The Timberwolves are now 61 games into the season. What does that mean? It means it’s time for another quarterly report, the third of the 2016-17 season. That’s what time it is.
Q3 covers the Wolves’ 20-game stretch from 16 January-1 March. The Wolves went 11-9 in this stretch, which (runs some complex calculations) is substantially better than they played in Quarters 1 & 2. The stats included in this piece come from nba.com/stats. Without further ado..
Ricky Rubio (Q1 grade: D+; Q2 grade: B+ ):
Andy G: Ricky’s third quarter NUMB#RS were impressive and above his career averages. In 32.6 minutes per game he averaged 12.0 points on 41.5% shooting (36.0% from 3), 10.0 assists to just 3.0 turnovers, and 1.7 steals. Per 36 minutes, the 13.3 points and 11.1 assists are better than any season of his career. His plus/minus numbers are not quite as impressive as his fellow starters’, in part because of slightly fewer minutes played. (Over the 20-game stretch, Ricky’s net rating was (+1.3) which was 4th among regular starters and also behind Tyus Jones and Kris Dunn. But it would be wrong to take that as a sign that Ricky was somehow playing worse than his backups; he wasn’t. His steady playmaking, whether it be transition dishes to Bazz, crosscourt lobs to Wiggins, or simpler pick-and-roll feeds to KAT, is one of the reasons the Wolves play at such a high offensive level.
However much fire there was to all the “Rubio for Rose” smoke at the trade deadline, the Wolves are looking very wise for Just Saying No. Ricky is playing good ball.
Kris Dunn (Q1 grade: D+; Q2 grade: C-):
Patrick J: Kris Dunn’s offensive struggles showed few signs of abating during Q3 of his rookie season. Drafted 5th overall last summer as POBO Thibodeau’s first big personnel decision, many expected Dunn to thrive from the get-go this season. After all, Dunn had played four years of college basketball, was elderly (22-years-old) by high lottery pick standards, and appeared to have the poise and toughness to thrive under Thibs as his slashing point guard and lock-down defender. Since day one, Dunn has been the opposite of poised. He has looked harried on offense, struggling with the basic offensive fundamentals that an effective point guard needs in today’s NBA—playmaking, passing, and scoring.
Fellow point guards Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones both improved in Q3. Dunn’s play remained frustratingly inept. The form on his jumper was as ugly as ever, and to make things worse, he looked less confident shooting it than he did earlier in the season, which has resulted in awkward indecision in his shot selection and, consequently, a lot of bad misses, which further compound the confidence issues. He also continued to look awkward and indecisive in both dribble penetration and in finishing around the cup.
On the bright side, Kris’ defense continued to be good. He is an elite shot blocker among point guards, which is fun but not all that useful in the grand scheme. Dunn is a rugged perimeter defender, he puts pressure on the ball, and he steals the ball a lot. The problem for Dunn is that Rubio also does all of these things at an elite level…and he’s a born floor general. Both are bad shooters, but until Thibs finally pulls the pin on a Rubio trade, Dunn’s only real role for the Wolves will be as a defensive stopper, perhaps in the same vein as Memphis’ Tony Allen.
In the season’s third quarter, Dunn had one of the best net ratings on the team (+4.8, second only to Jones) owing to his defensive rating of 102.1, which was by far the best on the team with the exception of Lance Stephenson, who barely played. Dunn’s defense has begun to make an impact on the games, which is a nice development. The horrible offense/great defense balances out to an even C grade.
Tyus Jones (Q1 grade: A-; Q2 grade: Incomplete):
Andy G: With LaVine sidelined, Thibs has carved out a spot in the rotation for Jones. He’s played well off the bench, sometimes paired with Kris Dunn and occasionally slotted as the sole point guard. His least impressive stat was field goal percentage (36.9). His most impressive was assist to turnover ratio (4.9:1). Jones makes quick, smart decisions with the ball. He is the quintessential “he’d be fun to play with” guy. An added bonus is his knack for jumping passing lanes at the right time to steal passes. In the season’s third quarter (in which he played 16 games) Jones snagged 13 steals, good for 1.9 per 36 minutes – the same as Ricky Rubio in that stretch. This hasn’t been lost on Thibs, who has gone out of his way to praise Tyus for – among other things – his “team” defense. In 248 minutes in the third quarter, Tyus led the team in net rating (+6.6).
