Timberwolves Season in Review: Part 2
We’re recapping the Timberwolves 2016-17 season, round table style. In case you missed it, Part 1 can be found here. Here are the final five questions about the season that was.
After LaVine tore his ACL in the 50th game of the season, Towns and Wiggins combined for 54.3 points per game. Their 2-man lineup in that time had an offensive rating of 113.8 – slightly better than the Warriors’ league-leading offense. Should this sample inform the team’s roster or lineup plans going forward?
Andy Grimsrud: This trend has had my attention for the past couple months, since LaVine’s very unfortunate ACL injury. Up until that time, the team’s PR campaign was heavily geared around having three 20-point scorers, each only 21 years old. It was a pretty cool thing. But as LaVine seemed to ascend into a future All-Star type of shooter/scorer, it seemed to come at least partly at Wiggins’s expense. Whether it was was as simple as “there’s only one ball and there are only so many shots for each player” or something deeper in the chemistry, Wiggins and KAT both exploded when Zach went out and they were tasked with carrying larger portions of the offense.
I tried to ask Thibs about this in his season-end presser, pointing out the per-game averages of Wig & KAT after the LaVine injury and asking him if he was surprised by how much of the slack they picked up. His answer — in Thibs fashion — went a lot of different directions, but to paraphrase the essence of it, he said that Wig and KAT were progressing all season and he felt they would’ve scored those same increased amounts even with Zach in the lineup.
Taken literally, he’s wrong — there just wouldn’t be enough shots to go around with LaVine in there, too. But, his general point (I think) was that they are better with Zach than without Zach. He even said, “you don’t just replace Zach.” So, Thibs’s position on this is clearer than most. In clearer, firmer terms than most of his statements, he has clarified that Zach LaVine is every bit part of the team’s core that Wiggins and Towns are.
That’s fine if that’s true — LaVine is young and talented, with a crazy-interesting upside. But I would like to see him staggered more with the second unit that otherwise struggles to generate points. It really does seem as if Wiggins and Towns can handle the offensive workload as a duo, in the starting lineup.
Patrick Johnston: There isn’t a (known) right answer to this question yet, so I’ll unleash a semi-warm take: although Zach LaVine might’ve been the team’s most-improved player this season, there’s a case to be made for him taking on a new role. The role that is most realistic is as “souped-up Shabazz Muhammad”–that is, “high scoring 6th man whose skills can be used to create situational matchup difficulties for other teams. Look, LaVine is extremely popular and marketable, but will the Wolves win more games with him in an outsized role? It depends on whether he can and will play good defense, to a far greater degree than Karl Towns or Andrew Wiggins, who’re both further along than Zach L.
Lucas Seehafer: So, to be blunt, the question is basically “Should Zach LaVine start or be the team’s sixth man?” (see, told ya) and my answer to that is: I don’t know. LaVine, obviously, is a key member of the Wolves’ core and figures to be around for the foreseeable future, but whether or not he should be a starter really hinges on how well and quickly he can pick up good team defense skills. (Quick aside: I think he’ll get a 4-year max, whether the Wolves give it to him or they match, and I think that’s a no brainer despite coming off ACL reconstruction.) As of right now, he and Wiggins have fairly redundant skillsets (and Wiggins’ size is a bigger advantage at the two than the three) and if one had to be moved to the bench, I’d choose LaVine. I think his specific skills (read: chucker) are better suited for the sixth man role and Wiggins has proven to be too much of an offensive stalwart to be moved to the bench. Part of me still thinks LaVine and Wiggins can coexist in the starting lineup, but it all depends on them becoming decent to good team defenders.
Bill Bohl: That’s such a tricky question. It should definitely “inform” their lineup/roster plans, but I don’t think LaVine’s value would be very high this season coming off of a serious knee injury. Without the ACL tear, he’d either have helped prove he can be part of the solution going forward, or he’d be a dynamite trade chip for what promises to be a busy offseason for the team. Instead, he’ll almost definitely be on the team on opening night in October, and that can’t been kicked down the road. To answer your question: yes, the team should incorporate how well they performed after LaVine went down into their decision-making process, but I just don’t know if they have enough data to make a decision on his future anyway, so it may be a moot point.
