INBOX: Timberwolves First-Quarter Grades
As far as we know, most corporations do quarterly reports. (Eds. Note: According to Wikipedia, these reports are “required by numbers of stock exchanges around the world to provide information to investors on the state of a company.”) In these reports, companies typically update their financials, make projections, and assess how they’re doing internally and externally. It’s one of the big to-dos of the corporate bureaucracy – and 4x annually!
Since the Timberwolves are at roughly the quarter-point of this NBA season, it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s happened; specifically, how everybody is playing. We’ll do this in letter grade format, going through each player, organized by position. The grades are on a curve, based on our expectations of the player heading into the season. So an “A” grade isn’t an indication that the player is necessarily better than someone who earned a “D”; on the contrary, it could just mean that the “A” is doing great for what could’ve been expected relative to the “D”.
Without further ado.
Ricky Rubio: D
Andy G: We’ll begin with a bad grade for a good player. Perhaps the most important takeaway from this quarter-season of Timberwolves games is that Ricky Rubio is not going to fit into the new system. For reasons that are partly his fault (continued horrific shooting, mostly) and partly not (Thibs redistributing some playmaking assignments to non-point guards) Rubio has struggled mightily. He is shooting 36.4% from the field. He is averaging a career-lows in per-game points (6.6) and assists (6.4). Most damning of all, Rubio’s on/off splits have gone from “first to worst” on the team. In 547 minutes with Ricky on the floor, the Wolves have been outscored by a whopping 9.0 points per 100 possessions. In the 562 without him, they’ve actually outscored opponents by 2.6 per 100.
There isn’t much for positive spin here. Rubio is not playing well, and — for the first time in his NBA career — it isn’t clear that he’s a helpful player in this system.
Kris Dunn – D+
Patrick J: We’ll follow with a bad grade for a promising player. Kris Dunn, whom the Wolves selected 5th overall in the 2016 draft, has yet to demonstrate that he’s capable of playing the point at an NBA starter-caliber level. Dunn has tantalized with all kinds of grit and athleticism, which isn’t a bad starting point for an NBA newcomer. He has the frame of a big, strong, athletic point guard who can push the ball, find shooters, and play suffocating defense.
So far, however, the 22-year-old Dunn has failed to trade effectively on these wares. For someone who has played numerous college seasons, and who was judged in a survey of NBA GMs as “most likely to win Rookie of the Year” this season, Dunn has looked less than ready to assume a leading role for the Wolves and to elevate his game to RoY status.
The encouraging thing for Dunn, the rookie, is that his progress is starting to trend upward: since the beginning of December, Dunn’s game logs are less disappointing. He’s beginning to find ways to make shots. He’s assisting at roughly Rubio (the 2016-17 deprecated version) rates. And his defense appears as good as billed and should only get better. So while Dunn’s D+ performance has largely been poor and disappointing, there might be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. He’s someone whose letter grade should dramatically improve as he figures out the pro game and Tom Thibodeau’s system.
Tyus Jones: A-
Andy G: Rubio and Dunn have played a combined 956 minutes through 23 games. Meanwhile, the only point guard who has played well this season, 20-year old Tyus Jones, has played just 207. He has better individual stats than the two playing ahead of him (PER of 16.6, compared to Dunn’s 10.0 and Rubio’s 12.2), he has better on/off splits (+6.6 on, -5.3 off), and he has the youngest age, almost a full two years younger than Dunn, a rookie.
Thibs can be forgiven for not playing Jones more, for a couple of basic reasons. Rubio has earned the starting job by establishing himself as a good veteran point guard over a number of seasons. The heavy presumption should be that he’s the team’s best choice. And Dunn has clear physical upside and the advantage of a recent, high draft slot. Thibs invested in Dunn and therefore wants to develop him. That means playing time.
But make no mistake: Jones has been the team’s best point guard through a quarter-season of play. It will be interesting to see whether his playing time increases this season (most likely route to this would be a Rubio trade) or if he is moved elsewhere for a different type of asset. At present, he’s being wasted on the bench.
John Lucas III: Incomplete
Patrick J: John Lucas III doesn’t make a difference in games, and it’s impossible to discern whether he makes a positive influence in practice without seeing the footage. His grade is necessarily an “Incomplete.”
Look, one simple look at some data suggests that the Wolves’ point guard production has seriously atrophied this season. Here’s a plot of the Wolves’ PER, by (minutes-weighted) position for last season and this season so far. The Wolves’ 2016-17 point guard production is fugly.
It is anemic, even compared to that of last year’s losing performance. It is not a coincidence that the only pg with a passing grade is the one who isn’t playing consistent minutes every night.
