A good NBA season has chapters within it. Things need to happen to change the way that the team and its players are viewed. Fans need segments smaller than 82 games to process what they’re watching in interesting and entertaining ways; to establish a narrative that makes the whole experience feel meaningful. Taken as one big pile of possessions, a season of hoops wouldn’t draw many followers. NBA season chapters might arise due to one player’s ascent or another’s downfall. There might be a trade, or a 10-day contract; a winning or losing streak. The coach might get fired and replaced. Or somebody might get injured, leading to a lineup change.
This need for chapters is especially true for fans of a losing team that is not heading to the playoffs. When the regular season is the whole show, some variety is needed to spice things up. Timberwolves followers know this all too well, and have experienced all sorts of season chapters in the past decade since Kevin Garnett was traded away to Boston.
To name a few:
- Wittman’s Last Stand: terrible start to 2008-09 season wherein fans booed Coach Randy Wittman into mid-season termination. Glen Taylor then forced Kevin McHale to coach the players that he assembled; a rare and sort of cool power move by Papa Glen.
- January 2009: The same Wolves that were losing under Wittman inexplicably earned the league’s best record in the month of January. Randy Foye played the best basketball of his career and Al Jefferson looked like a star — until he tore his ACL, ending this chapter.
- Love & Beasley: For a minute there, it looked like Kevin Love and Michael Beasley would be a formidable combination of forwards. No less authority than John Hollinger even wrote for ESPN.com that, “the Wolves’ new tandem provides the one thing that the league’s forlorn franchises find most difficult to sell: hope.” (!)
- Ricky!: Ricky Rubio’s arrival was one of the most fun NBA regular season chapters in history. Until he got hurt.
- Post-Ricky’s ACL Tear: Hey, nobody said every chapter is a fun one. The end of the 2011-12 Timberwolves season was sadder than most funerals.
- Shvedsanity!: Russian guard Alexey Shved was acquired in the 2012 offseason which coincided with the Summer Olympics. After the David Blatt-coached Russians surprised the world with a bronze medal finish, and Shved was the breakout star, Wolves fans were understandably psyched to see what they had in their rookie guard. Shved lived up to the hype and then some… for about 20 games, before the league learned to steal his jump passes and get physical with him out court. Much like “Linsanity” (perhaps the greatest NBA chapter ever) it was fun while it lasted.
You get the idea. These stories that take shape for parts of seasons keep us watching.
This year’s Timberwolves season has had exactly one long chapter to it, and it would be titled, “Repetition.” Coach Tom Thibodeau has chosen a strict rotation of players and is committed to teaching them The Right Way to play basketball. This rotation involves the same starting lineup and the same bench players entering and exiting games at the same times, almost totally regardless of situation or results. Thibs’s starting lineup is the league’s most-used 5-man combination by a wide margin. Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins are both near the league lead in minutes per game, and Karl-Anthony Towns is not far behind them. The Timberwolves with the best plus-minus numbers (Tyus Jones and Brandon Rush) remain buried on the end of the bench, leaving fans wondering what might be if Thibs tried this or that.
This pattern amid an extremely disappointing first 38 games has left fans uneasy and thirsty for some experimentation. Shuffling the lineup would be a respite from the repetitive cycle of losing that we’ve borne witness too.
On my own personal wish list of things I’d like to see Thibs tinker with, “staggering Wiggins and LaVine” has been at the top. Mostly, I have wanted to see more lineups that include Wig, but don’t include Zach.
The x’s and o’s of a slasher and shooter pair makes good theoretical sense, and I understand Thibs’s desire to expedite chemistry between his dynamic, 21-year old wing duo. But at this early stage of each’s development, and with both now 20-points-per-game scorers, I really question whether sharing the floor so much is the best way to learn. To me, that invites “taking turns” more than “reading and reacting.” Mind you, they not only need to get their own buckets and share the ball with each other, but they have to incorporate KAT, the franchise-pillar big man. LaVine and Wiggins are bucket-getters, and having two of those at the wing spots can lead to less-than-ideal chemistry, particularly when the players involved are so young, still trying to prove themselves, and have yet to master their own fundamentals, let alone the nuances of anticipating defensive schemes and making the easy pass instead of the difficult shot.
In Thibs’s youthful starting unit that includes all of LaVine, Wiggins and KAT, there seems to be a bubble of ambitious upside that bursts down the stretch of close games.
