2nd Quarter Report Card

Sunday’s disappointing game at Dallas was the Timberwolves’ 41st of the season, which means that they just reached the midway point. Which means that it’s time for another quarterly report card. In case you missed the first quarter edition, click here. (I’ll also include the first-quarter grades here, in parentheses.)

The stats included in this piece come from nba.com/stats, and the 20-game stretch from Game 22 through 41. The Wolves went 8-12 in those games, which signaled modest improvement from their 6-15 start to the season.

Remember, all grades are on a curve for the expectations of the player, based on his potential and role.

POINT GUARDS

Ricky Rubio: B+ (1st Quarter Grade: D+)
After a terrible start, Ricky played more like his usual self in the second quarter of the season. He shot 38.8% from the field, which isn’t good but better than his career average of 36.9%. He made 53 out of 56 free throw attempts (94.6%). He averaged 8.9 assists to just 2.4 turnovers per game, a stellar ratio of 3.7 to 1. On consecutive nights against the Thunder and Hawks, Ricky had 10 assists without a turnover. This past week, playing extended minutes with veteran catch-and-shooter and all around knows-how-to-play guy, Brandon Rush, Ricky played his best basketball in a long time. Making all kinds of cool cross-court dishes above the defense that was focused on KAT in the lane, Ricky compiled assist totals of 15, 17, and 14, all coming in wins. Rubio’s net rating in the past 20 games was (+2.5), second best among starters (Gorgui Dieng). When he was off the floor, the Wolves were outscored by a whopping 8.0 points per 100 possessions. That 10.5-point on/off differential is the sort of difference we’re accustomed to seeing here. The good part of that equation — the (+2.5) — suggests Rubio is back to playing good ball. The bad part… that brings us to our next grade.

Kris Dunn: C- (1st Quarter Grade: D+)
Aside from showing signs of exciting on-ball defense, Dunn continues to struggle. On offense, the only thing he knows how to do is make cool crossover dribble moves that don’t really take him anywhere useful. His shooting in this stretch was abysmal (36.5% from field, 19.9% from three, 54.5% from the free throw line). His assist-to-turnover ratio was mediocre for a point guard (1.6 to 1). His offensive and defensive ratings were both bad (99.1 and 108.5, respectively) leading to a terrible net rating of (-9.4).

I’d feel better about Dunn’s upside if his shooting mechanics were half decent, but they’re pretty ugly. He doesn’t have any idea how to use ball screens effectively, which leaves isolation pull-up jumpers and floaters as his fall-back offensive weapons. It isn’t a pretty picture right now. With Rubio back on the rise, Tyus Jones seeming to show progress throughout his first 1.5 seasons (while 2 years younger than Dunn) and a point-guard-rich draft class this summer, Dunn will want to get on with the improvement sooner than later to solidify a spot in this team’s nucleus. As much as Thibs seems invested in Dunn, he’s plenty smart enough to assess his own players. If the struggles never stop, Dunn’s playing time eventually will.

Tyus Jones: Incomplete (1st Quarter Grade: A-)
When Ricky Rubio was injured early in the season, and Kris Dunn had a few extra-unprepared moments, 20-year old Tyus Jones got a chance to play. And he did pretty well! Certainly better than Dunn, and statistically better than Rubio in some key categories.

But the reality is that Rubio is the team’s best point guard and Dunn is the recent high draft pick (on a team where the President is the same person as the Coach) and Jones isn’t going to get much of a chance, as things stand.

Jones played 38 minutes over the past 20 games. These were mostly inconsequential, forgettable stints. According to nba.com, he scored 14 points and had 2 assists in that time. The Wolves were outscored by 2 points. There isn’t much to say about Tyus’s second quarter. He still leads the team in net rating (+6.6) and is third in PER (15.7).

WINGS

Zach LaVine: B+ (1st Quarter Grade: B+)
This is a tough one.

Zach LaVine put up some really impressive offensive numbers over the past 20 games: 20.2 points (on 47.3% shooting, including a high-volume 46.0% from three (!)) 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. LaVine hit 3.2 threes per game in a stretch when his entire team was hitting just 7.7 of them. (On the season, the Wolves hit 8.0 per game, which ranks 28 out of 30 in the league.)

In other words, without LaVine the Wolves would be horrendous at shooting.

