FGA Opp. FG% Diff%
Gorgui Dieng 4.4 7.0 62.5 3.1
Cole Aldrich 1.8 2.6 70.7 7.8

The easiest solution on paper would be to shift Towns over to the five on defense, though that may cause problems in two ways. First, Dieng would have to defend further out from the paint more frequently, which would allow for teams to take advantage of his poor speed and perimeter defense, while continuing to exploit his poor pick-and-roll defense.

As an aside, this is the crux of the quandary with Dieng going forward; he often get’s outmuscled against centers and is too slow to defend modern day fours. Ideally, Dieng would be the team’s first big off the bench, a role that would help minimize his defensive insufficiencies while taking advantage of his offensive versatility. But with the current roster construction, that move doesn’t make much sense as Dieng would most likely be replaced with Aldrich (poor rim protector thus far) or Bjelica (same problem: too slow to consistently guard threes and get’s bodied by fours; Towns would move to the five).

Second, Towns’ body is simply not quite developed enough to defend fives for 35-40 minutes on a nightly basis. Towns has been an average rim protector this season – -.07 Diff% on shots less than six-feet and -.02 Diff% on shots less than 10-feet. – and his long-term prospects are brightest as a five, but as of this moment, I fear Towns would be worn down over the course of single games and the entire season. I’m not sure playing Towns at the five is in the Wolves’ best interest at this point.

The third, and arguably least important, need is that of another outside shooter. The Wolves could really use another threat from deep when things aren’t clicking for Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. Ideally, this player is already on the roster in the form of Brandon Rush, but he has struggled from beyond the arc thus far, not doubt due in part to his toe injury. This need becomes even less pressing if Rush can become a consistent threat, but until that happens the Wolves are in a vulnerable position. The acquisition of one more shooter would help relieve some of the pressure on LaVine, Wiggins, and, to an extent, Rush and Bjelica and would make the Wolves’ offense that much more dangerous.

The big question is, should the Wolves make a move this season or would they be better off waiting until the offseason? In short, it truly depends on how Thibodeau views this season. If he looks at this season as a time to evaluate the team’s situation and their needs going forward, it would probably be best to wait until the offseason to make a move; the Wolves will have plenty of money to throw at players that could come in and fill specific gaps without sending off talent in a trade. If Thibodeau views this season as a time to win, it would make sense to not only make a move but to make one soon, in an attempt to offset their slow start. In reality, Thibodeau probably views this season as some combination of the two.

The recent trade rumors stating that Thibodeau is looking at trading one of his “young stars” for a player that will help the team win now are too vague to be taken seriously, but making a move at some point this season (not necessarily soon) makes sense in my mind. The roster, as discussed above, has its holes and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fill them in some capacity. Any move the Wolves make doesn’t necessarily have to net a starting caliber player; acquiring a bench player or two to balance the roster and fill some gaps could prove to be just as impactful as trading for one solid starter.

But in order for a trade to occur, the Wolves would have to part ways with a player or two (I know, crazy concept, right?). So, who on the Wolves’ roster would be most likely to be moved? One would have to imagine Adreian Payne would be moved if a suitor could be found. It may also make sense to move Shabazz Muhammad if it means filling bringing in a solid veteran. However, although it would still shock me and throw me into a minor bout of depression, I’m starting to get the feeling that a trade involving Ricky Rubio is becoming more and more likely.

Rubio has not looked like the Rubio of old this season and much of that is due to how he is used within Thibodeau’s system, both offensively and defensively. On offense, Thibodeau often utilizes his point guards as off-ball shooters rather than as the chief initiator of all sets. This is counter to Rubio’s strengths, which are heavily dependent on being the main facilitator on offense. Rubio struggles with shooting and isn’t a particularly strong slasher, which further hinders his ability to perform within Thibodeau’s system.

