INBOX: Wolves Transition D Struggles & Rethinking this Stage of Development
Patrick J (post-Warriors loss on December 11): I’m getting nervous about what’s going on with the Wolves. They don’t seem to be getting any better, and we’re almost halfway through December. Does the spurt of improvement not happen until February or March? I hate when that happens – even though it is better than no improvement at all – because half of the League is tanking by then and it means less. We saw lots of improvement late last year, and yet here we are.
Now, to be clear (POTUS voice), I’m not panicking. We’re super young, and we have all of the deficiencies you’d expect from such a young team. And we still have just as much upside, I think, as we thought we did before the season. But I’m wondering what POBO Thibodeau—as opposed to Coach Thibodeau—should be (read: “is”) thinking about doing this offseason to address some of the shortcomings that are unlikely to fix themselves with the benefit of more reps for the young guys.
Patrick J (post-Warriors loss on December 11): I forgot to include in my last note: WE’RE CURRENTLY ON PACE TO GO 20-62. (!) Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:
Andy G: It’s disappointing that the Wolves lost so many winnable games at the beginning of the season. They blew some big leads against beatable teams — sometimes at home — and then their schedule took a big turn for the worse. Recently, they’ve had to face the Spurs, Raptors and Warriors in the midst of a stretch where their chances at a potential .500 season were probably hanging in the balance.
Not only is it a shame that they (almost certainly) blew any chance at flirting with a playoff spot, but it’s unfortunate that there is such a palpable sense of disappointment in the fan base after (justified) preseason hype for this being the “turnaround” moment of the franchise. The Wolves jumped from 16 to 29 wins last season. Fans thought they might make a similar leap this year. That isn’t really happening. However…
Let me throw something at you that might explain the struggles in a (relatively) brighter light: this season isn’t really the next step from last season’s 29-win campaign. It is actually the next step from the season before, 2014-15, in which they went 16-66 and won the KAT Lottery. The season that was pretty amazingly hard to watch, most of the time.
I say this because in 2014-15, then-coach Flip Saunders put the lion’s share of playmaking duties on the 19-year old shoulders of Andrew Wiggins. As that season wore on, he also gave Zach “historically wet behind the ears” LaVine more minutes and responsibility than he ever could have imagined, a year removed from coming off of Steve Alford’s UCLA bench. Wiggins and LaVine were so amazingly unprepared for that level of responsibility—anchoring an NBA team just 18 months out of high school not only as its highest-usage players, but also (arguably) its best—that the 2014-15 season doubled as a player-development phase as well as a period of (what turned out to be) lucrative tanking.
But last season, with Sam Mitchell coaching under the most tragic and unexpected of circumstances after Flip Saunders’ passing, they reverted back to Ricky Rubio-led basketball.
Ricky Rubio-led basketball simplifies everything for young athletes. And it generally works pretty well.
Last year, Ricky was pretty outstanding. Despite the youth of his teammates (his best ones were 20 years old for most of the season), Rubio had a positive season plus/minus (+18) in 2,323 minutes of action. In other words, when he was on the floor the Wolves competed like a team that could realistically make the playoffs. That isn’t supposed to happen when three sophomore-in-college age players are taking the floor at the same time. The team’s problem was a lack of any credible bench players; especially at the point guard position where the job was largely split between shooting guard Zach LaVine and 19-year old, looked-like-he-was-14-years old Tyus Jones.
Rubio handled the primary playmaking responsibilities on last year’s team. He set up shots and his athletic, scorer’s-mindset teammates took them. Rubio had 658 assists, which was nearly triple the number as the next player (LaVine, with 251). According to nba.com’s player tracking data, Rubio possessed the ball for 528 minutes of action last year. Per his 2,323 minutes, that averages out to possession for about 22.7 percent of his time on the floor.
This season, it is clear to everybody paying attention that Thibs is shifting the playmaking responsibilities of his offense away from Rubio, and toward LaVine and especially Wiggins. Wiggins has seen a 33 percent boost in time of ball possession this year, going from having the ball 5.5 percent of the time up to 7.3 percent of the time that he’s on the floor. (Point guards dominate this stat for the simple reason that they typically dribble the ball up the floor most of the game.) With Wiggins touching the ball more, Rubio is handling it less. His 22.7 percent possession from last year is down to 19.5 percent. In almost the exact same number of minutes per game, Ricky is possessing the ball 6.0 minutes per game, compared to last season when he had it 7.0 minutes. When you consider how much of that time is spent performing the most routine point guard duties, like dribbling up the floor and occasionally resetting the offense, this is a pretty big change. It’s about a 14 percent drop in possession for Rubio, whose only real value on offense is to set up his teammates for his shot. His assists are down from 8.7 to 6.4 per game, in about the same number of minutes.
Is it unfair to say that last season was sort of a pause-pressing stage for Wiggins in terms of being a primary playmaker, and that the things he’s doing from the top of the key now are like a new stage for him? He posted up most of the time in 2014-15 as a rookie. Now he’s playing some point forward in big moments.