He had some huge games in this stretch, including 29 points and 6 assists at Toronto, 25 & 4 against Golden State, 24 & 6 at Chicago, 24 & 6 against Houston, 23 & 3 against Phoenix, 40 points against Sacramento, 24 & 4 against Milwaukee, 28 points against Philly, and 24 & 4 against the Jazz. The best couple defenses in the NBA are included in that list of games, and it sometimes seems like “quality of opposing defense” is irrelevant in Zach LaVine’s world of jumping up ridiculously high to launch beautiful 25-foot jumpers that go in almost half the time.

The problems for LaVine that pull his grade down from an “A” are defense and team performance when he’s on the floor. His net rating over the past 20 games was (-3.5); the only negative number among the starters. His defensive rating (111.0) was horrible. (The Lakers are 30th in defense at 110.2.) When LaVine was out for two games with a hip contusion, the Wolves finally clicked, looking like a two-way team that knew how to dig in for stops and space the floor with sensible ball movement. They beat the Rockets and Thunder by double digits. The only other time this season that LaVine sat out, the Wolves beat the Lakers by 26 points.

This on/off stuff with LaVine is a continuation of trends from his first two seasons, but it would be unfair to pretend like it is all his fault or that he isn’t getting better. He’s improving more rapidly than any of his teammates, in my view. There are some who believe that both LaVine and Andrew Wiggins are naturally shooting guards, each a bit undersized to face forwards. Along those lines, it’s certainly possible that if Wiggins were the one out with injuries, alternate lineups that included LaVine and not Wig would’ve done just as well.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the defense gets WAY better when LaVine goes to the bench. In the past 20 games, the Wolves defended better than any team in the league in the 292 minutes that LaVine sat (98.6). Worst-to-first, in other words. Over the entire season, it doesn’t change all that much (the drop goes from 109.8 to 100.1). His defense is really bad, so he doesn’t quite get the A grade despite a pretty awesome stretch of offensive production. His upside remains exciting and we all hope his progress continues.

Andrew Wiggins: B- (1st Quarter Grade: B+)
Wiggins continues to score a lot. He averaged 21.5 points per game in the second quarter. His 46.0% shooting from the field was pretty good, but his three-point shooting regressed way down to 29.2% and his always-frustrating free throws were bad. He connected on just 68.2% of them, constantly “Derricking” one out of two, even in games where he made multiple trips to the line where most skilled players would find their touch after an initial miss. In the second quarter Wiggins also averaged 4.7 rebounds (slightly above his season average) and 2.2 assists compared to 2.3 turnovers. The “Point Wiggins” experiment of Thibodeau’s makes logical sense — playmaking from the perimeter is what Wig’s upside looks like — but it failed enough times to leave it on the practice floor for a while. The team functions a lot better — right now — when Rubio handles the rock.

A “B-” grade balances the disappointing efficiency and continued lack of playmaking with the simple reality that Wiggins continues to score a lot at a really young age, even as his teammate LaVine joins the team’s ranks of 20-points-per-game scorers. Wig’s individual rebounding numbers are uninspiring. But the Wolves tend to rebound better than their opponents when Wig’s on the floor (rebound percentage of 53.6 in last quarter, while —puts on mathematician hat— opponents rebound just 46.4% of them) and they tend to rebound better when he’s on the floor versus when he’s off it (rebound percentage of 52.0 when he was off the floor).

Wiggins rebounding is not a problem, at this point in time. Let’s revisit the issue when the team stops allowing so many shots to go in. They’re currently 26th in opponent field goal percentage and 4th in rebound percentage.

Shabazz Muhammad: B+ (1st Quarter Grade: C-)
Bazz found his shooting stroke. After starting the year on an extended cold streak and playing the worst ball of his career, he turned in a solid second quarter of this season. Per-36 minutes, he averaged 15.6 points on 44.3% field goal shooting. More importantly, he hit 17 of 35 three-point attempts (48.6%). In 375 minutes over the past 20 games, Bazz was (+5). For some reason, the defense continues to do really well with Muhammad out there. For reasons I can’t really explain, the Wolves only allowed 99.8 points per 100 possessions with Bazz on the floor. That was best on the team.

Hey, we’ll take it. The bench has been a major problem in the past few years, so any positive plus/minus numbers and hot perimeter shooting is a bonus. Muhammad will make himself a lot of money if he can keep it up for 41 more games before his restricted free agency. For a minute there, it looked like his next stop might be across the Atlantic.

Brandon Rush: Incomplete, but not his fault this time (1st Quarter Grade: Incomplete)
When Muhammad sat out against the Wizards at Washington, Brandon Rush got his first playing time in almost a month. He shot 4-4 from the field (including 2-2 from three) and finished (+8) in a 7-point loss.