Zach LaVine: B+
Andy G: LaVine continues to improve. He’s now averaging over 20 points per game (20.2) which is–by far–his career high. He’s shooting a career-best 47.1% from the field. He’s jacking up threes in high volume (6.7 attempts per game) and connecting on almost 37% of them, which is pretty good. (For what it’s worth, I expect that percentage to increase a bit before the end of the season.). While his on/off numbers remain bad, he is no longer the worst in this area. I don’t know if his defense is getting better yet or not — his defensive rating is 110.5, which is really bad — but he shows some signs of aggressiveness that I don’t recall seeing before this year.
A fun lineup wrinkle in recent games has been LaVine out there with the four bench rotation players: Dunn at point guard, Muhammad at the three, Bjelica at the four, and Aldrich at center. LaVine gets to jack up shots. His approach is simplified and successful. That 5-man lineup is +12 in 59 minutes, and I think it’s something we’ll see more throughout the season.
Some fans are beginning to believe LaVine is this team’s best young wing player; not Wiggins. I wouldn’t go that far, but the view is less crazy than it would’ve seemed a year ago.
Brandon Rush – Incomplete (but trying hardcore fans’ patience)
Patrick J: Brandon Rush was signed as a low-cost free-agent this past summer to provide the Wolves with some veteran leadership experience, fresh from his time with the Golden State Warriors, and for his ability to come off the bench and knock down three-point shots with reasonable efficiency. Rush has not delivered on the latter, and while the jury is still out on the former, RUMINT indicates that Rush has checked out (Eds. Note: Which effectively means, “Rush never checked in.”). He remains out with turf toe, an injury whose name understates the actual discomfort and incapacitating effect it can have on professional athletes whose job description involves making sharp cuts, extremely quickly, while maintaining good balance.
Instead of delivering a steady, productive presence in limited minutes off the bench, Brandon Rush has played in only 10 games (as of December 10, 2016) and has averaged just 1.7 points in those games. He hasn’t scored in double-figures once during the first quarter of the season. His coming out party was a 9-point outburst in a Wolves 36-point blowout of Memphis on 1 November, in which the Grizzlies best players received a “DNP-Rest” and Grizz coach DAVID FIZDALE essentially conceded the game before it was played.
Rush, the putative three-point threat off the bench, has made (count ‘em) FOUR three pointers so far this season. He has shot 28.6% to get those buckets. For the purpose of this quarterly wrap-up, the Rush acquisition has been a colossal failure for Thibs-Layden LLC, despite the reasonable price for which Brandon was signed. For a team grasping the death-knells for depth beyond its top three players, veteran free agent Brandon Rush has provided none. It will be telling whether he is still a member of the team when we write the next quarterly report.
Andrew Wiggins: B+
Patrick J: Here’s the thing about Andrew Wiggins: he’s the key to the Wolves’ success–at least through the first quarter-or-so of the 2016-17 season. As Wiggins goes, so do the Wolves (on average): when he’s really good–and he can be amazing–they tend to win. And When he isn’t playing at a top-tier level of stardom, the team plays poorly.
No other consequential Wolves player’s statistical splits differ in wins and losses like Andrew Wiggins’. The differences between Wiggins’ play in Wolves wins and losses is far greater than those of the other pieces of the Wolves young core, i.e., Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine.
As the chart below shows, when the Wolves win, each piece of the young core plays roughly the same number of minutes as they do in losses. LaVine tends to score a tiny bit more and shoot better from the field and from deep in wins than in losses.
Wiggins, on the other hand, is averaging 30+ ppg in wins versus 19 ppg in losses; his field goal percentage is about 20 percentage points higher in wins than in losses, and – like LaVine – he shoots well over 40 percent from distance in wins, as opposed to about 35 percent in losses. (Eds. Note: Weirdly, Karl Towns’ numbers tend to be slightly worse in wins than in losses. The most obvious hypothesis for this is that Towns tries to take on too large of a load when his team is losing and his efficiency suffers as a consequence.)
What Andrew Wiggins is is inconsistent. Yet, despite the misgivings of his naysayers, who continue to ruminate on cherry-picked, context-free advanced statistics, Wiggins is growing into the NBA star most expected him to be when he was drafted #1 overall by Cleveland and was the key asset the Wolves received in the Kevin Love-to-Cleveland trade. Despite the refinement of his offensive/scoring repertoire, Wiggins optimal role remains a mystery, given his spot next to another emerging Wolves star, Zach LaVine, and his current inability to consistently shoot well and score.
For the next quarterly report, this sanguine writer hopes that Wiggins will have begun to work these kinks out of his otherwise impressively improved game thus far in 2016-17.
Meanwhile, one of the tangible benefits of having an extremely young and talented team like this Wolves squad is the accolades they give to each other after milestones. Like Wiggins’ career-high 47 points in a blowout win over the Lakers.
Shabazz Muhammad: C-
Andy G: From a productivity perspective, this has been the worst season of Bazz’s career. He’s scoring 14.0 points per 36 minutes, which is by far his career low. He’s pulling down 5.1 rebounds per 36; again, a career worst figure. He’s shooting 42.6% from the field and 21.7% from three. Both career worsts.