Zach LaVine (Q1 grade: B+; Q2 grade: B+)
Patrick J: Zach LaVine had an abbreviated Q3, unfortunately, due to a season-ending ACL tear. Zach only played nine games since our Q2 report, so the season-ending injury is the only real news. However, Zach didn’t play well in that stretch. His scoring dipped from 20.1 ppg through the end of Q2 to 13.8 ppg in Q3. LaVine’s stock and trade this season was his ability to take and make three-point field goals. Through Q1 and Q2, he shot a white-hot 41.4% from distance. In his nine games in Q3, he shot 23.4%. LaVine has always had poor plus-minus ratings. Despite his breakout in the first half of the season, he sported a team-worst -2.5 +/-. Unsurprisingly, in Q3, before his ACL tear, he continued to have the worst +/- on the team (-2.3) as his shooting stroke disappeared on him.
LaVine was banged up prior to his injury, which might have contributed to his diminished output. He also led the league in minutes per game for a portion of the season. Thibs is known for doing the opposite of giving his best players “rest.” It is impossible to know whether wear-and-tear from those minutes played any role in LaVine’s susceptibility to injury, but it will continue to be something to monitor as long as Thibodeau is coaching the team.
Overall, LaVine showed too much in the first half of the season to dock his grade for a brief cold spell in the middle of the season. We assign grades relative to our expectations of each player’s performance. And although Zach wasn’t able to show much in Q3, his game matured so much early on this season that he absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt and thus gets an “Incomplete.” (Eds. Note: What made LaVine’s Q3 feel especially incomplete was his absence from the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend. C’mon, Zach, you’re very likely the only human in the world who can do this.)
Brandon Rush (Q1 grade: Incomplete; Q2 grade: Incomplete):
Andy G: Hey, remember when the Wolves won a couple of good games against the Rockets and Thunder when LaVine sat out with a minor hip injury, and I got way too excited about Brandon Rush? In Case You Missed It: I called him a “smart veteran and a great spot-up three-point shooter,” and (wait for it…) “the absolutely perfect complement to Ricky Rubio.”
I may have gotten a little too excited there. No offense to Rush – he IS a smart veteran – but he is looking decidedly washed in greater sample size. His movements are really stiff and he can’t do a whole lot besides “know where to stand” and make some open corner threes.
Due to LaVine’s (much more serious) ACL injury, Rush played in 11 of the past 20 games. He averaged 26.5 minutes, filling most of LaVine’s regular spot in the rotation. In that not-insignificant amount of time he put up just 5 points on just 33.9% shooting. He’s been serviceable, but really not much else.
Lance Stephenson (Q1 grade: N/A; Q2 grade: N/A)
Patrick J: NYC high-school legend Lance Stephenson—a key player on a strong Pacers team a few seasons ago—lost his way after leaving Indiana for Charlotte as a free agent. When the Timberwolves signed Stephenson to a 10-day contract last month, he was out of the league. Lance didn’t get much of an audition. On February 14, he suffered a grade-2 ankle sprain. He wouldn’t even able to return before his 10-day expired. He looked like a victim, both of bad luck and bad timing. But Stephenson showed flashes of his old self, in his short stint with the Wolves. In contrast to LaVine, he was a tough wing defender who aggressively made plays for teammates. As great a season as Zach was having, it’s undeniable that Lance gave the team a different look—one that worked out much better than many expected when Thibs gave Lance a chance to get back into the league. Thibodeau liked what he saw in Stephenson, who has been rehabbing his injury in Minneapolis and is expected to rejoin the team on a new deal as soon as he is ready to play again.