If nothing else, we knew he was alive, and could still shoot a basketball.

When LaVine had the hip contusion, Thibs gave Rush the full load of starter’s minutes. He played 36 in the 14-point win over Houston. He buried 4 threes. He played almost 40 minutes in the win over the Thunder. He was 3-6 from downtown.

To the chagrin of Wolves Nation, Rush played a mere 3 minutes and 21 seconds in the next game, a let-down loss at Dallas to the lowly Mavs.

It seems like the Wolves are a lot better with Rush in the lineup (particularly the starting lineup where the Youth Overload welcomes some veteran strength and know-how) but Thibs isn’t budging on the development stuff. I doubt we’ll see enough Rush to qualify him for a letter grade this year.

BIGS

Nemanja Bjelica: D+ (1st Quarter Grade: C)
The last 20 games were not kind to the second-year Serbian still trying to find his way in the NBA after mastering the European game. Bjelica is a regular rotation player, logging minutes at the 4 spot off the bench. He shot just 41.7% from the field in the second quarter, including a high-volume 25.5% from downtown. Per 36 minutes he scored 11.2 points and pulled down just 6.6 rebounds.

Kenny Smith: “Hey Chuck, what’s a power forward that gets you 6.6 rebounds?”
Charles Barkley: “Small forward.”

Bjelica had a net rating of (-6.4) in the second quarter, the negativity owing to his putrid offensive rating of just 97.1, in 301 minutes. He had a few good moments and Thibs seems to like him, but it’s hard to imagine Bjelica in this team’s regular rotation next season if he doesn’t improve significantly between now and then.

Adreian Payne: Incomplete (1st Quarter Grade: B-)
Payne logged 22 minutes of action in the second quarter. He’s out of the mix.

Cole Aldrich: D (1st Quarter Grade: A-)
Here’s where my eye test seems to be failing badly.

I’ve watched Aldrich and become impressed by his rebounding ability. I like the way that he doesn’t force up shots when he collects an offensive rebound, but kicks it out to his better-skilled teammates. I like that he seems to use his size to play physical basketball.

But man… his on/off numbers for the past 20 games are AWFUL.

I guess I need to stop wondering why Thibs plays him so little. Cole had the team’s worst offensive rating AND the worst defensive rating (95.9 and 113.7, respectively). When Cole was on the floor, the Wolves were outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions. The sample size was pretty small (133 minutes) but he’s a big outlier here. His impressive stats do in fact come from rebounding — he pulled down 12.7 per 36 minutes in the second quarter. But if he can’t protect the paint and help prevent so many shots from going in, that won’t matter much. He doesn’t seem to be providing the thing that the Wolves need most, which is help with interior defense.

Maybe this was an aberration and it’ll correct itself in the future, with more minutes.

Gorgui Dieng: A (1st Quarter Grade: B)
Gorgui gets an “A” because I’m not sure what else he can do out there, within his physical abilities and limitations, and within the context of a game in which he is always the last option. While his game is unconventional-bordering-on-ugly, G is pretty effective in his own way.

His two most impressive stats from the second quarter are his net rating of (+4.6) which was the team’s best by a considerable margin (Rubio at +2.5), and his shooting percentage on mid-range jumpers of 57.1%. Gorgui shot 91 mid-range Js in the second quarter, which comprised almost precisely half of his field goal attempts (181). For NBA players who attempted at least 50 mid-range Js in the second quarter of the season, Gorgui had the highest percentage by over a full percentage point (Ersan Ilyasova 55.9%).

When Dieng was on the bench for 279 minutes in the season’s second quarter, the Wolves were blown out, outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions. Nobody on the roster’s absence came close to being that detrimental to team performance. While I can’t say I completely understand his effectiveness, it seems to be a thing. The sweet mid-range shooting is a plausible, if partial explanation for the offensive side of the ball. On defense, perhaps he just has a higher IQ than his teammates, and he always gives full effort.

Maybe he’s just a much-needed glue guy who doesn’t care about stats — especially now that he got paid (am I the only one noticing that G doesn’t fight his own teammates for rebounds anymore?).

Karl-Anthony Towns: A- (1st Quarter Grade: B)

For just about all intents and purposes, KAT seems to be rounding into the superstar form that we expected to see from him in Year 2, coached by Thibs. In the second quarter he averaged 21.7 points, 13.5 rebounds (!), and 3.6 assists per game. He hit 50.4% of field goal attempts. His only offensive blemishes were his dip in three-point shooting accuracy (15-69 in second quarter, 21.7%) and his uptick in turnovers, averaging 3.3 per game.

