Rockets 123, Wolves 118: 5 Takeaways from the Season Finale

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Tonight’s game wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but it was the season finale. The Wolves lost to the upcoming 3-seed in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets. A team the Wolves beat once in four tries this season. A team with a potential MVP of this season. A team with the success the Wolves strive to experience in the coming year(s).

But clearly, as the Wolves close the 2016-17 regular season with 31 wins, just 2 better than the season prior, they are not there yet. Tonight’s game was just like any other. They showed some signs of what is to come, played with a top notch team and had some elite moments. Ultimately, they didn’t pull it out, having to come back from double digits then losing a lead of their own; something that has become somewhat of a constant for them this year. But with all this, it helped provide some closure and some confirmations that I have felt for much of the year. For better or for worse, they are listed below.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be an all-time great

Correct, the defense is not there yet. Correct, he needs to work on making his teammates better. But KAT is a monster, and it has become apparent very quickly that his rise in the NBA is going to reach historic proportions.

In the home finale last night, KAT became the single season scoring leader in franchsie history, passing Kevin Love’s equally historic 2013-14 season (and KG’s MVP season of 03-04 a couple games before that). Tonight, he became the first player in NBA history to accumulate 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and make 100 three-pointers in a single season.

Of course, going forward, the key for KAT’s success will be to translate these insane numbers into making his teammates better (which should then turn into victories). But for now, we should be able to appreciate the insane ability KAT has reached at such a young age. In tonight’s game, he needed 13 rebounds to reach the aforementioned feat. He got 20 rebounds, leaving no doubt. All of this is worth appreciating.

2. Ricky Rubio’s future in Minnesota remains a mystery

The giant elephant in the room tonight: Ricky Rubio didn’t play. What does it mean? Could it be that that MN’s elder statesman (let that sink in for a second) earned a break from Tom Thibodeau to end the year? Could it be that Thibs wanted to see Kris Dunn with a full season under his belt, playing with the starters (for what it’s worth, he had 16 assists tonight)? Could it be the 100k bonus Ricky gets for shooting over 40 percent from the field (he was at 40.2 coming into the season)? Could it be a combination of the three?

I have no idea what the real reason was, but it was unsettling for me. I hope yesterday’s loss to OKC wasn’t the final game of Ricky Rubio’s career as a Timberwolf. Not only would that make me sad, but there aren’t too many scenarios that I can envision where his absence (even with a replacement that is not Kris Dunn) improves the Wolves next year. The offseason doesn’t truly start until the NBA Finals are concluded, I don’t know what Thibs is planning, and we’ve all written enough about this situation, but it’s still weird to envision a future in Wolves basketball without Ricky Rubio.

3. If this was Shabazz Muhammad’s last game in Minnesota, I’ll miss him

He is a shot-seeking missile with nice athleticism, a determined offensive rebounder, and one of the most streaky three-point shots I’ve ever seen. He’s an erratic defender, a black hole with the basketball, and an absolutely horrendous passer when he does spread the wealth.

I was done with Shabazz Muhammad after they drafted him, but he grew on me quickly after year two. He got himself into shape (with Anthony Bennett…remember?), and suddenly looked like a player who could contribute. It’s been a unique process, but he’s contributed ever since. Tonight, he added to his franchise record of 20+ points game off the bench in a season, and

As a restricted free agent, the Wolves can match any offer a team makes to Bazzy. But the general thought is that a team, somewhere, will covet Bazz’s drive and nose to score the ball, and make an offer that makes little sense for the Wolves to match. The desire to match a Bazz deal becomes even less when considering how vital this summer is for free agency for the Wolves.

Bazz had some great moments, and proved his worth in the NBA despite lots of doubters. He was too determined to fail, now he’s going to get paid. If this is it in Minnesota, it was a fun ride, Bazzy.

4. I hope the durability of KAT, Wiggins, and Dieng isn’t a fluke

Tonight’s game marked it. After a full season, Andrew Wiggins missed one game. KAT and Gorgui Dieng missed no games. So far, the three of them have proven that they know how to take care of themselves, and know how to stay healthy. Health is never guaranteed, though. Zach LaVine had seen similar success staying healthy, but then a freak injury (that our own Lucas Seehafer described as straight up “dumb luck”) ended his season.

Going forward, health is going to be vital. The team can develop all they want, but they will continue to avoid playoff contention if this streak of health runs out at the wrong time. So far, this crop of guys seems to know what they’re doing in that regard, and the team athletic trainers have done everything right to keep it that way. This can’t be taken for granted.

