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INBOX: Wolves Transition D Struggles & Rethinking this Stage of Development

In his rookie season, 19-year old Andrew Wiggins was tasked with carrying the Wolves offense. That changed last year when Ricky Rubio returned from ankle surgery. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

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:

cmon-son

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:

  1. Wolves are 18th in turnovers per game (meaning, they commit the 18th-most, so they are slightly worse than the league median).
  1. 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
TOV 14.6 18 60%
OPP PTS OFF TOV 18.1 25 83.3%
OPP PTS

2ND CHANCE

14.4 24 80%
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.

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9 thoughts on “INBOX: Wolves Transition D Struggles & Rethinking this Stage of Development

  1. It’s no secret that I like Rubio a lot. But my questioning of what Thibs is doing goes further than defending Rubio. A system that runs offense not through a point guard is not a smart bet. You have to have a guy like Lebron for it to really work at a championship level. To make it work at all you have to have wings and bigs that are above average playmakers basically taking part in a needlessly complex system of distribution. This qualm doesn’t even touch on how massively ill suited our roster is for this ‘away from PG distribution’ strategy. We don’t have a single player who right now has the ability to be a cog in this turn away from the PG system. Not one. And one could argue that Thibs is building the guys (esp Wiggins and Towns) into play makers and ball handlers on offense, whom the offense will run through. But these aren’t guys who are clay you can sculpt into whatever shape you want. Wiggins is a natural ball stopper who will never be a good person to run offense through. His entire basketball existence points to this. Towns looks to have some promise as a point center type player who can distribute from that area, but even if he develops very well into this aspect, is that really the primary way you want your offense to operate? That is a sucky idea.

    But Rubio is a special player. Thibs is trying to grow the guys into a system that aces Rubio out. Above I stated this was dumb because in most personnel cases that’s not a good way to run your offense, but it is also stupid because it ignores a very special ability to pass an run offense that Rubio has. If coaching is getting the most out of your players than Thibs is willfully avoiding this in favor of ideology. In this age that type of attitude is as American as apple pie, but it’s not a good thing. It’s destructive and silly. While I’m on Rubio, there is a magic about his game on O and D that you just throw in the garbage treating him like this. I disagree with a lot of people—I don’t think Dunn is anywhere near the defender Rubio is yet. And it’s possible he may never be. He’s better at a few things, like fighting though screens. But he’s supposed to be this great athlete and he’s not even as good at keeping in front of his man as Rubio. I have not been impressed with anything about Dunn’s game so far, by and large, including his much touted D. Even if develops quick and is basically as good on D as Rubio, he’ll never have that magical instinct and feel for the game on D that Rubio has. Maybe this is moot though because Dunn is almost unable to run an NBA offense at all so far. It’s pathetic. I like Dunn and think he will someday be serviceable, but he’s not the kind of talent you want to bet much on.

    1. I don’t think the idea is that Wiggins running the offense is going to be our long-term plan, and the offense we want to ride to a championship, I kind of suspect that Thibs is doing the same thing with Wiggins that ended up happening with Lavine: make him handle the ball and run the offense, not because he’s good at it and its good offense, but to force Wiggins to get better at making decisions with the ball. And I have to admit, as painful as the journey was, it worked quite well with Zach. But like Zach at PG, it sure is painful to watch.

      1. If it’s not in the long term plans and it doesn’t help us win, don’t do it. That’s my simple philosophy. There is zero evidence that playing LaVine out of position helped his development any more than simply playing him at his natural position that whole time. Likewise, Wiggins should be able to learn better decision making without being force fed a point forward roll. If you don’t believe me try to find other coaches who are successful in the NBA who play players out of position for long stretches to teach them skills they mysteriously couldn’t pick up any other way. This applies to forced rolls that aren’t technically out of position, like making the offense run through Wiggins as a point forward. Did Pop teach Leonard by making him be a point forward and making Tony Parker dump the ball off to him every possession and then stand in the corner waiting of Kawhi to run the offense? Obviously, no.

        1. Except, we have very clear evidence that it did work in the case of Lavine. So, no particular reason to think it can’t work in the case of Wiggins. And its obvious that befitting from Rubio’s uncanny ability to run offense means Wiggins/Lavine/et al simply don’t need to develop certain skills- like making decisions with the ball or running the pick and roll- skills that you might want those players to have, if Rubio is not in the long-term plans. And it seems pretty clear by now that Rubio isn’t in the long-term plans, as inexplicable as that decision may seem to us.

          1. There is no evidence, only speculation. LaVine didn’t really improve until he was put back into the SG role. You can’t prove that he improved because of his time spent at PG anymore than I can prove that none of his improvement happened because he played PG for a while. It’s all speculation. What is not is the fact that good NBA coaches don’t make a habit of playing people out of position for long periods to give them new skills for their natural position later.

            If you can’t learn to play NBA basketball on a team where a PG runs offense (how rare!) then you shouldn’t be in the NBA.

    2. Once again, pyrrol, you went against the grain and nailed it, particularly in respect to your comments regarding Ricky Rubio. I don’t know who you are, but if you ever complete and publish a novel, please, give a head’s up here. I’ll read the damn thing. Pronto.

  2. The Wolves beat the Bulls tonight and Rubio was a big part of the win. When the team let’s him find people, he does. Then he gets energized, and his D and rebounding get better and he becomes a real asset. When they stuck him in the corner, it was the same old bad wolves.

    Rubio has captain in his blood. The more you put on him the better he responds. The more you take away from him, the worse he gets. The other thing is that as he starts hitting people, KAT and Zack start wanting to do the same and even Wiggins gets into the act. This team, playing an uptempo, get up the court and pass the ball side to side is so much fun to watch. Playing two man pick and roll is so boring and not effective for these guys. The other three just stand around, no hustle to rebound or look for back cuts to get wide open lay-ups.

    Also, after a terrible start to the game, KAT started contributing without the ball. Blocking shots, and working in the low block. Just grinding. He will probably say he didn’t have a good game because he shot so poorly, but when he gets the entry pass down low, he really opens up the whole offense. He just needs to finish with power more, but that will come with added muscle and strength. He also was more of a star on the boards, which this team needs to be uptempo.

    Next game is Houston. A team that has played much better than most people expected. Can the wolves stop Harden and keep the Rockets off the boards? The nice thing is that they are playing a team that likes to outscore you, instead of grinding you down. That may be a good for our young wolves. Great to get a win after an awful start to the month.

  3. “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.”

    There isn’t proof that increased playing time when a guy isn’t ready actually expedites their development, and it makes the product ugly to watch. I’ve never understood how it actually makes a fan base more “hopeful” for the future because their minutes take on a “looter in a riot” quality. I didn’t believe in the Zach LaVine Playing Time Scholarship when it was happening, and most of the improvement I’ve seen with him and Wiggins has been evident at the start of seasons. If they want to give Dunn more time, send him to the D League and let Tyus back up Rubio.

  4. I wouldn’t put all the blame of second chance points on the wolves starting front-court, they are averaging 10+ and 8 rebounds respectively, that should be fine. Take a look at the rebounding for our guards and forwards as compared to league averages, that I think is where the issue lies.
    Zach (especially) and Wiggins both like to leak out, which results in some great cheap fast-breaks, but may be coming at the expense of giving up too many offensive rebounds.

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