KAT’s defense throughout the season has not always been consistent and sometimes it’s just straight-up bad. But that has seemed to be progressing of late, most notably in the win over the Thunder when he thoroughly outplayed Steven Adams and played the most all-around inspired basketball of his season. In the second quarter, KAT had a net rating of (+1.5) and the Wolves were outscored by 8.1 per 100 when he sat. His righty hook shot is becoming automatic. His jumpshooting will come back in time. If he can continue to focus on defense first and let the scoring come to him, he’ll be a deserving member of an All-NBA Team very soon.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. GG says:

    Extremely upset here over the latest Rubio trade rumours….Thibs, is this your way of showing us all your inability to make these group of players play good basketball…..yes, go ahead and tank the rest of the way and file this year under the “transitioning” tag. Your offense is stagnant and your in-game decision making is non existent. Keep allowing Lavine of Wiggins kidnap the ball on offense…Your whole playbook consists apparently of no more than 1 page….so much for a sabbatical year away from coaching to learn more from other head coaches and other systems…. if this is a business and Rubio has to be dealt because of the “long picture” principle, after showing the loyalty and commitment Rubio has proven to give to a city and a franchise where NO prominent FREE AGENT has considered joining in the last +-15 years, then it won’t be long until you are fired next season….
    Share this before Dunn turns it over….

  2. pyrrol says:

    Hoopz Rumorz: Wolves Shopping Thibs!

    I think I said this in response to the 1st quarter report; why no Thibs report card? He’s been as influential with how the team has looked and preformed as any single player. At the moment, I feel like he’s way too set in his ways and inflexible to ever be the great coach people seem to think he is. He doesn’t adjust—whether it is half time, or after a month of something not working or his long ranger preconceptions (Wiggins is my Butler, Rubio’s not my kinda guy, but Dunn is my Rose). He has preconceived, super biased notions. His clear favoritism for Dunn just because he picked the guy is embarrassing and unbending. While he has slowly (glacially) been cutting his minutes as he as shown virtually no improvement off of a poor start, the recent Rubio rumors fuel an idea that he’s still the PG of the future–an idea I flat out no longer subscribe to. Even if Dunn somehow becomes as good as a Rubio level PG someday, how long is that from happening? I mean we need to develop this team, but we do need to start winning, now. We can’t tank again. How does Thibs not understand this? Why is his faith in Dunn so high, even though such reads on questionable talent are always high risk propositions? Additionally, we see some pretty mediocre offensive sets, the players very slow to learn team D under him, bad timeouts and poor plays coming out of timeouts, a general slow learning curve for all the young players, uncreative rotations, refusal to use useful players like Rush and Jones… I would not grade Thibs high. He’s not my kind of coach. I’m disappointed. And it’s not just that he’s not as good as advertised thus far. He just rubs the wrong way… There’s no silver lining here. He may be really messing up this team’s attempt to develop into a contender. At best he’s off to a below expectations start without a huge sign of that changing soon. The Rubio rumors sort of confirm that no one is learning here, that the strategy is the same as day one even though it has show no signs of being the path forward as of yet.

    My grades:

    Rubio A. He’s the only guy that knows how to play basketball every night on the team. Hard to mark someone in that position down. Does his game have weaknesses? Sure. But he’s the only reason we aren’t a tank team already.

    Dunn D. None of the ‘experts’ anticipated a player that looks like this when he was drafted. By ‘this’ I mean a guy who’s 22 and a 4 year college player who has played his way far out of the ROY discussion. He was picked by the GM’s as the most likely ROY for some reason. He’s gravely under achieved these expectations even with good minutes and tons of coddling from Thibs. Perhaps worse, he hasn’t really improved significantly.

    Jones, yeah you have to give him an I, but you can use that on Thibs grade…

    LaVine, yeah a B sounds good. I expect some major improvement on D for him to keep a grade like that going forward, though.

    Wiggins.. I would give the guy a C. He has only slightly improved his 3 point shooting and his handle is still bad. His D is still bad, and that was supposed to be his calling card. He is wildly inconsistent and is the one player who’s effort I feel I need to frequently question. All this while getting amazing coddling and favoritism from Thibs. If he weren’t so talented and despite all this helping us a lot with our scoring, I’d be inclined to give the guy a D.

    Shabazz, C. He hasn’t been the bench spark he needs to be. Some of this is because of the backup PG situation, but still. Isn’t really improving. He was what he needs to be for a handful of games this season. The only reason I give him a C is that a lot of this isn’t his fault. He needs a steadying force/set up man on the bench and doesn’t have one.