Bazz is getting 14.5 touches in 16.6 minutes per game, which amounts to 0.87 touches per minute. Last season, Bazz touched the ball 21.7 times in 20.5 minutes per game, or 1.05 times per minute. So that’s about a 17% drop, per minute, and about a 33% drop in gross number of touches per game. For a player who led the league in “points per touch” in both 2014-15 and 2015-16 (!) getting touches is kind of an important factor in his success. Bazz is currently 6th in the league in PPT (Wiggins is 5th, actually) and could probably stand to get the ball a little bit more, so that his strength — pure scoring — is better utilized.
He’d get a worse grade if not for his surprisingly good on/off numbers, especially his D-rating of 103.1. That’s way better than the team’s rating of 108.8, and also way better than Bazz’s 2015-16 D-rating of 108.8. My eye test is not noticing Bazz as much as I used to, which is a good thing. It suggests that he makes fewer mistakes.
Or it’s just small sample size. But I think he may be defending better Thibs’s team-oriented system.
Nemanja Bjelica: C
Patrick J: Nemanja Bjelica has had a bigger role than I expected thus far. Tom Thibodeau reportedly took an immediate liking to what he had in Bjelica, a former Euro MVP, whose versatile shooting, handling and passing skills seem a canny fit for the modern NBA’s beloved stretch-four position. However, Bjelica may suffer from what the classic basketball film Above the Rim described as “pure talent, fatal flaw.” Bjelica still hasn’t figured out when to shoot and when not to. His passing is, for what it’s worth, very nice, with the maddening qualification that many of his very nice passes come at the expense of taking very nice shots and instead dishing to teammates who don’t possess very nice shooting strokes, even when left open.
You could put a picture of Bjelica in the dictionary next to the word “soft,” and people who have seen him play in the NBA would not bat an eye. This isn’t going to change, based on the eye test. We know what we have, and it’s a big guy who can make threes when courageous enough to pull the trigger to shoot them. Rather than attempting to squeeze the round-peg that is Bjelica into the square-hole that is playing point-forward in today’s NBA, the most useful thing that Thibs and Bjelica could do to raise his letter grade would be to get him to shoot the ball when good shooters normally shoot.
Karl-Anthony Towns: B
Andy G: KAT is having an excellent season for a 21-year old, second-year player. He’s averaging 21.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. His advanced stats are good. He makes lots of cool highlight plays.
The biggest strike against KAT through a quarter of his second season is the unbelievably-high standard that he set for himself as a rookie. Some of his stats this year are actually worse than his rookie-year numbers; most notably, his field goal percentage is down from 54.2 to 47.5. More significantly, KAT is not playing very good defense this season as evidenced by his horrific 112.5 defensive rating. To give an idea of how bad that number is, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA and allow 109.4 points per 100 possessions. When KAT is on the floor, the Wolves allow 3.1 points more than that per 100.
A “B” grade balances all the good that KAT is doing while recognizing that there’s a lot more work to be done before he is the all-around basketball killing machine that everybody expects him to be. He has all of the qualities — physical and intangible — to make for an excellent defensive player. He just needs to continue to learn from Thibs and from plain old experience.
Gorgui Dieng: B
Andy G: Gorgui is what he is: 10 & 8 per game. Decent defense. High intensity. Nothing fancy. He is what we thought he is. A “B” grade seems appropriate.
Cole Aldrich: A-
Andy G: In a quarter-season of disappointment, Aldrich has been a little bit of a silver lining. When Cole plays, he barely shoots or even holds the ball. If it ends up in his hands, he usually whips it right back out to somebody on the perimeter. But what he accomplishes in his playing time are rebounds, steals, and blocks. Aldrich is the only “true center” on the entire roster and sometimes his size is needed. I expect him to finish the season with more than his present 13.3 minutes per game.
The Wolves have Aldrich for two seasons after this one under what might prove to be a good-value contract.
Adreian Payne: B-
Andy G: Payne hasn’t played much this season (78 total minutes) but when he has, he’s been surprisingly-not-terrible. I don’t think anyone reads much into it — his playing time remains almost non-existent and he still looks the same out there, but he deserves a decent grade for how he’s played when given a chance. Sometimes he provides an edge that helps the team break out of its more lethargic moments.
Jordan Hill: F
Patrick J: Whether or not it’s his fault – and we cannot know – Jordan Hill has not contributed a lick on the floor to this year’s Wolves team. He appears to be playing the role of last season’s “second-half Garnett” – that is, not playing at all – after coming to the team from elsewhere as a veteran power forward, which is a position of need. Hill clearly isn’t in the team’s long-term plans. It’s too bad Thibs & Layden LLP don’t appear in the (still) futures market for a cheap, moonshot prospect, like former Timberwolf Anthony Randolph, to fill Hill’s spot on the roster.
Overall, the message is this: things will get better.