2016-17 Season

Timberwolves 103, Nuggets 105: Sweet Oblivion

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.

<sigh>

Embrace me, sweet oblivion.

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6 thoughts on “Timberwolves 103, Nuggets 105: Sweet Oblivion

  1. The day will come when the Wolves have a winning philosophy. It begins with having a D-League team that’s located in a city near Minneapolis (Rochester or St. Paul, for examples). Think of it being like a high school or MIAC junior varsity team. Practices for the NBA team and D-League team can be held in the same downtown Minneapolis location.
    Experience has taught me that freshmen and sophomore players are happy with playing time, but it’s the junior and especially senior players who want to win. As players come and go, Wolves will eventually reload and not just rebuild. There is athleticism everywhere. The challenge is to make basketball players, people who understand how to play and win. Determination, hustle and passion are a must. Got to lock in that tough-guy attitude even when shots don’t go down.

  2. Having watched yesterday’s game, I must say that I’m pleased with the effort of the guys. Towns is starting to make the right decisions when he is double and triple teamed, i.e., pass the ball. The problem is that we do not have a system so that the right guy ends up getting unmarked in his favorite spot through multiple screens like the Warriors, Spurs, Cavs, Clippers and Houston do. Instead we employ simple cuts that end up with Ricky taking jump shots, which is not a high percentage play. Having said all this, I completely agree that our bench is nowhere to be found. I honestly do not know if the bench players are simply not good enough, or Thibs is giving them such a hard time. But we need to have a scorer in the bench that will allow LaVine to rest a bit. No matter what, it’s going to be an interesting 2017 trading-wise.

  3. I get what you mean about Dieng’s jumpers, Steve, but he’s above 50% for his career from 10-16 feet, while Cunningham is under 40%. If anything, that’s a good result to a play, considering how open he usually is and the likelihood that it got to him after several passes. His minutes with bench players should feature more elbow jumpers because he might be the most-efficient threat in those groups. Elbow jumpers themselves aren’t a problem; it’s the number of guys who shoot 45% or worse on them and take a lot.

    It’s never clear to me why a guy going to the hoop with a defender trailing always keeps it on the same side of the rim as the defender instead of going for a reverse. It was an option for Wiggins on that last play.

    I’m not exactly sure when the Wolves will be able to play as fast as their opponents seem to, but that will probably lead to the turning point with this group. The Nuggets zip the ball around and are decisive with their movement on both ends. Meanwhile, the Wolves spend half of the 3rd quarter trying to turn Towns into Olajuwon in an era where those post up, back ’em down for 4 seconds, then shoot plans are easily foiled by double teams from all angles. Maybe more of this just happens with better vets. The Nuggets’ young guys are just as young as the Wolves’, but Gallo, Nelson, and Chandler really help drive those guys to greater focus.

  4. Youth was on display last night. The wolves looked like stars when KAT fed out of the double team to cutters and Rubio sinking to the FT line. You started to think that they were getting the hang of winning and just finding the open man. Then Rubio’s shot got flatter than a pancake and Andrew wasn’t hitting everything and the Nuggets big men beat our front court and took the lead and the momentum away. Of course the bench was the typical no factor and basically our starters beat their starters. Their bench crushed our bench.

    The upsetting thing about last night, was in the third when the shots weren’t going down, instead of working the clock and driving to the basket and getting fouls, our pups took quick shots and made it easier for Denver to get back into the flow of their game. I thought these kids were students of the game. All they needed to do is watch Jordan, Bird, Kobe or any champion player that goes through a cold stretch. They find ways to get to the FT line and they don’t rush, they slow down. They make an extra pass and get the dunk or the FT jumper.