Tim Faklis: I do think it should impact their lineup plans going forward, especially after Lavine gets back fully healthy (which could take a while). I don’t think it should impact their roster plans, though. I think there’s a way to incorporate LaVine fully without keeping him in the same exact role we saw him in for most of this year. I’m not entirely sure what that is, but I don’t think a LaVine-Dieng bench combo would be the worst thing in the world.
Zach Harper: While many wanted to peg the Wolves’ shortcomings on LaVine (I got a lot of tweets during that good stretch that incorrectly attributed it to Zach’s absence), I don’t think we saw much in terms of team impact. There were stretches in which the Wolves looked better. There were stretches in which they desperately needed LaVine back in that attack. If anything, this stretch without their third scorer showed the Wolves two things, in my mind.
First, it showed that Towns and Wiggins are big time scorers in this league. That their efficiency spiked during this stretch and they played so well on that end of the floor without the spacing Zach provides is impressive. What you hope is that they’ll take that spike in scoring and apply it to making the rest of the team better when LaVine gets back to 100% and on the floor. Second, it showed just how thin this team is when it comes to help around them. Defenses could’ve done a lot more damage in covering Towns and Wiggins after LaVine got hurt. This team should use this time and look to add shooters and cutters into the mix. Give Wiggins and Towns the space to operate and this becomes the norm for them.
Ricky Rubio spent most of the season in trade rumors, but he also turned in career highs in points and assists per game and field goal percentage. Do you expect to see him in a Wolves uniform next November?
Andy: If we parse everything Thibs has said about Ricky (and perhaps more importantly, the many times he omits Rubio’s name in discussions of the team’s “core”) I think it’s reasonable to think that he might be traded. For how (relatively) good Rubio has played for this team — including this past season — Thibs has simply not gone out of his way to shoot down the hot trade rumors or make any sort of major endorsement of Rubio as the team’s point guard going forward. He has spoken COUNTLESS times about the team’s core group of players and it always includes “Karl, Wig, and Zach.” It rarely includes Ricky. Also, there was a 48 or so hour period around the trade deadline when it seemed more than likely that Rubio was headed to the Knicks. Thibs holds his cards close to the vest, but the fact that Ricky took to social media to (passive aggressively) vent about the situation suggests that either: 1) the rumors were legit; and/or 2) Thibs made no attempt to reach out to Ricky to let him know he would not be traded.
Basically, there’s been a lot of smoke.
But, if you look at what Thibs has done — or more specifically, what he has NOT done — i.e., trade Rubio, you have to wonder if he might stick around at least through the remaining two years of his contract. Rubio is considered to have a bargain contract, and yet so many teams are happy with their current point guard situations that he might not have very much trade value. It might not make any sense to trade him if the only reason is shedding salary.
Who is going to replace him, anyway?
It’s a good question. For some reason I think he’s played his last game as a Wolf but that is more gut feeling than anything else.
Patrick: Andy and I just wrote a lot about this. TL;DR: I think he will, but I wouldn’t say he has very much job security here.
Lucas: Man, I don’t know. At the trade deadline, I thought for sure he’d be gone this summer, but then he went on that magical run to end the season. Right now, I think it’s around 50/50 that he’ll be back (or gone, depending on how negative you are). I think the only way the Wolves could justifiably move Rubio is if they somehow end up with the number one overall pick or if they get a commitment from George Hill. I think moving Rubio without getting any of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, or Hill would be a mistake.
Bill: No, I don’t. I can’t shake the feeling that this will be a critical offseason in free agency, and given Thibs’ longstanding affinity for guards who can get their own shot, he’ll make a move at the point guard position. George Hill? Jrue Holiday? I totally agree with Lucas’ final line – moving Ricky without Fultz, Ball, or Hill in hand would be a huge mistake. But I’ve learned to expect the worst and hope for the best when it comes to the Timberwolves.
Tim: I hope I didn’t watch his last game last week. I’ve written about this topic more than just about any other this season, so I’ll keep this short: There are very few point guards, that will be available this summer, that make the Wolves better than Rubio does. There are even fewer that the Wolves can realistically acquire this summer. I think he should be in a Wolves uni next fall, but I have my doubts.