5. This team has a long way to go defensively, but the future is bright

After a season that was supposed to be better than 31 games, it’s important to remember how good this team has the potential to be. No, it didn’t happen this year, and the progression didn’t happen at a fast enough rate for some people, but a lot of good things happened.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Ricky Rubio (yes, Ricky Rubio) all had career years scoring the ball. Offensively, you can definitely make the case that they’re ready to compete in the playoffs. They finished the year in the top 10 in offensive rating and assist-to-turnover ratio. In other words, they know how to take care of the ball and make plays to score. They’re still not a 3-point shooting team to the ring of the rest of the league, but that seems to be going in the upward direction too.

Defensively, they’re still near the bottom. Sometimes I wonder what a Thibs-KG duo would have done to help this team expedite the learning curve (Thibs to teach the Xs and Os, KG’s presence to get the players invested in learning ASAP), but that did not happen. It will be a slower process than that. But KAT, Wiggins and LaVine should all be able to learn to play solid team defense as they continue to improve. And they have improved at respectfully quick rates. Maybe defense is next.

Either way, this team is going somewhere good. I have no idea how good and how quickly we’ll see it, but I’m excited to find out when.


Quick writer’s note: I’ll keep it short, thank you all so much for reading this season. On behalf of all of us at AWAW, we love writing for this site, and all you readers add to the fun of covering the Wolves. You guys rock. Thanks for everything.

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12 Responsesso far.

  1. brian says:

    Completely agree with 4 of the points while disagreeing about Bazz. His career stats show he not only hasn’t improved but has actually regressed each of the past 3 years. He doesn’t have a clue how to play team D. He doesn’t have a clue how to pass. He averaged a grand total of 2.8 rebounds per game and for all the talk of what a great offensive rebounder he is, he averaged 1.1 offensive rebounds per game. Yes he’s worked hard to get in great shape physically and for that he should be commended. But as far as becoming a better basketball player over the past 4 years, that simply hasn’t happened on any level. And for all his scoring reputation, he is wildly inconsistent in this area and can’t be counted on to carry a bench unit. Only if he comes really cheap should we keep him. But if some team views him as a potential offensive monster and gives him a big or even medium contract, then we need to say thank you and best of luck Bazz.

  2. pyrrol says:

    Due to work and the Wild coverage (yuck) blanking the replay I was not able to see this one. Still have stuff to say…

    Thanks AWAW writers and comment people for all your dedication. It makes following a team a lot more interesting and fun. It helps extra with a frustrating franchise like this.

    Thibs is so weird. He’s so boring, stubborn and predictable 90% of the time, but the other 10% he does inexplicable, strange things. An example is not playing Rubio in the final game. It’s just weird. I can see why it would make folks nervous, but why would you not play him only the last game regardless of whether intend to keep him or not? Either way it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, for the last 2 months Thibs has hardly even been playing Dunn at PG and on the last game he starts him there and totally sits Rubio? I won’t worry about it I guess. I will just hope that we keep Rubio for the fun of the game and the good of the franchise.

    Maybe someone who saw the game can fill me in here a bit… HOW did Khrisss Dunn have 16 assists and only 3 turnovers!? Talk about weird. You miss one game and the world is upside down!

    On the 4 points above and the season more generally… I think something we need to let our coach in on is #1. I mean, it’s getting pretty clear that Towns is a generational talent and Wiggins isn’t. It’s not 1a 1b, it is Towns is the top dog and Wiggins is at best his Robin. But THibs coached this whole season with the polar opposite strategy. Is that because he was secretly trying to work Wiggins back up to 1b status? I think this a wildly optimistic dream, and also a fools errand if true. Our star is Towns.

    I already discussed #2. Thibs also messed with this by not ‘giving Rubio the keys’ and trying to run the offense not through him early. This had no developmental advantage as Wiggins seemed to learn nothing, and Rubio’s outburst had nothing to do with this–in fact Rubio would have been playing well right away if he had been used close to correctly.

    Shabazz is fun. And we need the scoring punch he provides on the bench. Even at that he needs to be more consistent, but he can do it. I’m OK with us upgrading this role on the open market, but seeing as how our bench scoring has been horrible this season and our not good history attracting and signing established, useful players, keeping Shabazz is a decent option.

    If Thibs does this minutes thing again our D will continue to struggle and the durability will be a fluke. If he uses somewhat normal minutes distribution, these guys could prove pretty durable.

    Offensively we are nowhere near ready for the playoffs. We put up good numbers in the ratings. But we have these dry spells that kill us, a big problem with stagnance and easy to defense offense. These are killing us in the regular season, often against mediocre or bad teams and such flaws are doubled, maybe tripled in intensity in the postseason. Add to this the fact that we don’t get three point shots we need and every other team we would face in the playoffs will be able to get those shots and hit them at a good clip, you have not ready for postseason offense.

