2016-17 Season, Game Analysis

Wolves 102, Kings 88: Recent Fun, and What’s to Come

Screenshot with a couple alterations.

It’s been a good run. Or, set of runs, really.

The most important run, of course, is that the Wolves have won 6 of their last 9 games, and are making a legitimate push for the playoffs. It’s March in 2 days, and they’re 2.5 games out of the 8 seed. This hasn’t happened since Kevin Garnett donned a Timberwolves uniform the FIRST time.

The path to get there is great, with 4 teams standing between them and the Nuggets, who currently hold the final spot. And 1 game behind them sit the new wild card-clad New Orleans Pelicans, who just acquired DeMarcus Cousins.

In short, the regular season’s final month and a half are going to mean something to the Timberwolves. That hasn’t happened in a long time, and that is an exciting prospect.

But within this recent string of success are some smaller tales of fun and excitement. Andrew Wiggins has score over 20 points in 18 straight games, as he continues to eclipse the record he set 2 games ago when he got No. 16 in a loss against the Rockets. On top of that, he’s scored 27 or more in 8 straight games. He’s capped off a great February run, where he put up almost 30 a game, and has Benz and Jim Pete mentioned during tonight’s telecast, should at least get SOME Player of the Month consideration (but, as they also mentioned, a 5-6 month may hurt his odds).

But he’s been doing this since Christmas day. Since the nationally televised broadcast, Wigs has put up 25.1 ppg, .489 FG%, .349 3PT%, 4.1 RPG, 2.6 APG, and shot an impressive 56.2 true shooting percentage. The streak has been insane since the LaVine injury, but it’s important to remember that he’s been damn good for a while now. Most of the season, really.

Speaking of scoring streaks, Karl-Anthony Towns is on pace to topple the old Kevin Garnett record of 16 straight games with 20 or more points. In tonight’s game, he passed Kevin Love to tie KG for third most all-time with 15. If he gets 20+ on Wednesday against Rudy Gobert (a STIFLING task, if you ask me), he’ll follow suit with Wig and tie KG’s former title at 16.

What’s best about this, for me at least, aren’t the numbers. It’s the way they’re getting the buckets. Its full justification in question (again, for me), Wiggins has developed a reputation for the occasional stint of lethargic play on both ends. It can be most frustrating offensively, especially with the fans’ knowledge of what he can do when he’s playing with full-on aggressiveness. His “we’re playing the Cavs, that team that traded me” mindset, if you will. Lately, that type of mentality has seemed to come every night, and that includes tonight.

His mentality when getting the ball has been consistently to attack the basket, whether that means hoisting up a 3 (which he’s been hitting as of late at a fairly consistent clip), or devastating-for-defenders drives to the rim.

KAT has been a beast since he entered the league, but he’s still learning. This is mostly on the defensive end, but there have still been things offensively to work out. Lately, his takes to the rim have been stronger, his passes out of double teams have been crisper and done with more patience. With that has come the ability to get easier shots off. That’s not to say he’s getting defended any easier. The doubles will still come and opposition will still be game planing against him specifically, but he’s learning to cope with it better. The results are showing.

With this fun in mind, there is still a long way to go for the Wolves, and the schedule gets much harder coming up. Tonight’s game was a good one; they gave up fewer than 90 points for the second time in 3 games. They got more good production from Tyus Jones, some nice perimeter defense from Tyus Jones, and one of the best games of Nemanja Bjelica’s career.

But it was also against a Kings team that is still learning to play without their superstar. The previous defensive shutdown came against the consistently inconsistent Dallas Mavericks. And they gave up 142 points, albeit to the Rockets, who do that like it’s nothing.

Coming up, it will be much harder to defend with the results they’ve gotten lately. This is their beginning of March, and their next 5 games.

You can’t look at any of those games and think “yep, that’s an easy win”. The only one that appears like it could be in the Wolves’ favor would be the Portland game, but if you remember the last time these two met up, CJ McCollum ate them for lunch and they didn’t even have Damian Lillard. The Clippers have CP3 and Griffin back, the Spurs are the Spurs, and the Warriors and the Warriors.

But first is the Jazz, a team that some say the Wolves are a year or two behind in terms of potential trajectory. There are a couple big differences here. The Jazz have a deep roster and several players who can beat you on a given night. The Wolves have KAT and Wiggins. What is in the Wolves’ favor is how good they’ve been lately, and the scoring streaks each player has been on. In order to stay in playoff contention (which, I repeat, is a thing in MARCH!), they’ll likely need to keep it up against Utah, over this stretch, and for the rest of the year.