Andrew Wiggins (Q1 grade: B+; Q2 grade: B-):
Andy G: Ever since LaVine’s injury, Wiggins has been beasting. While this report card is technically covering the last 20 games, it’s the past 11 – the games played since LaVine went down – that better capture the Recent Andrew Wiggins experience. Suddenly cast as the team’s unequivocal Perimeter Scorer Guy, Wig has posted the following numbers:
- 29.3 points per game
- 51.7% field goals
- 40.5% threes
- 2.2 steals per game
- (+9.7) net rating
He’s been playing like an All-Star, and he’s about 2-3 additional assists per game away from playing like a first-tier superstar.
Does pecking order matter? Perhaps not for the most polished players who can fit into different scenarios and make the best of it. But even Andrew Wiggins fans (such as yours truly) admit that he is far from “polished.” What he is is incredibly explosive and good at getting his own shot. When the whole, “let’s all learn how to play together” experiment that also included scoring guard LaVine ended, things simplified for Wig and he took off. In the last 11 games, lineups that include both Wiggins and KAT have an offensive rating of 121.1, which is just absurdly good. (The Warriors’ rating is 113.5, and 117.5 when Curry is on the floor.) Wiggins has scored 20 or more points in 19 straight games, which leads the NBA. Wiggins and KAT have each dropped 20+ in 16 straight games, which is the longest such streak by teammates since 1984.
The only reason Wig doesn’t get the straight “A” here is that his numbers over the entire 20 game stretch are a bit less awesome. Again, he really took off after LaVine’s injury and his usage went up.
Shabazz Muhammad (Q1 grade: C-; Q2 grade: B+)
Patrick J: After a rough start this season, Bazz got his groove back in Q2 and kept it rolling in Q3. It took him some time to get comfortable. His offense has improved, both inside and outside. He still forces some cringe-worthy shots—especially in transition, where he just can’t seem to help himself—but he has shown improved patience and maturity in picking and choosing his spots, whether that entails walking his defender down low to set up his patented jump hook from the left block or floating back to the three-point arc when opposing defenses collapse on KAT and Wiggins in the paint. Bazz’s effective field-goal percentage rose from 48.9 through the first half of the season to 57.4% in its third quarter. He shot threes at a 41.2% clip.
Three other Bazz jottings, while I still have the mic:
- Bazz’s motor still runs like the Dodge Challenger from Death Proof.
- Bazz is still the G.O.A.T. at “points per touch,” an esoteric but cool-sounding SportVu player tracking stat Bazzy was born to dominate – he also led the league in pts per touch last season and the season before last – partly because of that relentless Dodge Challenger motor whose RPM spike through the roof when he’s around the ball. (Eds. Note: Yes, I cherrypicked this stat, but Bazz is ahead of some really great players.)
- Bazz is the Wolves’ only bonafide offensive weapon off the bench. If he finishes the season strong, he could end up getting himself a nice contract this summer.
Laudatory praise aside, assigning a Q3 grade to Bazz wasn’t easy. Remember, we grade based on performance relative to expectations. Bazz has played well after a bad start this season, but aside from improved three-point shooting, he’s basically playing like the Bazz we knew the last two seasons. But in today’s NBA, improved three-point shooting is nothing to sneeze at. It never happens for some players. So I think he grades out at a “B.”
Gorgui Dieng (Q1 grade: B ; Q2 grade: A):
Andy G: Gorgui is just doing his thing. In the third quarter he averaged a hair under a 9 & 9 per game. For shits and giggles he put up a dozen treys and made 5 of them. That’s always kind of interesting to follow, if the team is serious about pairing him next to KAT for the long haul. His field goal percentage was a little bit down (45.5) but not bad. “G” remains a helpful player on this team, who cares less about his own stats after his big payday back in October. (My evidence for this is that he used to be a key offender in the Timberwolves ongoing “teammates fight each other for rebounds” trend, but – this year – Gorgui usually surrenders those boards to KAT & Bazz.)
