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.
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).
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.
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.