It can be done, but it won’t be easy.

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10 thoughts on “Wolves 102, Kings 88: Recent Fun, and What’s to Come

  1. I’m not so much impressed that Andrew can score, we know that already, but how efficient he’s been during the streak. He takes less unnecessarily tough shots, and when he does take them he’s been hitting them in air-out-of-the-sail fashion. His D and overall focus has also looked better. With his pure talent and these other more subtle developments, we can expect many more of these scoring streaks in his career. The scoring boon itself was almost inevitable considering LaVine is out and his replacements require way less shots. This has given both Towns and Wiggins license to score at will without worrying about leaving anyone out. We still miss LaVine’s 3-point shot creation even though Towns and Wiggins are more than capable of supplying the meat of a team’s scoring.

    I think something underpinning the way we’ve looked since the break is two ‘de-stubbornification’ things with Thibs. One is that he now has totally dropped ‘point Wiggins’. And look–Wiggins is scoring better than ever! He gets the ball in his spots and doesn’t have to worry about trying to run the whole offense. Whatever educational value the force feed program had, Thibs apparently felt was not worth it in an attempt to get the 8th seed. Second, he’s given up on force feeding Dunn on the team. Tyus now gets good minutes. Lest we think he’s just being used as a tiny Zach replacement, Jones has been playing PG most possessions when he’s paired with Dunn. He does some ‘wing duty’ with Rubio as well, wherein Rubio mostly runs point. This has cut down Dunn’s minutes to the 15-18 minute level. He had 17 tonight and Jones had 27. Jones gets so many in part because his scoring ability makes him usable as an off the ball wing on O, so he gets backup PG minutes and wing minutes. Still, I cannot believe what I just typed. He’s getting backup PG minutes! Dunn suddenly is used as a general wing defense guy. Throw in the fact that Thibs is letting the PGs improvise a little which keeps our O from getting super stale and we look better.

    KAT looks better on D and is in a way as impressive lately as Wiggins on offense.

  2. I said it last month and it’s held true, I’m still entirely confident that this team right now is a .500 team. People were hoping they could be a .500 team for the year, but it took longer for Thibs coaching to sink in than people hoped, most likely because of just how young this team is. They are 18-18 in the past 36 games and 10th in overall net rating. This gives me great hope going into next year. Our guys are still very young, the improvements they can make if they put in the work is obvious. Getting a couple pieces with Wiggins and KAT finally having an offseason in the same system will be very beneficial and this team could certainly be looking at 45 wins realistically next year. Regardless of if you think Thibs coaching has been the catalyst for this improvement, or if you think the improvement is in spite of him, you can’t deny that this team is much better right now than they were last year. And that’s without LaVine even playing. This next stretch of five will be a big test, hopefully they can pull 2-3 wins out of it.

    It’s crazy how much PER stats can be misleading. A lot of writers and NBA people are looking into these advanced metrics (and I love them myself), but they certainly don’t paint the most complete picture. Russel Westbrook steals rebounds and forces up bad shots with mediocre defense yet PER stats paint him as the best. Andrew Wiggins has a higher PER than Klay Thompson, the second deadliest three point shooter of all time who also happens to be an all-NBA level defender. I think people also freak out a little too much on Jokic’s PER numbers. His assists get inflated in Denver (he averages about twice as many assists in Denver than on the road, thanks home team statistician), and assists are already inflated in PER numbers. His defense is also atrocious. I love advanced stats, but I think they’re getting a little out of hand. The way the game is played is changing considerably and the eye test just doesn’t match up on a lot of these guys currently. One thing that’s certain though is that Wiggins has entered into some elite company on both basic stats and advanced stats. He’s at a higher wins added share than Paul George, broke Kevin Garnett’s 20+ scoring record, and is just simply putting up points at an all-NBA level. The guy is good and the criticism of him from earlier in the year will continue dissipating because he seems to have found a consistency with Rubio and Towns that I don’t see ending anytime soon. The idea that he’s not very good, or that we should trade him should seem pretty silly to everyone now.

