Timberwolves Season in Review, Part 1
The Timberwolves finished another season on Wednesday night. Before we collectively move on to watching other teams in the playoffs, it’s worth looking back at the season that was. The AWAW writers tackled 10 questions about the team. The first 5 appear in this Part 1. The next 5 will come in a Part 2, to be published on Saturday morning.
Tom Thibodeau just finished his first year as Timberwolves president and head coach. What impressed you most with his performance so far? What was most disappointing or alarming?
Andy Grimsrud: I was most impressed by Thibs’s patience. When he arrived in Minnesota and inherited a roster full of early 20-somethings, there was a sense – maybe even “fear” – that he would turn too much of the roster over in exchange for veterans with less long-term potential. Many thought he would specifically target past-their-prime former Bulls like Luol Deng or Joakim Noah. Instead, Thibs moved zero of the Wolves young assets, and instead played them tons and tons of minutes. Whether it was more in the interest of evaluation or development is anyone’s guess, but, regardless, he made no panic moves and preserved the team’s flexibility as it enters a pivotal off-season.
Most disappointing? Probably that he never, ever sat down during games. I personally get a kick out of watching him stand and scream and punch the air after a missed call or blown box-out. But, I also think that the whole thing would lose its effect (to the extent Thibs wants it to have one) with the players after a while. He risks being tuned out if he doesn’t become more selective with the spazzes.
Patrick Johnston: Most impressive: Strategic patience: Most alarming : Strategic patience. For someone who’s often reduced by writers to a screaming nincompoop, he’s a damn good poker player. The man needs more than one season to have his performance judged. This is a five-year project.
Lucas Seehafer: I think what is most impressive is his dedication and consistency. Seemingly before and after every game he’d give a similar spiel that would both display his knowledge of basketball (particularly of defense) and what he expected of his players. I’d like to go back and tally up the amount of times Thibs stated, “Do your job.” in his gruff, booming voice as that was his mantra during his inaugural season in the Land o’ Lakes. It’s that kind of consistency in message and core values that is important for teams, especially young teams, to grow and develop.
What is most alarming is the sheer amount of minutes he had the young guys playing on a nightly basis. Now, part of that could be because the bench underperformed most nights and didn’t warrant playing time, but it also falls in line with Thibs’ reputation; the best players play far and away the most minutes. I’m holding off judgement until next season in hopes that with an improved bench comes an improved minute allocation, but I’m not holding my breath.
Bill Bohl: I was most impressed by how consistent he was in tone and approach. I worried that a manically competitive coaching lifer such as Thibs would be more reactionary once he ascended to an all-powerful organizational role. But he played the season very conservatively, never praising or berating his players too severely despite moments of grandeur and (more often) youthful inconsistency.
As far as what was alarming, I’ve got to echo Lucas: the minutes were out of control. He’s gonna wear these guys out by their late 20s if he isn’t careful.
Tim Faklis: Gotta echo Andy on the most impressive. While his “must-win” mentality would show itself from time to time, it was clear that he knew this time wasn’t going to come out guns blazing from the start. He rarely seemed frustrated at post-game pressers, he never faltered from his rotations or gameplan (for better or for worse, you could certainly argue), and his faith in the youngsters was apparent as a reflection.
The lack of instant defensive improvement doesn’t bother me, mostly because of the point above. Thibs knew, and knows, that this isn’t an instant fix. I was probably most disappointed by his lack of willingness to give the youngsters, specifically Wiggins, a break when they appeared they needed one. This isn’t to say that I wanted him to sit these guys full games, but the Wolves had 2 of the top 5 guys in minutes per game this year in Wig and KAT. Yes, they’re both 21 and can handle it, but this was a fear of all Thibs skeptics when he was hired. It was his most noted point of criticism from experts when he was in Chicago, and it doesn’t seem to be changing here. If it doesn’t change going forward, I could get more worried.
