After a loss like last night’s, it is so tempting to sink into the soft oblivion of believing there is one major flaw that is keeping the Minnesota Timberwolves from getting over the hump and into basic respectability. You’ll hear it from more casual basketball fans who drop in to watch a Wolves game now and again. “Why are the Wolves so badly coached and discombobulated?” they ask. “If they could only …” you find yourself thinking, filling in the blank with whatever seems particularly problematic at a given moment.
But the truth is that it’s a constellation of issues created by the ongoing struggle between oppositional forces: talent vs. youth, starters vs. bench, instincts vs. education, offensive firepower vs. defensive ineptitude. These different elements aren’t separated discretely into particular individuals and lineups, but rather clash constantly against each other. So far, when the Wolves win it’s because the better angels of their nature win out against their demons.
Seeing this doesn’t get easier when they lose by razor thin margins like last night.
To begin with, it was a game of quarters, and not the fun kind with red Solo cups (which, by the way, R.I.P. and “What the hell, 2016?”). Minnesota romped in the first, shooting 63.6% and outscoring Denver 31-22. Andrew Wiggins was 7-for-8, Gorgui Dieng was 4-for-5. Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get it going early in terms of scoring, but he dished 4 assists. Shabazz Muhammad was the first man off the bench and he continues to be the minutes-per-game leader off the bench for the team despite the fact that he has been simply plum awful, reverting back to something like a sub-rookie year level of court awareness and desire to play well. Brandon Rush — who appears to now be healthy — must have made a crack about Thibodeau’s mullet.
But the second quarter was an entirely different story. The Nuggets put the clamps on Wiggins, Towns and Zach LaVine, who went a collective 4-for-11, while allowing Dieng and Ricky Rubio to basically shoot as many jumpers as they wanted. The bench played garbage basketball — and not the fun kind with wadded up paper and a trashcan — and went 1-for-6 from the field. This sound defensive strategy resulted in a 27-18 quarter and a tie game at the half, 49-49.
It also revealed one of the most fundamental problems with the Wolves as currently constructed: they absolutely need at least two of their three budding stars to have it going and preferably all three to have a chance. Dieng can be a nice player, but a steady diet of midrange jumpers from him is reminiscent of Dante Cunningham elbow jumpers from a few years ago: you’ll take them every once in awhile, but they don’t scare the other team or force them to adjust. Rubio jumpers are like this except not even reasonably reliable.
The difficult thing for the learning Wolves in this case is they kept doing the right thing. When Towns got doubled, he moved the ball. When shots aren’t falling, you get other people involved. It’s the “smart basketball play,” just like taking the open shot when you get it, which is what both Dieng and Rubio would do. Then the Nuggets would run it up the floor and ram it down their throats or make a 3-pointer.
The third quarter — which the Wolves lost 32-24 — was more of the same. Wiggins, Towns and LaVine were collectively 2-for-11 while Rubio and Dieng were 7-for-9. Denver had 15 rebounds to Minnesota’s 7. The Wolves’ bench, by the way, was 1-for-4 (plus went 1-for-4 in the fourth, so let’s talk about that for a moment).
The Wolves’ players beyond the starters are no longer properly a bench. Beyond the bench there’s a basement and then below that there’s a dungeon. Below that, the circles of Hell start and Minnesota’s bench is currently making the transit from Fraud to Treachery. Over the entire game, they went 3-for-15. They scored 8 points. They were a collective -17 in a game that was ultimately lost by two points.
Over their last 10 games, the bench is a -12.8 in net rating, last in the league. The starters over that same stretch are +1.6 (13th). For perspective, the three teams directly behind them in net rating for the starters — the Clippers (+.7), Nuggets (+.2) and Thunder (-.9) — are either 6-4 or 5-5 in those 10 games. The Wolves are 4-6. Just to give you a sense of how much the bench is tipping the balance.
(Nemanja Bjelica, incidentally, is quickly turning into the second coming of Alexey Shved — seemingly too talented to stay in Europe, but more and more apparently not cut out for the NBA.)
I was prepared to basically write this whole recap about this one element of the team when they trailed the Nuggets 81-73 heading into the fourth quarter, and then even more prepared when they trailed them 99-89 with 4:14 remaining. Towns up to that point was 3-for-12 with 6 points, 6 rebounds and 10 assists — a distinctly underwhelming game from him, despite the impressive assist numbers.
But suddenly Towns opened up a lane to the rim with a pump fake and threw down an emphatic dunk. Wiggins missed a jumper, but Towns hauled in the rebound. Towns missed a hook shot but fought for the board and put it back up, cutting the lead to just 4. He was catalyzing! He’d suddenly shaken off his funk and zeroed in and it was awesome! He made a 3-pointer! He tipped in a missed free throw from Wiggins! It was all happening!
And then, at the very end, with Minnesota down 2, it got weird again. Wiggins handled the ball above the break on the right wing, got a screen from Towns and blew past Wilson Chandler but not quite fast enough. Chandler blocked his dunk attempt from behind. LaVine saved it in the backcourt and launched a pretty decent look for 3 that hit the front rim.
All the ups and downs of the game until that last possession sort of collapsed into it like a dying star. You could point at any number of things that went wrong that could have gone right, but you can also point to all sorts of systemic things that don’t totally square up. Like, why is Rubio on the floor in the last possession if he’s not going to handle the ball? Wouldn’t you rather have someone like Tyus Jones on the left side of the floor that Jameer Nelson would have to better respect? But on the other hand, it’s not like Nelson made a play on the ball, even if he gummed it up a bit.
Or like, LaVine’s shot was one you would totally live with from him. But he also played 40+ minutes in the only arena in the league that has a built in physical liability for visiting teams. Maybe that 3-pointer goes in in against any other team not playing at 5,690 feet. Any assessment of the Wolves’ failure to capture the win has to both acknowledge that they wouldn’t have been in it without their starters in the fourth, but they also might not have needed that heroic effort in the fourth if they had gotten more out of them — or anything out of the bench at all — in the first three quarters. To get wins, the starters’ offensive firepower has to outweigh their poor defense and the abysmal bench.
And then all of these contradictions are covered in the blanket fact that this team is just staggeringly young. Whatever the rest of the lineup might look like, just picture what this team will look like when LaVine, Wiggins and Towns are all 24 instead of 21. With even reasonably competent vets and middlingly impressive rookies and younger players, that’s a monster.
You want one major flaw? It’s youth, and there’s just nothing to be done about it except hope that they’re growing up right. All discussions we have about this team have to swirl around inside that larger, immovable fact.
Embrace me, sweet oblivion.