    I’m interested if the writers here have any idea if Thibs is considering a full time move to the sixth man for LaVine? I think it’s pretty obvious that the movement is better with him out. It’s just too much for such a young team to try and make things work with four guys who need the ball (Rubio/LaVine/Wigs/KAT). With LaVine out Rubio can run the show and get Wigs or KAT open and you can run two man games with just Wigs and KAT. Less confusion is good for these guys. Simplify it and run it better and it’s been working. LaVine would still get tons of minutes, but you can rotate him better from the bench and have a more consistent offensive output throughout the game. I’m hoping they at least give it a try. The starters need a wing who can defend, not a liability on that end with more offense. We have enough offense to put up 130 even with the anemic Brandon Rush out there putting up goose eggs. Get a wing who can defend and score more than Rush and that’s perfect.

    1. I’ve been thinking along similar lines re: Lavine as 6th man next year. If Thibs isn’t high on Shabazz (as the trade rumors would indicate) and he ends up moving, Zach slides into (and upgrades) that role of primary wing scorer off the bench. Our very own Eric Gordon. Who takes his spot in the starting lineup? I don’t know, but a 3 and D vet would be nice.

    2. Great teams have more than a 1-2 punch. Do we plan on being great, or do we just want to be good faster? If we just want to be a competitive team as quickly as possible, maybe not having Zach clears up the murck and perhaps he would be better suited for the bench where he won’t get in the way of Wiggins and Towns. But great teams have 3 punches in their starting lineup. And if the Wolves want to be great they need to learn how to find starting room for a guy like LaVine with Wiggins and Towns.

      I like Wiggins and want him to graduate from the state of being a guy that is easy to criticize. I think his streak is a big step in that direction, and as stated for more reasons that scoring prowess and consistency. Still, from all the on again off again focus and effort I’ve seen from him so far, I get this feeling like the floor is about to fall out from under me at any moment. I hope I’m wrong to have these feelings and Wiggins is just figuring it out and will look this good from here on out.

      I wonder if any of this has to do with Wiggins basically playing SG a lot of the time since Zach went down… In my opinion, Wiggins is going to have to be able to play SF if he wants to be on a great team because we’ll need a better 3 point shooter and ball handler at that position to compete at the top.

      It does look like the guys are figuring out Thibs system, but it seems clear that the early struggles were as much from him mismanaging the team as they were from youth. It’s not a coincidence that we look so consistent now with no Pt Wiggins and plenty of Tyus and diminished Dunn. Our flow is way better with a normal, flexible offense, with room to improvise starting with PGs.

      1. What do you mean great teams have more than a 1-2 punch? The Cavaliers just won the NBA finals with their second leading scoring averaging 17 more points than the third guy. It was 29 points for LeBron, 27 for Kyrie, and 10 for J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. Is ten points a punch? Setting some idealistic mold for what an NBA team should be is silly. The Wolves have a top 10 offense with the starting lineup of Rubio/Rush/Wiggins/Dieng/Towns. That’s just a statistical fact. And that isn’t even the lineup the Wolves should have next year. They should replace Rush with someone who can play defense and at least score points and replace Dieng with an actual PF, preferably one who can stretch the floor at least a bit. I don’t see what’s not sustainable in that because there isn’t “three punches” with LaVine on the bench. It’s not about how many players can put up 40 points, it’s about how well the offense jells and works as a functional unit.

        Why would you need to have your starting SG shoot three’s better than Wiggins? DeMar Derozan is the starting SG for the fourth best team in the east and the team that was in the Eastern Conference finals last year. He shoots 28% from three for his career. Again, it isn’t about being the Warriors, or having some exact mold that a team needs to be. It’s about using the players you have to their best potential to create a unit that is the best. We can add a SF to the team that can defend better than Wiggins who can also shoot the three at least league average. We can add a PF who is a better fit next to Towns who can also hit the three at a respectable click.

        Yes we look better lately, and yes it’s because we’re running better offensive sets with our best PG’s. I don’t understand how you think you understand this but Thibs doesn’t. I get it if you question Thibs tactics and long term vision, but he is a highly successful NBA coach who has been chosen to help coach for the Olympics. He understands basketball offenses and defenses. The team has a chance to make the playoffs and he can’t have his big three jell anymore because LaVine is out with injury. Obviously he’s decided to try and win now, like you said it’s obvious that the team is using better lineups and running better offensive sets. Why is the takeaway from that “Thibs fell backasswards into actually managing this team correctly finally”. He has known this the whole time. If he wanted to try and win as many games this year as possible, if the players were developed to a point where he was comfortable, he would have done that from the start. But the players obviously have a long way to go and Thibs obviously wanted to throw them in and try to fast track their development. I have my doubts about Thibs myself. He plays guys too many minutes and I don’t think he see’s the value of leaving LaVine on the bench. I think he’s going to force Wiggins into a Jimmy Butler type role he doesn’t ideally fit. But I don’t think he’s an idiot who didn’t understand that Rubio is a better initiator on offense than Wiggins until a month ago.