Zach Harper: For me, the most impressive part of his coaching job this season (aside from the aforementioned patience) was his calm and reserve. Now there are 1,000 screengrabs and in-game soundbites that make this answer seem insane. However, as someone who is mostly dead inside at this point, I appreciate when a coach doesn’t get too high or low after wins and losses. Thibs is so dedicated to the team improving and getting it right that I love his nature toward keeping things in perspective. This ties into the patience angle, as well, because it all focuses on the greater good of the team down the road. There is a long haul with Thibs and knowing what it takes to get to that point instills confidence in the team.
As for disappointing, it has to be that the good defense right after the All-Star break didn’t hold. It didn’t have to be the best in the NBA like it was for a couple of weeks, but it completely fell off the face of the flat earth. The Wolves let go of that morsel of hope and couldn’t really get it back. I’m not sure if you put that completely on Thibs, but he has to wear it at some point. Overall though, despite the lack of success, I walked away very comfortable with the direction of this team and its coach.
Karl-Anthony Towns was producing numbers like prime David Robinson or Shaquille O’Neal for the second half of the season. How long until he’s good enough to carry a team deep into the playoffs?
Andy: Towns has already reached undeniable “All-Star” level play because he’s so amazingly good at scoring and rebounding. Consider that KAT led the NBA in points in the paint (14.1 per game, ahead of LeBron’s 13.9) while also making 101 threes at a 36.7% clip, AND he made over 83% of his free throws. There just isn’t much that he can’t do on offense.
The question is about defense and whether KAT’s limitations on that end, at this early stage of his career, prevent him from “carrying” a team into title contention. I think there are good arguments both ways on this point. One is, like Zach Lowe stated in his “Kawhi for MVP” column, that “at the superstar level, individual offense is more important than defense.” It’s easier to surround an elite offensive player with sufficient defense than it is to boost a bunch of defensive-oriented players into top-level offense. From this perspective, if the Wolves can just improve their defensive personnel at other positions, KAT can carry the offense deep into the playoffs. On the flipside, one could argue that KAT plays a more vital defensive position than most. To the extent the Wolves have a “rim protector” on the roster, he is it. If KAT is a poor defender, the team isn’t going anywhere. If you accept this positional-importance argument, then it will probably be at least one year, and maybe two or three, before Towns is ready to be a true MVP-caliber cornerstone and take the Wolves into the conference finals and beyond.
Patrick: To state the obvious, at least three. Karl was really, really, astoundingly good this year. He was also disappointing in that he, with all of his superstar potential and numb#rs, didn’t elevate the team – really at all – beyond what we did last season, which most of us wrote off as an “experimental Smitch season with lots of young talent.” KAT definitely grew as a player. It is unclear if he learned how to lead. He talks about taking losses rough, and how he needs to do more to change losses to wins. I’d like to see more action and less talk. KAT is amazing, but he is still soft, and he’s never had to lead anything. Well, now he does, if we want to win. So we’ll see how he adapts next year. He’s added lots of nifty stuff to his arsenal since he came into the league. Let’s hope he can add “winning” to that mix.
Lucas: Not until he figures out how to play good team defense, which I think will come, perhaps as early as next season. He doesn’t need to be Defensive Player of the Year calliber; he just needs to learn how to communicate effectively, shore up his rotations, and become enough of a rim protecting presence that opponents must think a half-second longer before taking it to the hole. I don’t think it’s a reach to think he can learn how to be that type of player; it’s more of a matter of when. Learning defense is difficult and there is a lot more that goes into it than just having the raw ability. Towns has the raw ability to be sure, but he still needs more reps, experience, and muscles. I think at some point next year the flip will switch for Towns, and the Wolves in general, and the defense will become much better.
Bill: At risk of sounding like a hot take maestro who belongs at a city paper circa 1992 rather than the nuanced landscape of the 2017 blogosphere, I’ll put it this way: he needs to find an edge. He needs what Dexter called his “dark passenger” (minus, you know, the serial murders). He needs to become devoted to stops as much as he is buckets. And he isn’t there yet; not even close. Sure, it’s about reps, and physical and mental maturity, but from my vantage point near the bench I noticed Ricky (especially) getting in his ear about stealing rebounds (i.e. worrying about numbers) and not getting back on defense. He doesn’t have to be a mean S.O.B. like Russ or a cold-blooded assassin like Kawhi, but he does need something. As great as he is, he’s still missing it. Could still be another couple of seasons before he has enough of it to lead the team anywhere noteworthy.