If you were told that Rubio would be moved off the ball quite a bit more than last season, would that have affected your preseason expectations for this team? Not only is he a terrible floor spacer — he’s not only a bad shooter but also has one of the slowest catch-and-shoot releases in the league — but the shift puts Wiggins in a new, bigger role.
And if you DO view the Wolves playmaking development in this manipulated way, is it fair to say that they’re quite a bit better now than they were in 2014-15?
Actually I’ll answer that last one: Yes, LaVine and Wiggins have improved a TON since their rookie season. As a 2-man lineup that season (in 1,376 minutes) they had a catastrophic net rating of -15.6. (!!!) That means they were consistently getting blown out for basically the entire season. They had terrible offense (98.5) and terrible defense (114.1). This year, that pairing is still bad, but nowhere near the dumpster fire that it was the last time they were tasked with playmaking responsibilities in a significant way. This year, their offense much improved (106.4) but the defense remains awful (113.6) for a current net rating of -7.1, less than half as bad as their rookie season.
Am I just making excuses here? I’ve been known to do that.
Patrick J: Another way of looking at it isn’t just time of possession, but particular types of plays. It’s no secret that Ricky’s biggest strength on offense is as the lead ball handler in the pick-and-roll. As with his overall time on the ball, the frequency with which Ricky is the primary handler in pick-and-roll sets has decreased dramatically from Mitchell to Thibodeau, dropping from 40.7% in 2015-16 to 32.3% in 2016-17. It has been Wiggins who has used up many of those opportunities. Last season under Smitch, Andrew was the primary pick-and-roll ball handler only 18.9% of the time. This year, Thibodeau has had “point Wiggins” as the primary pick-and-roll ball handler 30.3% of the time–basically the same as Rubio.
As a longtime fan of and believer in Ricky, it pains me to say that if he doesn’t fit into Tom Thibodeau’s long-term offensive plans, Thibs should consider trading Rubio as soon as possible. Ricky’s offensive value-added is muted in Thibs’ system, and, as great a defender as Rubio is, rookie backup and Thibodeau favorite Kris Dunn’s defense might be as good as Ricky’s right now. (And if it isn’t yet, it probably will be in the not too distant future.) Another benefit of trading Rubio would be that the Wolves, mired in a go-nowhere season, would have 55-plus games to find out what they have in Tyus Jones while expediting Dunn’s development. Rubio’s trade value is unclear, but (for me, at least) it is starting to feel like a Rubio trade is more a matter of “when” than of “if.”
Andy G: NEW SUBJECT: an interesting pair of stats:
- Wolves are 18th in turnovers per game (meaning, they commit the 18th-most, so they are slightly worse than the league median).
- Wolves are 26th in opponent points off turnovers per game (meaning they allow the 5th MOST points off TOs).
That disparity suggests they create worse types of turnovers than most teams, or their spacing is all messed up when they turn the ball over so that nobody’s back on defense.
If that disparity were erased they’d lop off at least a point per game allowed. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a somewhat significant improvement in team D simply by virtue of fixing their offense.
Patrick J: For me, this confirms the eye test: the Wolves are playing terrible transition defense. As a team, through December 12, 2016, the Wolves haven’t had the surest hands in the League–they’re ranked 18th in turnovers per game, giving away the ball 14.6 times a night, which puts them in the 60th percentile league wide. Their opponents’ average number of points off of turnovers is 18.1, for a league-wide rank of 25 (83rd percentile).
The numb#rs put the Wolves in middling company at best, and in bad company at worst: they give up 1.24 points per turnover, placing them in a tie with Portland and New Orleans for second-worst in the NBA, just behind the league-worst Brooklyn Nets (1.25 points off turnovers per turnover). Like the Wolves, the Nets have, so far, reaped what they’ve sown en route to a 6-16 start, currently 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. Of the other teams that give up as many points off turnovers per turnover–New Orleans and Portland–neither is over .500, and the Pelicans are a Wolvesian 8-17. Even though Minnesota gives away only slightly more turnovers than the average NBA team, the Wolves suffer unduly for it at the other end.
But wait, there’s more: it doesn’t stop at transition defense. As others have pointed out, the Wolves defense is downright awful in other interesting ways. The Wolves are ranked in the 80th percentile or lower, league wide, in opponent second-chance points (14.4 per game) and opponent points in the paint (45.3 per game).
|Stat||Per Game Average||NBA Rank (as of 12/12/16)||NBA Rank Percentile|
|OPP PTS OFF TOV||18.1||25||83.3%|
|OPP PTS PAINT||45.3||25||83.3%|
Simply put, the numbers are indicative of the ridiculous deficiency of frontcourt stalwarts KAT and Gorgui to keep opposing bigs off the offensive boards and to defend the interior overall.
Between the decline of Rubio as an elite playmaker in the Wolves’ offense and the poor showing of the young team across defensive categories, the 2016-17 Timberwolves obviously have things to work on and plenty of room for improvement.
Things will get better. The Wolves still have the most talented young nucleus in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau’s dogged work ethic and relentless attention to detail have not abated. Yes, fans are rightly disappointed in the team’s performance so far. But unlike so many other seasons, this time around the question is when–not if–the Wolves will turn things around and develop into a high-end NBA basketball team.