        1. Yikes.

          First off, The Cavs to have a 3 punch–Lebron, Irving and Love. Love was out and they still managed to win it all… with the best player on earth. And clearly they know the 3 stars thing is a good idea in the way they built their roster. After winning without Love they could have easily saved a buck and let him go. Obviously the 3 thing was also done in Miami and Boston as and you can clearly call Curry-Durrant-Thompson a trio, too. Of course we could argue about whether a big 2 or 3 as starters is better until the cows come home. The larger point is that it is too early to relegate LaVine to be a bench player or give up the idea of a starting ‘big 3’. I agree with Thibs not putting LaVine on the bench. He saw starting level talent there, so he wants him starting. Makes sense to me.

          Ideally, you want a SG who is a good ball handler and can hit threes very well, right? Wiggins isn’t exactly prototypical at a lanky 6’8″ with a loose handle and his average 3 point shooting (surely below average among shooting guards). Does that mean he can’t play SG? Not at all. But theoretically it’s not his best fit. Or theoretically I’m totally wrong. But Wiggins isn’t exactly a prototypical SG. I’m thinking our coach might know this…

          If you read the comments on here you know that I often complain about Thibs when I don’t agree with him. But you’d also know I don’t call him an idiot and have several times noted how he knows more than I ever will about basketball, and basically eats breaths and sleeps it. You’ll even hear me compliment Thibs. To your point specifically, I think Thibs does ‘know better’. But what I question was if his early season strategy was worth the developmental dividends we may have gotten out of them, or if it would have been better to try to win fully from the beginning of the season. I’m not a big fan of ‘development before wins’ with a team with our level of talent and 2nd and 3rd year stars. I might feel different with a less talented roster or a team of 1st and 2nd year guys. But I think it’s time to try to win, and it looks like Thibs might agree with this sentiment now. You could call putting too much emphasis on in-game developmental gimmicks ‘mismanagement’ though perhaps my word choice could have been better. I also suspect that Thibs wasn’t quite aware just how much some of his developmental ideas would hurt the chances of winning night in and out. For example,one suspects he expected better from Dunn going in and eventually, after a long test, learned that its going to be a longer term project which is a bit more up in the air. Even coaches who eat breath and sleep basketball can have reads that need to be adjusted. And of course fans are often opinionated and often wrong (but having sports opinions is half the fun of being a fan). We’ll see how things pan out, but I like our new direction so far.

          1. You saw a great team in the finals last year. The fact that Love is a “third punch” during the regular season is irrelevant. You saw a team win three in a row against the best team ever with only two great offensive performances. And that’s not even what I’m saying we should be. Having LaVine on the bench does not remove him from the team. It simply allows for better lineups. He can, and would, still average close to 20 points off the bench much like Eric Gordon was earlier this year and Lou Williams is. His offensive firepower would still be there.

            I think you’re getting way too hung up on what the “ideal” is. Ideally we’d just have the Warriors roster. Michael Jordan couldn’t hit threes and yada yada. Wiggins is 200 pounds soaking wet with a Center playing PF and a starting Center who for some reason can’t move his feet on D. And we wonder why the defense is so bad. It’s because our starting SF is a long SG, and our two best centers are on the court together (and one of them is bad at D). Wiggins has shown he can improve his handle and three point shooting much more than he’s shown he can put on 30-40 pounds. He’s just not strong enough and I don’t want to force him to put on 30 pounds so he can guard Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron. The guys he would have to guard for us to win a championship. I think having him continue to work on his handle and three point shot, putting on 10 pounds or so slowly, and having him use his length to bother SG’s is a much, much better option. He’s long, yes, but Durant is also longer than a lot of Centers. No one would ever ask him to put on weight and move to PF/C. You start him at SF and in some small ball lineups you play him as your second biggest guy but that’s not his role as a starter. I think we should apply that same logic to Wiggins in order to gain from his size advantage at the two instead of getting pushed around and tiring his legs at the three. He can chase small guys around forever, what wears on his legs is defending 240 pounders posting up and trying to post them up. The more tired your legs get the faster your three point shot falls off. The only issue is, Wiggins is the best option on our current roster to guard most SF’s. This is a problem. The same problem as Gorgui being the best option at PF. Just because it’s our best option currently doesn’t mean it should stay that way.