    I was glad that KG was cut for two reasons. One, we needed the spot filled with someone who could actually play in games (with functioning knees) and we needed to move on from the ‘throwback’. Turns out we didn’t really use that spot wisely, though we should have. But in the process we clearly pissed off KG. Ideally, we would have done it in a way where we kept him happy and had him help out our guys (instead of the Clippers). For what I’ve seen thus far of THibs’ teaching, particularly on D, I think KG could have been more than a motivator. He probably could have taught Towns more about D than Thibs did all season. I think it says something about Thibs the person that he messed this relationship up (with the ultra loyal MN loving KG) and that KG seemed uninterested in working with him. Our D is a disaster and as it stands now, we don’t even have a slight foundation to build on. We are starting from the same scratch next season as we started this season with—in other words zero progress on D has been apparent. It’s not just the lack of progress but how laughably bad we are. It’s not like we are so close to our ceiling that improvement is slow. We have all the room to improve in the world and didn’t. That’s damning.

    Based on X’s and O’s, player response and the simple numbers (31-51) I don’t think Thibs has earned a next season. I mean, I get it, it’s a small sample size and he’s just getting into this job. But he’s pretty much failed or underachieved in every coaching aspect across the board this season. I can’t think of one thing he did well as a coach this year. Other than yell. He looked out-coached routinely. I wish we could say, ‘oops, maybe this guy was overrated’ and retry next season even if it meant another bump in continuity. Thibs just hasn’t earned it. But this is America and people often don’t earn what they get. And it is a fantasy to expect Thibs to not be here 4 more seasons. If he underachieves big again next year, maybe he’ll start to be in some danger, but for now he’s completely safe. He shouldn’t be—after this performance he should be forced to look over his shoulder and get his act together. A culture of no accountability has plagued this franchise and continues.

    This is going to be a weird playoff season. What is with Cleveland? Will they snap out of it? I happen to think Boston is going to get embarrassed in the playoffs, but if they somehow are really #1, what kind of legendary off year is this for the east? GS and SAS must be licking their chops—Cleveland is the only championship type team at all over there and they’ve been not good for a while. In the west, this might be GS’s year again. The Spurs just don’t quite have it. I like them and they are tough, but I think their lack of PG power is an issue. They need to develop someone in Parker’s place stat. Who else could really contend? In the first round we have the battle of the ball hogs (OKC Houston). The Clippers and Jazz are meh.

    • gjk says:

      Rubio likely didn’t play to preserve his 40.2% FG%, which earned him a $100,000 bonus.

      Even as someone who didn’t like how things turned out or how they were approached philosophically, to me it’s absurd to say Thibodeau doesn’t deserve a 2nd season for the simple reason that it’s likely his approach to the season reflected his job security. The whole point of hiring him was for long-term improvement and organizational stability for a franchise that has had none since Flip was fired 13 years ago. If it looks like this again next season, that’s a problem.

      Wins are an imperfect measure of success for most teams in the NBA unless it determines something like homecourt advantage and costs a team a Game 7 at home. This was essentially a 38-win team according to point differential that lost too many close games, which would be up from a 31-win team according to point differential last season. For the purposes of long-term predictions, point differential usually produces more accurate results than wins.

      The other absurdity is focusing on KG being cut as a primary problem in his friction with the organization. Essentially, KG came back for Flip, Taylor was uninterested in honoring Flip’s commitments to KG (whether they should’ve been honored depends on what they were), fired his coach and friend before the season ended, and it was pretty clear even when he came back that they hadn’t mended many fences. Being on the roster was a small part of the organization’s plans for KG before Flip died, and no matter how much I wanted him on the roster and/or hoped to see his jersey retirement (in comparison, Duncan’s was and Kobe’s hasn’t been yet), this is rooted in Taylor taking every opportunity to jab at the only reason he’s ever made money on this franchise.

      • pyrrol says:

        You can have different opinions but to call the idea that Thibs has not earned another season absurd and to call pointing out the fact the KG has nothing to do with this organization and that might be a loss absurd is simply the wrong use of the word. Those are simply perspectives you don’t agree with, not absurdities.

        So your only defense of Thibs is continuity? Nice. I’m just saying in my mind I’ve seen nothing impressive from him at all and wouldn’t mind moving on. But he’s here more years so lets hope he gets better.

        I thought that Rubio bonus was a joke or rumor. That’s cool and things make more sense now, thanks for that gjk. I do have to defend Tom a little here–he’s not saying Rubio wants to win and is a leader because of ‘the media’ or armchair psychology. These two things are pretty clear from watching games. He’s communicating more than almost anyone on our team and he’s all over the floor with effort. He’s worked on improving his shot. Pretty safe to say he’s a leader and wants to win. Why argue about it?