    Bjelly. Maybe a C-. He’s been a major disappointment, but hey what do you expect with Dunn playing PG with him. Bjelly playing at end of games is more a reflection of Thibs wanting a true PF eventually to play along side Towns than any faith in the way he’s been playing.

    Aldrich. Disappointment. D sounds good.

    Payne. He’s still on the team!?

    Dieng. B+ He’s playing his butt off and has been consistent. He’s more of a bench center but is admirable as a starting PF next to Towns. This arrangement won’t (and shouldn’t) last.

    Towns. B+ In a lot of ways Towns isn’t playing much better than he was as a rookie under an unstable coaching situation. There’s so much a guy of his talent could be doing better at this point, and this will happen soon. I’m happy with Towns but he’s actually going to go to another level someday and it would be nice if the trajectory was a little steeper.

  3. Tom says:

    I hate grading articles as a general rule. Biases either for or against players are too common in reviewing the play of an individual in a team sport. However, if we look at grading aspects of the team we can say:

    Team Offense C-: For the most part, the team has not lived up to the hype of having the young stars we have, a PG that feeds his team mates most nights and has been an uptempo PG during his career. We have a young draft pick point guard that was expected to compete for ROY and has uptempo strengths as well. We have had a slower pace than most teams in the fast moving West. Most of that is Thibs being a grit and grind kind of coach, even though he says he wants more easy buckets. The Wolves are in the lower half of team scoring and that is usually a sign of a losing team. Only Utah and Memphis are playoff teams that are below our Woofies. On a positive note, we have one of the top ten assist teams in the league and that is probably due to our PG and the increased passing game of KAT. If you have defensive presence in the low block area, like Utah and Memphis, you can get away with low scoring teams, However…

    Team Defense C+. We have hammered Thibs for not getting better defensive play out of his team and for the most part, he has earned our scorn. Opponent scoring, team fouls and three point percentages are actually better than the league average, but Effective %age, both from the 3 and 2 point range, is near the bottom. Most of this is due to the lack of defensive ability from our low post players. Helping out causes open threes and we really don’t have many shot blockers either.

    Bench D: Hill and Pek are the only players which haven’t shown some ability to help the starters, but none of our bench players have played well consistently and that poses a problem. Thibs wants a set group of players to draw from each night, but currently no one on the bench roster provides that for him. In fairness, all of the players on the bench (except Pek and Hill and mostly Payne) have had nights were they have added much to the success of the team. However, Thibs doesn’t mix and match his bench to the starters needs; KAT is tired, so Belly comes in, Wiggins needs a break, so Baz comes in and of course Dunn replaces Rubio. When we have had injury, players like Rush, Tyus and Belly have played as if they could be strong bench players, but more often than not, they would be exposed in longer stints as Belly and Baz are most nights.

    Coaching D: Thibs came in with the highest of expectations. His ability to get teams to play above average defense was listed as his main attribute. Unlike Zim on the Vikes, we haven’t seen much of a transformation. Unlike Flip or Adelman, we haven’t seen moments of game time decision making that would suggest Thibs is out thinking his opponent. Outside of playing the small line-up in the Clips game to positive effect, he has basically only deviated from his original game plan due to injury. His reasoning is that teams have to play a certain way to win, even if it means losing now. Meanwhile, he has undermined his PG with trade talks and lack of support in key situations, played his first round pick, when Kris is obviously in over his head, over a younger player in Tyus that offers a major upgrade in shooting and decision making over his lottery pick rookie.

    Management C+: By not overpaying for players that would have hampered future moves, Management has flexibility to add players before our big three get paid. The players they chose are not paying the dividends of playing above their salary, so you can’t give them A’s when San Antonio has three players from the D league providing quality minutes for the Spurs. Also, the handling of Ricky Rubio has been terrible. The constant talk of trading him that has leaked, is not a sign of a good Management team. If he is not a Thibs guy, then trade him and move on. If he can be a quality player at an affordable price on his team, then leave him alone until someone offers you a deal you can’t refuse.

    Overall: C-. We have a team that has three twenty point scorers. It has had a good run of late and maybe, the second half will be more of the same. However, the numerous melt-downs in the third quarters by a young group with little veteran leadership, the bull-headedness of Thibs bench rotation, and the constant rumors of trading a player that has been a major part of the success the team has suggests that a C- is probably as high as you could possibly grade this team.

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