            I read all the comments here. There is a difference between explicitly and implicitly calling someone an idiot. If I never say someone is stupid but I always say the things they do are stupid (or synonyms), then what else am I doing but saying that person is stupid? If what you think is Thibs was wrong to not focus on wins for the first half of the year, and not that he didn’t understand running the team like he’s doing now was the best way to get wins, then I understand your point of view. I just don’t agree with that. It’s like how you think Thibs knows something about where Andrew should play and I don’t (which could be 100% true), I think Thibs knows something about how much Andrew and KAT and LaVine still have to go before they can think about really making a playoff run. Frankly, I think he was surprised by how little they knew. So he used the beginning to develop them for the future and I think that was smart. I also said while I agree I would try and use the last third of the year to focus on getting as many wins as possible so the team could leave the building at the end of the year with a good taste in their mouths, hungry for more wins. We’re seeing him try to win a bit earlier than I would have thought (likely due to LaVine getting hurt), but I do think it is now a good idea at this point.

  3. Not that long ago, Great teams needed an inside presence and an ability to score from outside. Shaq and Kobe, Shaq and DWade, Stockton and Malone. Then came the Celtics big three and now everyone wants that. The main thing is you need a transcendent player, LeBron, Jordan, Kobe, Duncan, etc. if you want to be championship material. You can get to the playoffs without one, but you usually don’t get far.

    Looking at our wolves, we have a couple guys that we hope can be that elite player, but really none of them have risen to the status of these guys at a similar stage of their careers. Part of that is due to the revolving coaching situation and dearth of support talent, but part of it falls on the shoulders of KAT and Andrew (and to a slightly smaller extent LaVine). They still have holes in their games that must be removed if they are to be considered elite. The scoring is great, but this franchise has had scorers even in the worst of years, so if that is all these guys can do, we will be a franchise on the fringe, instead of long term playoff material. KG took some really ragtag teams to the playoffs after Marbury and Googs left. What he had was toughness. He never played down to the competition, never asked to guard the weaker low post guy and never took a day off and made the rest of his team better, because all he cared about was winning. Taking on that challenge is what our young stars need to do.

    We may make the 8th seed or just miss it, which should be viewed as another step forward for our team. If we miss it, we have a chance to add another youngster to the mix. We also have cap money to spend. Hopefully, we will add starters and not fill out the bench with overpriced players. Having a strong enough team to move good players like G, Rubio and possibly Zack to the bench could allow the team to make another big step. Moving players like Belly and Tyus and Cole to the end of the bench would also show that this team is ready. However, if KAT and Andrew do not elevate their game to be on par with Kyrie and an older LeBron, Steph and KD, Kawhi and Aldridge then we will be plateauing at the just getting in the playoffs mode. Thibs will be back to provide stability to the coaching and hopefully add a talented stretch four, a deadly three point shooting two, a back up Big that has some shot blocking ability and veteran toughness to help our stars. But it will be what our two stars do to make themselves more complete and more relentless that will determine if we have the right stuff to be thinking championships.

    1. Agreed. The most important thing for this team to win a championship is for KAT to become dominant defensively. He’s already a top 3 big offensively, but his defense is bad. Getting better team defense from the wing and an actual PF will help, but he needs to improve himself. His rebounding lately has been wonderful and a great addition to his already great offensive game, but if we want to win it all he needs to be a top 3 player in the NBA.

      Getting starters is important, but I don’t think they necessarily need to be more than role player starters. Like you said yourself, getting KAT to the next level is the most important part and the second most important part in my opinion is managing the cap so we can keep our core together long term. We need to get another starter or two (hopefully one through the draft, but that can’t be counted on), but we need to do it in a financially responsible manner. I appreciate that Thibs hasn’t overspend thus far and I think he will continue to be modest and look for great deals.

  4. And stay healthy. I see that Embiid is out for the season and so Okafor is the Sixer center for now. Too bad. Philly has done some really good things to put themselves in a position to be a super team in a couple years, but injury is the one thing you can’t foresee when you take a player. Knock on wood,but our two stars have stayed healthy. The worry is that although they need to play together as many minutes as they can muster, Thibs has a history of teams with injury issues and over playing key players. The greats seem to have different DNA to protect them from any long term injury. Hopefully, Andrew and Karl have good genes.

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