Nemanja Bjelica (Q1 grade: C; Q2 grade: D+)
Patrick J: I’ll admit it: I’m a fan. I like watching some players play more than others. FULL DISCLOSURE: Nemanja Bjelica is probably my least favorite Wolves player to watch. Bjelica–“Belly”–is soft, passive, and slow. He’s a putative point-forward, but he coughs up the ball more than I would care to think about. He’s a putative stretch-four, but he’s shooting 31.8% on threes. He has a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 10.6, which is well-below the league average of 15 and ranks 10th on the Wolves this season. By comparison, Cole Aldrich’s current PER is 13.2. (Eds. Note: Kris Dunn is the only Wolves’ regular with a worse PER. Dunn’s is 7.9 as of this writing.)
Thibodeau’s steadfast confidence in Bjelica has intrigued me all season. I laughed when it was reported that Bjelica was the deal breaker in the ballyhooed Ricky Rubio-Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks last month. (!!) Here is Belly’s Q3 highlight and clutch moment all rolled into one tweet.
Knicks have definitely asked for Bjelica as well during talks with Minnesota. Non-starter for Thibs, Wolves.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 23, 2017
Seriously, on-court performance aside, Belly should get an “A” for life if he truly was the reason POBO Thibodeau walked away from the Rose deal. On-court performance not aside, Bjelica underwhelmed in the third quarter.
Cole Aldrich (Q1 grade: A-; Q2 grade: D)
Patrick J: Aldrich has played a small role all season. He is steady if (very) unspectacular. For the most part, he just shows up and does his job when called upon. Aldrich’s playing time decreased from an average of 11 minutes per game in the first 40 games to an average of 4.6 in the last 20. He’s been a DNP-CD in three of those games (15%).
Aldrich’s 1st Quarter “A-” grade was probably a bit generous. His 2nd Quarter “D” was probably a bit rough. Although Aldrich is largely a non-factor in the broader scheme of things, he is a useful enough role player to merit a passing grade.
Karl-Anthony Towns (Q1 grade: B; Q2 grade: A-)
Andy G: KAT is taking The Next Step. Playing (slightly) more focused and intelligent defense and producing consistently-crazy points & rebounds stat lines, his all around production has been superstar caliber. In the third quarter he averaged 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. Those are numbers of bygone eras when centers ruled. His net rating was (+4.6), marking huge improvement in the “team performance while he’s on the floor” department from most of his short career.
Off purely eye test, I think KAT has more of a positive impact on games when he lets Rubio and Wiggins do more of the creating and he hunts offensive rebounds and takes the easy shots that “come to him.” When he has the ball close to the hoop, his righty hook shot is damn-near automatic and unstoppable. He looks a lot worse when the entire play slows down and focuses on force-feeding him for a 15-foot post-up. He waits too long for double teams and isn’t positioned to capitalize on the double team to begin with (he’s too far away from the hoop and thus too close to the perimeter where he’d otherwise pass it to.) KAT averaged 4.0 offensive boards and 5.6 second-chance points per game in the 3rd Quarter. For some idea of how good those numbers are, the league leaders in offensive rebounds per game are Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard at 4.2. And KAT himself leads the league for the season in second-chance PPG with 4.9 (Hassan Whiteside is 2nd with 4.8), so he was beating his own, league-leading mark in recent games.
But just because KAT is doing a lot of dirty work doesn’t mean he is some kind of limited-skills banger; quite the opposite, actually. In the 3rd Quarter, he 48.9% of his threes while shooting 2.4 of them per game. He has just seemed to strike the right balance of knowing when to take a shot and when to hunt for rebounds.
If the Wolves can keep inching closer to .500, KAT will have a strong case for inclusion on one of the three All-NBA Teams at season’s end.