When both LaVine and Wiggins have been on the floor, the Wolves have been outscored by 81 points in 1,040 minutes, which is a per-48-minutes differential of (-3.7). Heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Houston Rockets, lineups with Wiggins and WITHOUT LaVine outscored opponents by 41 points over 359 minutes; a per-48 differential of (+5.5). There was one early-season game against the Lakers that LaVine sat out with knee soreness. That night, the Wolves won by 26 points and Wiggins dropped a career-high 47 on just 21 shot attempts.
Forgive me for wanting to see a greater sample size.
I got my wish last night, thanks to a Zach LaVine (minor) hip contusion injury, and the results could hardly have been better. The Rockets came into town with the midseason MVP favorite and a 31-9 record on their side.
The Wolves won the game going away and looked as good as they have at any time in the Thibs Era.
By subbing Brandon Rush in for the injured LaVine, the ball tended to be in Ricky Rubio’s hands a lot more often. Rush is a smart veteran and a great spot-up three-point shooter. Rubio made a series of great cross-court dishes to Rush, leading to 4 threes for the little used wing. This specific action — Ricky looking at the post or the roll man before whipping the ball over the entire defense for a three — is one of the main ways that he makes a difference on offense. It has been sorely lacking this season due to the ball simply not being in his hands as much for playmaking responsibilities, and due to his young and dynamic teammates not having very good catch-and-shoot instincts. (For as pure a jumper as LaVine has, he does not have a particularly quick release off the catch, and often dribbles into his shots.) Rush is the absolutely perfect complement to Ricky Rubio, who dominated this game and ended with 17 assists and just a single turnover in 35 minutes of (+12) basketball.
Whether Rush-for-Zach had any directly positive impact on Wiggins was less obvious from “eye test,” but Wig did score 28 points, including 15 in the first quarter that helped set the tone and allow the Wolves to (Thibs voice) “play from a lead.” He hit 2-4 from three, 4-5 from the line, and ran the floor for some opportunistic transition baskets. Wig also defended Harden, which makes the big scoring night a bit more impressive. His (+9) performance now has those LaVine-less numbers updated to (+50) in 397 minutes, or about (+6.0) per 48.
Shabazz Muhammad, who has been playing shockingly-better basketball of late, gave the Wolves a scoring burst off the bench that made the difference between a competitive game and an easy victory. Bazz scored 20 points on 7-11 shooting (2-3 from three) and pulled down 7 rebounds in 30 minutes of (+13) action. He scored in a variety of ways, including transition dunks (off of spectacular Ricky passes), post-ups, hustle points, and jumpers. Over the last 9 games, Bazz is averaging 12.1 points per game on 51.4% shooting, including 61.9% from three. In a marked deviation from career trends, Muhammad leads the entire team (among regular rotation players) in net rating (+2.5). Even stranger, Bazz’s good plus/minus numbers stem from DEFENSE, which has always been considered his biggest flaw — possibly even a fatal one for his continued NBA career hopes.
When Shabazz Muhammad has been on the floor (635 minutes), the Wolves have allowed 99.5 points per 100 possessions. For some perspective, the Utah Jazz have the best defense in the entire league, and they allow 101.4 per 100. The Wolves have been playing elite-level defense with Muhammad in the game. I am not prepared to say that he’s the cause of this stinginess, but at minimum, he’s not screwing up and getting in the way of a good collective defensive effort. His recent surge of all-around bench play is one of the brighter developments of the season, to date. Late in last night’s game, Ryan Anderson poured in a few uncontested threes that caused Thibs to lose his shit as bad as any time all season. After a timeout, Bazz put the game away for good with a three from the right wing. Hitting the dagger shot was a fitting conclusion to a great Muhammad performance.
LaVine is going to come back from that hip contusion injury, and that’s great. Given that he almost gave it a go last night, I’m guessing he’ll play tomorrow against the Thunder. This game wrap is not about criticizing him. Zach is an undeniably-huge talent and his upside remains one of the most exciting aspects of this Timberwolves team. But in a season filled with repetition and disappointment, it was nice to have a game where Thibs was forced into experimental mode. We saw what Ricky Rubio can look like when paired with a steady spot shooter in Rush. We saw what Wiggins can look like in an organic pecking order slotting him as the playmaking wing next to a passer and a spot-shooter.
Chronologically, this one-game sample size is too short to qualify as a season “chapter.” But if nothing else, it provides us with some fodder for discussion beyond the recurring cycle of second-half collapses and Thibs barking from the bench. It was also a phenomenal win that could help jump-start this season in a better direction.