On defense, Thibodeau teams often switch on screens and, when functioning properly, rely on good team defense rather than good individual defense. Rubio has struggled with switching effectively at times this season (keeping players in front of him off screens and rotations, mostly) and is perhaps just a little too aggressive and gambles just frequently enough to be detrimental for playing good, consistent team defense. If Rubio doesn’t stay in front of his man and force him to the sideline, the opposing point guard can get into the paint and wreak havoc against the Wolves marshmallow soft interior defense. If Rubio isn’t performing well on defense it only exacerbates his deficiencies on offense.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether Thibodeau should shape his system to his personnel or if he should shape his personnel to his system, but the fact of the matter is that Thibodeau’s system has a proven track record of working. Although he is a very solid player, I don’t think Rubio is good enough overall to merit Thibodeau molding his offense and defense around him. In other words, I think Thibodeau would be more likely to trade Rubio than to trade for Rubio, so to speak. So, while it would pain me deeply to see Rubio moved, I’m starting to wonder if a trade won’t happen within the next year (though I maintain that the Wolves would have to net a legitimate point guard in return somehow, which could be difficult as teams are often not super willing to let players of that ilk go).

Regardless, the Wolves’ roster is a work in progress and we’ll just have to wait and see how Thibodeau and co. mold it.

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5 thoughts on “The Wolves’ Roster Is A Work In Progress

  1. I’m not sure Rubio *would* pass this one along!

    But yes…I think you captured it well when you said “…the fact of the matter is that Thibodeau’s system has a proven track record of working. Although he is a very solid player, I don’t think Rubio is good enough overall to merit Thibodeau molding his offense and defense around him.”

    Of course, then we’re back to a new dilemma. Dunn has not proven he’s ready to start at PG. Unless we think that Tyus (with his admittedly impressive play thus far this year) is ready for prime time, we’re in need of a new starting PG.

  2. As a card-carrying member of the Rubio fan club (he is seriously the main reason I watch the Wolves), this post is closer to the truth than I would like. I have been quick to point to Rubio’s team defensive instincts as an important part of his value, but this improvisatory quality becomes less valuable when the system requires much more deliberate actions to force people to specific spots on the floor. And again, while in an offensive system that valued Rubio’s ability to get to places on the floor to make unprecedented passes, his lack of shooting could be made less of a factor, but this is not Thibs’ system.

    Still, I would be sad if Rubio went. But the thing I notice since he is back from injury is that he has not been able to generate force on either side of the ball. He is overthinking but still letting his instincts make stupid gambles on the defensive side, and on offense he often looks shook. If he is going to die on screens and make dumb plays, does he bring more to the table than Jones who can be punished on defense but is at least more reliably able to take advantage on the other side?

    It’s not clear to me that Dunn is ever going to be a starting PG, and even if he was, a pairing with Zach means that KAT would be the only person able to organize the offense, and it badly needs someone to organize it.

    Another option is to keep Rubio to start games and reduce his minutes late. There is a lot to be said for his work on getting other guys shots and getting the team into a groove, it’s just that as the game wears on that ability becomes less individually important.

    What would a likely trade be? Rubio is one of those players who probably needs a specific kind of situation to be at his best. Something structured around the Spurs and Davis Bertrans? Just hard to see many likely options.

  3. Kind of silly to have a long personnel discussion when all the problems mentioned in it will continue in some form without changes in our system. We might be better or worse with roster tweaks, but we aren’t going to be as successful as people expect without tweaks to the system itself. Maybe that’s harsh… It’s not silly to discuss personnel. It’s fun and interesting and an obvious thing to do in a so far dull and disappointing season. But it’s kind of been done to death. People seem afraid to consider the concept that Thibs is overrated. I know I was. But I just can’t defend the decisions he makes anymore. Maybe he’ll make me look bad for questioning him down the line, but it is hard to argue that the results (both numbers and aesthetics) have been unexpectedly horrible so far.

    Actually, good/great coaches do adjust the system to personnel as well as the kind of opponents they find themselves up against. So, absolutely Thibs should be changing his system, which kind of sucks even with more fitting personnel. The Spurs are a good example. Now, they have a common denominator of great ball movement, good action, and solid D. But they change the details of how they get those things and the types of shots they take all the time. Pop has adjusted to the super three happy league, as well as countless other shows of flexibility. He knows just when his team is in a new era with a new style–such as the Duncan torch hand off to Leonard. I find the idea that a coach would simply refuse to adjust his system to his players spit take laughable. Have fun with that, dude! I mean, seriously. Does he think we’re going to retool the whole roster to his taste and then really start working? Where are we going to find all these guys that perfectly fit his dull system? How will we have enough assets to get them? Frighteningly, Thibs has the power to try, but it is a fool’s errand.