Tim: Carry them to the playoffs? I could see that happening next year. KAT is already insanely good. We know this much already. But in order for him to carry a team deep into the playoffs, that might take some time. Keep in mind, some great, great players have failed in years past to get their teams deep into the playoffs early in their careers, despite putting up amazing individual numbers (KG, Dirk, T-Mac, CP3). Of course, KAT has the luxury of having Wiggins and LaVine right away, so the excuses may not be as valid as some of the aforementioned former star youngsters, but I’m willing to give KAT a little time to go from a “young budding Hall-of-Famer” type to a “holy crap we’re watching Hall of Fame basketball right now” on a daily basis.
Zach: It will all come down to the defense. Averaging 25 points per game as a second-year, 21-year old big man is stupid. It doesn’t make any sense. That statistic needs after school tutoring; that’s how dumb it is. Only Shaq (29.3), Jordan (28.2), LeBron (27.2), Rick Barry (25.7), and Durant (25.3) have had bigger scoring averages with so little experience and at such a young age. I’ve said the past two years that I believe Towns is Timberwolves-proof and he doesn’t have a ceiling. And I still very much believe, if not even more after this season.
But his team won’t have true success until he takes all of that scoring, rebounding, shooting, and passing, only to add good defense to it. Not solid defense. It has to be good. He has to direct what the offense takes and not hope to react to what they want to do. He’ll talk about how he’s taking what the defense gives him, but he and his teammates give too much on their defensive end of the floor. He went through a lot of stretches where he was good on the perimeter and good protecting the rim. But that consistency has to be there. He can carry them to the playoffs next year, but it starts with defense.
Andrew Wiggins quickly became one of the league’s most polarizing players. It seems that fans and pundits who rely primarily on advanced stats tend to view him as a disappointment (if not “bust”) while those who view the game in a wider lens are more impressed or at least less worried. What part of Wig’s third season impressed you the most, and what part left you concerned about his future?
Andy: I was impressed by the fact that Wiggins upped his scoring from Year 2 to Year 3 in the context of a significantly improved (and still improving) team offense. He averaged 23.6 points per game this season with an offensive rating (team’s points scored while he is on the floor, per 100 possessions) of 109.8, which is close to “Top 5 in the NBA” level offense. In 2015-16, those numbers were 20.7 points with an O-rating of 105.7. In his rookie season – when Flip centered the Tanking for Towns strategy around LaVine at point guard and Wiggins in the post – his ppg and O-rtg were 16.9 and 100.2. In other words, Wiggins continues to score more points individually in the context of an ever-improving team offense. That’s encouraging.
As far as concerns about Wiggins go, I would really like to see his assist-to-turnover ratio improve. His turnovers aren’t high (2.3 per game) but he should be getting close to 2 assists for every turnover, instead of the clean 1:1 ratio he had going on, this season. (He also averaged 2.3 assists per game.) As he develops pick-and-roll chemistry with Towns – and we saw flashes of this, this season – his assist numbers will pick up. Playing with a better-shooting point guard than Rubio would also help in this limited statistical area.
Patrick: To me, this is a total red-herring. If you watch the games–it’s one of the perks of writing for AWAW–you know how much Andrew has improved. Does he have a way to go? Is he w3rk in progress? Will he ever be perfect? Yes, yes, and no. But the most annoying “national writer trope” about the Timberwolves is that there’s a fundamental problem with Andrew Wiggins. The dude is on his way to becoming a superstar, if not a first-team All-NBA caliber player.
Lucas: I was most impressed by Wiggins’ improvement from behind the arc. Coming into the season he was a 30.4% shooter from deep and made 96 threes in his first two seasons combined. This year, Wiggins shot 35.6% and made 103 threes. That’s a significant and legitimate improvement.