Zach: I honestly have no idea at this point. Thibodeau seems to have come away very impressed by Rubio and the shooting improvement in the second half of the season gives you a lot to consider in regards to his future. If he can give the Wolves that, is it enough to keep him as the bridge PG until Dunn or somebody else (more likely) is prepared to run the team?
2.5 months ago, I was certain (based on some information) that Rubio would either be traded on draft night or in the first week of free agency. Now, there seems to be some cloudiness regarding that idea. I think Rubio will be in a Wolves uniform if their targets aren’t available to them. Then we’ll do the whole trade rumor thing until at least next February again. I feel like I didn’t answer this question at all.
Kris Dunn quickly proved himself as a dynamic and versatile defensive player. But he struggled in just about every facet of offense. Is it too early to write him off as a viable point guard?
Andy: Well, if we’re talking about this coming season, then I think he should be written off. As in, despite whatever they expected to get when they drafted Dunn, he hasn’t shown any serious ability to run an NBA offense yet. (Well, not unless you count the 16 assists he registered as the starting point guard in the glorified pickup game that was the season finale at Houston. And I don’t.)
Dunn has some clever handles and a lot of athleticism. It’s possible that he’ll put together a basic set of skills that allow him to initiate offense more effectively, over time. But I think his more realistic (and possibly quite promising) future is in the “wing stopper” role. He is a pretty terrifying defensive player.
Lucas: Technically, probably, but I don’t deal with technicalities (puts on sunglasses as explosions happen behind me). I’m convinced Dunn will have a productive career as a defense-oriented two-guard and fill in point guard, not as the starting point guard on a good team. He showed this year that he can’t efficiently run an offense and made too many questionable decisions to build my confidence in his future as a starting point guard. That being said, it’s still very early in his career and if he figures out his shot and how to finish at the rim, I could find myself eating some crow.
Bill: Well-put, Patrick. No.
Tim: But he had 16 assists in his last game! Seriously though:
I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on him as a point guard all together quite yet. But we’re going to need to see substantial improvement next year. That’s not to say I need to see Rubio out there in Dunn next year, we need to see basic ability running the point. If we don’t, my doubts will turn into more certainty.
I do think there’s a place for him in the NBA, though. I know the name “Tony Allen” has been thrown around a lot, and I don’t hate it. It does imply that he would never even attempt to improve from deep, however, and I’m not sure how much I agree with that. Dunn has a lot of tools I like: defense, attitude, hustle. He can muck a game up when it needs a good mucking. But I’m not sure he’s a point guard. That could change, but I doubt it will.
Zach: It’s not too early by any means. But there are some smart people convinced he’s already a bust. I wouldn’t go nearly that extreme but he needs a lot of work. It isn’t just shooting the ball, finishing, or getting to the free throw line. He just seems to struggle at creating for others. The final game of the season was fun, but not nearly enough to erase most of this season on offense for him.
There is a general feeling of disappointment in this season for the simple fact that the team won only 31 games after many predicted more like 41 and a playoff berth. What specific trend or aspect of the season disappointed you most?
Andy: I’ll admit that I overestimated the immediate effect that Thibs would have on the team’s defense. I was disappointed to be wrong — or maybe “naive” is the better word — about that. The 2016-17 league spectrum for defensive rating spanned from 100.9 (Spurs) to 110.7 (Lakers). The Timberwolves’ 109.1 was much, much closer to the bottom than the top. They ranked 26th in defense. Making matters worse, it was the “core” group of players who struggled most on that end of the floor. LaVine, Wiggins and Towns each had a D-rating over 110, right around the league-worst mark of the Lakers.
I know it’s a process and youth, inexperience, and adjusting to a new coach and system are all legitimate excuses for an adjustment period. But it was disappointing that they defended so poorly in Year 1 with the defensive guru Thibs leading the way.
Patrick: The failure to sustain that temporary hot streak they had shortly after LaVine got hurt. For one thing, the team had a legitimate shot at the playoffs. For another–and related to the LaVine discussion above–it muddied the water from a developmental perspective, since we still don’t really know what Zach L’s best future role should be. I suppose that will be part of the intrigue next season.
Lucas: I don’t know if one specific thing comes to mind. Obviously, the struggles on defense were less than ideal, but they were also fairly predictable. While frustrating, defense is extremely difficult to learn at this level, and as I wrote about previously, it takes a ton of repetitions in a variety of settings and situations for learning to occur.