    Ah, but Thib’s vast 5 seasons with one team already stacked with decent, seasoned players in the weak east that still never went to the finals is his ‘proven track record.’ Nice to have a coach with some winning experience at the NBA level, but this isn’t some bulletproof resume.

    On the PG situation specifically… If Thibs likes point guards that dribble up and and go in the corner as a three point shooter, why did he draft Dunn (who if at all successful is projected to be a slasher/passing PG who shoots passably well at best)? And what exactly was Rose? A slasher ball hog PG, not a dump off stand in the corner shooter. Thibs’ system makes Rubio look bad, but lets not pretend that it doesn’t make everyone look bad. The whole team is hurt by it. If he hates Rubio, and realizes suddenly that Dunn is Rubio without the feel for the game, what is his plan to make it a ‘Thibs team’? Where is he going to find his perfect, boring PG? How is he going to acquire him if found? Or (hold your breath!) he could work with what he has and make this team good instead of sanding against the grain until the block of wood is gone. Also pretty odd to critique Rubio’s defense in this ‘system’ when almost every player on the roster has done worse on defense this season. Does he gamble? Sure. But it’s not Chris Paul level stuff, and frankly, he does that more when he’s frustrated and he has every right to be. He’s got a coach who is running a system against his every strength and letting the team tank by refusing to play to what they can do now. I’d hate to be on that team myself… (Also note that Tyus and particularly Dunn gamble much more stupidly on D). Furthermore, why is Thibs running an offense that puts so much play making and running the possession on our non PG players who are young and have no idea how to run offense? It makes no sense to dump the ball off to Wiggins (who can barely pass out of a triple team) and expect him to make it into a smart possession every time (or ever). He needs lots of touches, but not that kind. You can see how it goes—when he’s hot it looks smart, but he has to be sizzling and he’s always been inconsistent. If he’s off this kind of offensive philosophy is brutal on the team and the fans. And illogical for someone who reportedly doesn’t trust young players. Against Utah, Thibs had Dunn back up Rubio in a normal manner, but in the 4th he kept Rubio sitting and had Jones play out the game. It did not work at all. This is illogical, but I think I see what Thibs is doing. He’s thinking, ‘I need a PG that can hit threes to close out the game’. But it makes no sense to start Tyus and play him starter minutes. It makes no sense (from what we’ve seen) to have Dunn back up Rubio before Jones. It makes no sense to not have your best PG (whatever his profile of strengths and weaknesses are) out there at the end of games. It’s pretty simple—lets not overthink. Rubio, normal starter minutes. Jones, normal backup minutes. Dunn situational.

    As for our need for rim protection, Dieng does his part and Towns just needs to get better at that (and D in general). But it’s not like he doesn’t have all the pieces you need to be a rim protector. If we get one instead of teaching and waiting, who’s minutes will he take? Again, it sounds more like a coaching issue than a personnel thing.

    Let’s be clear of something. The reason we are losing games isn’t because Rubio is out there late sucking our offense dry, even in a system that makes him look this bad. Our best chance to win now is with Rubio on the floor at the end of games. But this is like arguing over chess pieces when there is no board. We aren’t going to impress anyone playing this system, which in itself is not very strong and does not play into our strengths as individuals or a team at all. It’s not a reason to blame personnel to the point of not playing our starting point guard at the end of games (and still losing).

  4. Trade LaVine or simply put him as the 6th man. Wiggins is in the wrong position, and he’s wasted half the time because he gives up 20 pounds of muscle every night. Payne and Baz won’t get you an ice cream cone in exchange. Trading Rubio means we don’t get 30 wins this year. Another tanking might be a good option, in which case trade Rubio, but then I think you’ve sealed Wiggins’ departure. Give up a draft choice for a defensive veteran small forward, put LaVine in as your 6th man, let Rubio be Rubio, and the team starts winning.

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