As for what most concerned me…I don’t know. His handle still needs to improve in order for him to unlock his full potential and he still wafts in and out of games defensively at times. But I’m not one who is overly concerned about Wiggins’ future. Sure, he still has areas to grow (he’s nowhere near a perfect player), but he is a very good, very young player. And even if he tops out down the road as the third best player on a championship contending team, that’s still a damn good player. Growth isn’t linear and his ceiling is still sky-high
Bill: Andy’s right to point out Wiggins’ lackluster assist-to-turnover ratio, but what I was most impressed with in year three was his understanding of the “collapse and kick” strategy. He has better vision than he gets credit for; he still has a long way to go, but if the Wolves can somehow acquire better perimeter shooting, and incorporate more of the pick-and-roll chemistry with Towns that Andy was referring to, I’d expect those assists to increase in the coming seasons.
As far as what I’m concerned about… much like Towns, I don’t see a devotion to defense, or anything resembling a mean streak, out of Wiggins. He still tends to drift. And he plays a game that’s supposed to be jazz as anything but; he’s very rigid and programmed. Maybe it’ll come with more experience?
Tim: A couple things impressed me the most. First and (probably) foremost was how much the game seemed to slow down for him this year. He seemed to have a much better understanding at when to take a deep ball (which improved this year, too), when to drive and shoot, and when to drive and kick. His passing, to me, remains underrated in general. No, he isn’t piling up the assists, but it’s not for a lack of talent in that department. The other thing is his ball handling. This worried me a great deal his first two years, but he seems to have figured it out to an extent. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but he’s made lots of ground since square one.
I do occasionally think that the national “Wiggins checks out sometimes” narrative is a bit overstated, but I do think it exists to a degree. There are nights when he looks as aggressive as any star wing I’ve ever seen. On those nights, he usually finds the rim and is able to then get better shots from the perimeter. It opens up his whole game. Maybe it’s a confidence thing rather than a drive thing. I don’t know Wigs’ psychology, nor does anyone else. But I do think there’s a gear Wiggins occasionally reaches that isn’t there as often as I’d like.
Zach: I really like his development with passing the ball (which is tied directly to an improved handle; thanks, Drew Hanlen!) and outside shooting. He still gets moments of tunnel vision when he has the rock, but I think his ability to traverse the baseline and find guys on the perimeter has become a big weapon for him. He’ll continue to get that comfort, which means he’ll continue to find more of those situations.
As for the shooting, I believe I was on record thinking he’d be around 33.3% from 3-point range this season. He knocked down 107 3-pointers as opposed to 57 last year. Last season, he hit 30.0%. This season, he hit 35.6%. Basketball-reference has league average at 35.8%. That is a gigantic step forward for him and his jumper. He also knocked down a career best 38.3% from 16-23 feet. These are both headed in the right direction.
In terms of concern about his future, he had by far the lowest free throw rate and percentage of shots within 3 feet in his career this season. A worry I have about him is that as his jumper becomes more reliable, he’ll stop attacking the basket so much. I don’t want him to lose that aggressiveness in his game because it puts so much pressure on defenders not named Kawhi Leonard and Andre Roberson.
Besides age and experience, why else do Towns and Wiggins struggle on defense?
Andy: With both players, I think a few more years in the weight room will help a lot. They have to consciously fight for position in some ways that older, stronger players don’t. With Towns, I think he sometimes prioritizes rebounding over shot contesting. With Wiggins, I think he sometimes gets lazy – either not getting into a deep-enough stance to guard his own man, or not being active enough in help-side situations. Both have a long way to go, but at least they have the right coach to teach them how it’s done.
Patrick: Bulk. We have a team full of skinny dudes. We need more adults to shore up the defense. This will come with time. I’m not hitting the panic button.
Lucas: I think there are many little things they struggle at, some of which they can control and some they can’t at the moment, which add up. For starters, both players need to bulk up. Added muscle, particularly for Towns, will allow them to go up against bigger, more physical players and hold their own on that end of the court. They also need to improve their communication so that rotations and switches go more smoothly. Individual defense, while helpful, isn’t as important as team defense and as soon as those two improve their communication the Wolves defense will improve.