  3. Mike says:

    I read that Rubio is entitled to a $100k bonus if his shooting percentage stays above 40%. Is it possible that thibs sat Rubio to make sure he gets his money? I loved what Rubio showed this year so maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

    https://www.google.com/amp/www.sportingnews.com/amp/nba/news/ricky-rubio-maurice-harkless-contract-bonus-incentives-shooting-stats-timberwolves-trail-blazers/bt6b53fa4pzf10d354to01vvh

  4. gjk says:

    The Wolves weren’t swept by the Rockets.

  5. tom says:

    I also want to thank AWAW for posting some really solid takes and conversation generators, many times either very late at night or very early in the morning. You guys are the best of the blogs.

    I was shocked that Ricky didn’t play last night, but the $100K for shooting over 40% is a nice tip of the hat to Ricky from Thibs, I guess. When you make over $10million, what is $100,000 other than a rounding error? Could this be the end of the Rubio era? Since it wasn’t a significant amount of money, I can’t see Rubio requesting the night off to keep it. He is a leader and wouldn’t want to sit out the last game of the year, if he was healthy.

    The game wasn’t important to Rubio’s career, but it did give Thibs a chance to show off Dunn’s skills against a team that isn’t known for defense on the first team. His stats are a little misleading because early in the game, Beverly and Hardin ate him up. Tyus came in the game and the team fought back and actually took a lead. So for the casual fan, which isn’t on this site, it was probably some assurance that if Thibs trades Rubio, it looks like his protege can take over. Thibs has put up with this extremely disappointing season, but he will see it as Rubio getting in his way and not what many on this site see as a team that has not grasped Thibs defense or leadership demands and and an offense that started out, point Wiggins and needed to be scrapped by letting Ricky run the show.

    I can also see that maybe Ricky is getting a little less enamored with Minny. Here is a team that didn’t stick up for him against Houston, and thug Beverly. A coach that hasn’t been gushing about his contributions all year and fans that earlier were getting on him about his shooting. Lastly, he was clear that playing for a playoff team was his goal. Winning two more games than last year for a non playoff team isn’t exactly, what he had in mind.

    My guess is that Ricky will be traded to a team like Sacramento or Brooklyn for one of their draft picks. As for Baz, he may find a team that will overpay for his talents, but he may also see that nobody sees him as anything more than what he is here and he may find the market a little weak for his talent. I think he will stay another year and go for unrestricted FA, so he can see if the Clippers are rebuilding or the Lakers needing another athlete. He plays well out in CA, for the most part, so I think he would like to get back to the West Coast.

    Thibs was able to convince Glen that this was all part of the grand plan. I don’t think he will get that much more rope, especially if Thibs uses all his available cap space this summer. Only one thing Glen likes more than winning and that is making money. He wants a team he can take to China and win over that huge market with a playoff exciting team next preseason. The heat is on our POBO to show he was a good pick.

    • gjk says:

      When you make over $10 million, $100,000 buys the same $100,000 worth of stuff that it does for anyone else. It’s also a signifier that you’ve improved when everyone assumed you’d plateaued. It’s not like Rubio compromised much when they were negotiating his extension because he “wants to win” and “is a leader.” Projecting character traits on complete strangers because of a carefully-sculpted media persona is armchair psychology at its worst.

      “Only one thing Glen likes more than winning and that is making money.” When it comes to how he’s run this franchise, both of those are demonstrably false. The only thing Glen has proven to like is certain people, often to a fault, and cutting corners in a way that has harmed the franchise.

  6. Adam says:

    Watching KAT cement his status as an almost inevitable generational player is what really kept me going for the season. Like you said, he still has plenty of things to work on to reach that level but the fact that he is already this productive at 21 is incredible.

    What Im curious about is what everyone feels about Wiggins’ season and what the future looks like for him. I haven’t looked too deeply into his efficiency metrics but by the end the season it seemed like we were seeing the same Wiggins as we always have just with better shooting from deep. Should his offseason just be focusing on the same things he worked on the previous year?

  7. tom says:

    My point regarding Ricky Rubio, who I have met, and he is a great guy in person, is that sitting the last game of the season to protect a $100K bonus, is not what a leader of a team would do. He has mentioned several times that winning is important to him and that he wants to be part of a playoff team. It would look bad, if Ricky choose a bonus over finishing the season with his teammates. Especially one that is .75% of his contract. Would you sit for .75% of your minimum wage job gjk?

    • gjk says:

      So great that you go into personal attacks, especially some trope about work; you’re just as likely to be handling those fries as I would be. As for this whole leader component, KG, the unquestioned leader of his Wolves teams, twice agreed to sit for multiple games at the end of a season to preserve their lottery pick from going to the Clippers. Team “leaders” sit at the ends of seasons all the time for reasons far flimsier than protecting $100k, and it’s so flawed to treat it as a percentage. Mo Harkless, FFS, stopped shooting 3s for several games to protect a bonus on a team fighting for the playoffs.

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