I guess if forced to pick one thing, I’d say the bench production was most disappointing. The Wolves didn’t really have anyone on the bench they could turn to to keep games close as the starters took a breather (as a result, the starters didn’t take many breathers). Shabazz Muhammad was probably the closest one, but he was way too inconsistent. I think that might be the biggest argument for moving LaVine to the bench; he could be the leader and explosive threat for that unit.
Bill: I predicted between 33 and 35 wins in our season preview roundtable, but I was basing that in large part on a perceived regression to the mean, injury-wise, after the Wolves’ extremely healthy 2015-16 campaign. Other than LaVine, and Bjelica, this season’s Wolves were very healthy again (all 82 for Towns, Wiggins, and Dieng, 78 for Bazz, 75 for Ricky). So I guess my disappointment is in the fact they didn’t capitalize more on their principal parts being available for so many games. I get that they weren’t very deep, were learning a new system, etc. But still.
Tim: That run in February was fun, when they beat the Clippers, Warriors, and Wizards all in the same time period. It got us asking “are the Wolves…just…good now?”. That fell off way too fast, and completely fell apart. I was hoping to see more consistency from them, even after a small losing skid. I never saw that team again to close the year. Their job next year will be to find that defensive discipline, and hold onto it this time.
Zach: We should be honest that 31 wins is a disappointment. If you expected the playoffs, then that was highly optimistic of you. Young teams usually don’t win. They struggle with consistency. That’s what happened with the Wolves and that struggle with consistency was highly predictable. However, they lost so many close games in such a consistent way that the 31 feels like it should have been a few more, at least. That they couldn’t crack that code and build toward something more acceptable throughout the season is the biggest disappointment tied to the record.
But I’m with Tim here. That stretch in February where they started turning it around needed to last long. I’m not saying it should have last through the end of the season. I’m not sure that’s realistic. But not just losing their defensive success but losing it in such a dramatic fashion made you wonder if that good stretch was a fever dream. (It might have been.)
Despite the lower-than-anticipated win total, what are the biggest reasons to remain optimistic about the Wolves’ future?
Andy: Towns took the next step toward superstardom, and getting a superstar is the most difficult and important task in the (re)building process. It would be wrong to excuse the disappointment of this 31-win season away entirely — this team has significant issues it needs to address in the off-season, both internally in development (particularly for KAT & Wig to become stronger defenders) and externally in free agency and the draft. But having a superstar is the biggest thing. KAT is effectively under contract for 7 more seasons after this one, if you make the very logical assumption that he signs a 5-year max extension in October 2018. The Wolves have SEVEN years to build around Towns. They can try the Rubio-LaVine-Wiggins supporting cast (with a helpful free agent or 3) and if that isn’t a title contender, they can try something else. Provided Thibs can instill a defensive culture here like he did in Chicago and as an assistant in many other places, a KAT-led offense is going to be very good and the team will win 50+ games every year.
Having one player isn’t enough by itself — just look at the Pelicans and Anthony Davis. But landing a superstar in the draft and controlling his rights for nearly a decade… that’s the heaviest lifting in the rebuilding process and that part is complete here in Minnesota. It’s up to LaVine and Wiggins to become credible Robins to KAT’s Batman and it’s up to Thibs to make it all make sense together.
Patrick: Young talent. A proven coach. A great city. A committed if modest-sized fan base. These are the reasons this season was so difficult when it didn’t work out. But they could be the same reasons to be legitimately excited about the team’s prospects moving forward……
Lucas: I could go on about how the Wolves still project to have a high-powered offense and that the defense will come, but really it all comes down to three words: Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s far and away the best young player in the league right now and will be an All-Star and All-NBA player for years to come. He’s amazing and as long as he’s in navy blue and lime green, the Wolves will have a bright future.
Bill: Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s on his way to being the best player in the league someday. If that doesn’t give you hope, nothing will.
Tim: KAT has the chance to be a once-in-a-generation player. Wiggins could be a multi-year All-Star. LaVine is going to be good, and we have no idea how good yet. Ricky Rubio is still here, and still fantastic. They’ll have a top 7 pick this year, and who knows what will come of that? There’s plenty to be excited for.
Zach: Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t announce his retirement.