Bill: Well, I suppose I covered this in my answers to the last two questions. I’ll say that Andy, Patrick, and Lucas are absolutely correct that both guys need to bulk up. It’s not just about attitude.
Tim: I agree with everyone above me about getting into stronger physical shape, but I also think they’re also just a bit behind on how to properly read defenses. It didn’t happen overnight, but I remain thankful that Thibs is the Wolves’ coach for specifically that reason. I think they’ll get there; they have the athletic attributes. It’s just going to take a bit more time.
Zach: I like the notion they both aren’t strong enough yet. I think that both ties into a physicality that they get outmuscled sometimes, and I think it also has to do with having the legs to keep defending deep into games and the season. When you get tired (yes, young guys get a different kind of tired in the NBA), then they struggle to manage that energy on both ends. The result is usually they conserve on defense and not offense.
There are also poor techniques they employ. Towns struggles to do his work early in the possession by taking away areas of the floor in help. That’s a huge part of Thibs’ system. Both need to communicate better. KAT has to be better at challenging shots without giving up the chance at grabbing the rebound. Wiggins can’t get lost off the ball. Both need to get into better defensive stances. There are just a lot of young technique qualities that have yet to be ironed out.
Before his injury, how would you rate Zach LaVine’s play and his development from Year 2 to 3?
Andy: I was amazed at how pure of a shooter LaVine became, from all areas of the floor, so quickly. I think he still has some holes in his game, but the athleticism + shooting is a lot to get excited about.
Patrick: The dude can score and he can shoot the ball. And he works his ass off. That’s all I can say, but I don’t think it’s faint praise. Zach L. took a yuuuuuuuge step this year in that he played All-Star caliber basketball on the offensive end. The AWAW crew spent a fair amount of time thinking about what this meant and how to report on it. And in some ways, the cool thing is that we never really figured it out. LaVine is really good offensively, and really bad defensively. That is still all we really know. So LaVine is fun. He’s an “open book” of sorts.
Lucas: I was really impressed by LaVine before his injury. It was really encouraging to see LaVine’s 3FG% stay steady with a time-and-a-half increase in his attempts (3.9 3FGA and 38.9% 3FG% last year compared to 6.6 and 38.7% this year). He also became a more consistent finisher around the rim (67.7% 0-3 feet and 34.9% 4-10 feet last season, 63.7% 0-3 and 41.9% 4-10 this year). He still has a ways to go to become a solid team defender, but his growth on offense will be key for the Wolves. Now the question is whether or not LaVine should start or come off the bench, but that’s a topic for a different question.
Bill: His offensive game was becoming very, very intriguing. His free throw rate plummeted, but he was taking nearly 7 threes per game and knocking them down at an above-league-average clip. Much like the other two, the focus going forward has to be on defense; he had the worst Net Rating on the team among rotation players, and we still have questions about whether he’s a bit redundant on the starting unit.
Tim: I love his ability and his newfound role to confidently take it and hit it from deep. Going forward, that is going to be huge, especially considering this team’s recent history of bad three point shooting. The Wolves need a guy like LaVine to hit it from deep, if nothing else, because nobody else on their current core is as reliable from there as him.
My biggest concern remains the defensive redundancy he and Wiggins share in certain respects, but there have been times this year when I wonder and I’m still not sure anyone knows exactly what his best role on this team is. Is he best to come off the bench and finish games? Should he continue to start? All I care about now is that he comes back healthy, but the question marks are still big for him, despite the fact that he’s a bonafide stud offensively.
Zach: I loved his shot selection development. I know that may make some people cringe and it certainly fits my love of gunners, but Zach really found a way to weaponize his 3-point shot even more. 43% of his shot attempts this season were 3-pointers. I’d love to have that get above 50% when he gets back. I want him to attack the basket more, but he’s already the best shooter this franchise has ever seen. He was on pace to obliterate their single season 3-pointers made record. For someone in his role, the development to living at the rim, the line, or behind the arc is huge. I think he took a solid step toward that.