    I would have liked to seen Tyus get in the game, since his jump shot could have been a benefit to the cold second team. Dunn wasn’t going to be any change of pace from Rubio last night, but he sat DNP-CD and that drives me crazy. Thibs rewards his first round pick, that has shown he is not worthy of his time and needs to be in a D league getting minutes and confidence. His bench shows no consistency, but for some reason he feels the need to work the same eight players night in and night out. Belly seems like he is basically counted the minutes until he is freed of his time with the wolves and can head back to the Euro-league where he can pretend he is a star.

  5. If I were tasked with writing this recap I would have no idea what to say. While we showed enough fight to make a run at winning the game at the end, it was really a display of an overwhelming amount of problems. Some of them are from mysterious origin and simply saying ‘we’re young’ doesn’t quite explain it all, although youth puts a major cap on what we can do now.

    This recap does offer a couple of things to comment on. One is that indeed Denver was letting Gorgui and Ricky shoot. Deing is an OK scorer and Rubio is not good. I think it is pretty common for teams to only start 3 really good scorers. Many start less offensive talent than we do. Good players and good teams aren’t easily forced into playing the way their opponent wants them to. Even as a young team, we can’t afford to let a team like Denver make us take the shots they want us to. So this isn’t really Dieng or Rubio’s fault, it is the our big three’s fault and perhaps a sign of some less then ideal coaching. In a perfect world, Gorgui would always be hot from his spots and score better in the paint. Rubio wouldn’t go on such rancid streaks. But we should not look like we did against Denver, ever. Also, good ball movement isn’t simply swinging it to the open man out of a double, it is looking for good shots. Even though Gorgui can hit mid range shots and Rubio needs to take some shots each game and can make some, those aren’t always good shots even if they are open, particularly when they are suddenly the meat of the offense.

    Indeed we have no bench unit, to speak of. Our cautious bench moves in the off season are proving to be inadequate. That said, while we have major personnel problems there, the way the bench has been used has destroyed any chance of them being a unit with momentum and chemistry. Shved was simply someone without NBA level skills, a total scouting mistake. Bjellica has NBA skills, but a lot of trouble using them in the right way. He sort of gets into a spiral, where he doesn’t play in quite the right way, doesn’t get on track, gets no momentum, and loses all confidence. He’s my biggest bench disappointment. But there is quite a list. Did the Wolves expect Dunn to be this mediocre? Did they expect Aldrich to look so lame? Did they expect Rush to be a DNP king? Did they expect Hill to be rarely used? They could have guessed they’d get the same ole ‘head down’ Bazz, and I could have told them not to keep Lucas III. But so much is not coming together. Thibs has handed himself a tough hand here (along with Layden). Still, he’s not done a good job of developing a competent enough bench combo with what we have so that they can be played regular minutes and develop some continuity and confidence. This is both about finding the right combos and teaching guys well enough to let them grow into bench roles in this situation. I just don’t see any evidence that the coaching staff has done a good job here, even though they have a crappy hand of cards to work with. I know I sound like a broken record, but a simple active way to try to fix the problem would be to play Jones. I think that would not only give us some more shooting and ball care on the bench, but it would probably help everyone on the bench play slightly better because Tyus can hit shots, can run the offense well and passes–he creates looks our bench just isn’t getting. For developmental reasons Thibs may be avoiding even trying this, but is it worth it to develop a player of Dunn’s questionable talent? Second, such decisions have reverberations. We have to play the starters so many minutes because our bench is in such disarray and part of why it is could be our unwillingness to try pretty obvious things like playing Jones, who’s done nothing but overachieve with the minutes he’s given. This wears on our players and raises injury potential. You could see the players getting gassed a bit in this game. Rubio’s shot looked extra flat, and LaVine looked burnt out. Basically, our struggles are youth, players not being responsible for taking care of what they need to (even if young) and coaching. They are all part of a negative stew which could become toxic. I am reminded of the recent quotes here from Corey Brewer, that a culture of losing, for lack of a better term, is a career jeopardizing situation for players. In this regard, we need to start solving some of these things with a timeline of some haste, rather than making the mistake of being too patient and in the process allowing excuses to get a foothold on our developmental arc.

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