Season-Preview Questions for Each Wolf
The Timberwolves open up their season tonight at San Antonio. Before they officially get underway, here are the big questions facing each player on the team.
- Will MGH’s hyphenated surname help him earn a few minutes on a team led by a guy named Karl-Anthony?
No, it won’t. But I don’t have any better questions to ask about Georges-Hunt. After going undrafted in 2016, he spent some time in the D-League before earning a couple of 10-day Kahntracts with the Heat and Magic. He played 48 minutes over 5 games in Orlando. There isn’t much data to draw from when discussing MGH.
- Are his days in ‘Sota numbered?
When Thibs-Layden, LLC signed the Bloomington big man to a three-year deal worth over $20 Million, they presumably thought he’d crack the playing rotation. Last year that did not happen — Cole logged 20 DNP’s and just 531 total minutes — and the Taj Gibson signing combined with the Justin Patton first-round draft pick did nothing to improve his chances of seeing regular floor time.
In his annual “32 Crazy Predictions” column for ESPN.com, Zach Lowe predicted that Aldrich will eventually be traded for Jared Dudley of the Suns. Lowe explained:
The Wolves need depth and shooting, and the Suns could use more wiggle room Aldrich’s partially-guaranteed deal would crack open this summer. They are not getting better than this for Dudley. Minnesota is staring down a hefty tax bill for next season after handing over Scrooge McDuck’s vault to Andrew Wiggins; Dudley would add to it. Tom Thibodeau might snare a bench piece now anyway, and deal with next season’s tax next season.
Whether it’s for Dudley or someone else, it seems likely that the Wolves will at least TRY to move Aldrich for someone more useful.
- If Teague or Jones suffers an injury, can Brooks play?
In our AWAW Season Preview Roundtable, we kicked around the question of whether Tyus or Aaron Brooks would play more minutes at backup point guard. I don’t think that one is a very close call — assuming both are healthy, Tyus will be the backup point — but a better question is whether Brooks is still an NBA-caliber player. He logged almost 900 minutes on a half-decent Indiana Pacers team last year, but he wasn’t good. He averaged just 5.0 assists compared to 2.7 turnovers per 36 minutes — mediocre by point guard standards — and barely shot 40 percent from the floor. On defense, according to ESPN’s “Defensive Real Plus-Minus” metric, he ranked 55th among the league’s 74 point guards, one ahead of notorious matador, Damian Lillard. (By comparison, Ricky Rubio ranked 11th and Tyus Jones ranked 27th.) At Media Day, Brooks had a good sense of humor about a lot of things, including his own lack of conditioning and preparation last season. While he maintains that he is thankful for the opportunity that Thibs is giving him in Minnesota, it isn’t clear that that can or will carry over into competent play.
Since it’s unlikely based on sheer probabilities that both Teague and Tyus play 82 out of 82 games this year, Thibs will likely have to call Brooks’s name at some point. Whether he’s up to the challenge is one little question the team faces.
- Can he get healthy, and if so, how soon?
A double question that hardly requires an explanation! The first round pick from Creighton broke his left foot (a fifth metatarsal fracture explained by Lucas here) before he was even able to play in the summer league. According to Thibs, Patton has been doing individual workouts but not practicing with the team.
Patton is so young with so much physical potential that the Wolves will certainly preach patience with his recovery. When he returns, it will almost definitely be in Iowa in the G-League. It would be nice to see him make a complete physical recovery in his rookie season.
THE POINT GUARDS
- Can he help space the floor as a three-point shooter?
In Case You Missed It, the Wolves traded away Ricky Rubio and used the new cap space to replace him with Jeff Teague. While most metrics and many experts find Rubio to be the better overall player (because of passing and defense) the trade make theoretical sense for the Timberwolves because they now have Jimmy Butler — a natural half-court playmaker — and they need a point guard who can play off the ball. Most importantly, they need a point guard who can and will make catch-and-shoot threes without any hesitation. While Rubio’s three-point accuracy was sometimes decent in streaks, he was ALWAYS reluctant to pull the trigger and instead preferred to fake the shot and dribble into another pass for somebody else.
Rubio’s style is helpful to certain kinds of players, but it is not conducive to the sort of role that would be asked of him on this current Wolves team.
Before fans can call the trade any sort of “win,” however, Teague needs to show that he is a better fit. His career stats do not suggest that he’s any major marksman from downtown. He has hit 40 percent on threes just once in 8 seasons and his career high in attempts per game was just 3.5, in 2015-16 for the Hawks.
This Wolves team will meet or exceed its high preseason expectations only if it has at least a modicum of space on the floor between KAT, Butler, and Wiggins, all of whom inflict the most damage around the rim. They will need Teague to provide some of that space with at least a medium volume and high accuracy of three-point shots. Basically, when the opposing defense collapses — and it will, a lot — Teague needs to make it pay with a steady supply of three-bombs.
- What is the next area for improvement?
When Tyus entered the NBA two years ago, he wasn’t ready. He had a lot of the skills, but none of the speed or strength. He looked like a kid playing a man’s game.
Last year… well, he still looked like a kid. But he played more like a man. He had better command of the half-court offense, posting an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio (per 36 minutes) of 7.3 to 1.8. (Up from 6.8 to 2.1 as a rookie.) His field goal percentage improved from a miserable 35.9 to an almost decent 41.4. His threes went up from 30.2 percent to 35.6 percent. And his defense went from “catastrophe” to “sneaky-clever off-ball defender who struggles to stay in front of his man.”
Jones won’t turn 22 until next May. It’s hard to imagine that a player whose improvement trajectory was slanted so far upward between his first and second seasons will have already plateaued. So where might he get better in Year 3?
If Jones has aspirations of eventually becoming a starter, the best place to improve would be on defense. Even if he showed signs of being a good team defender — deflecting passes, drawing charges — Jones is undersized and less athletic than most of his opponents. He needs to get stronger and better at defending opposing ball-handlers in the half-court.
- Did Bazz improve as a defender last year?
Check out Bazz’s month-to-month defensive ratings from last season:
In the early months he didn’t look like a lockdown stopper or anything, but it seemed like mistakes and breakdowns happened less frequently from his first couple NBA seasons. The numbers in February through April suggest that — however much his own fault — lineups involving Bazz were playing some really bad D.
Since Bazz is the team’s 4th wing heading into this season and will presumably log relevant playing time, we will have to wait and see what type of defender he is at this point in his career. Defense seemed like a potentially fatal flaw to the energetic scorer’s future career when he first entered the league. If he can be just “kinda bad” on that end, he’ll probably land a long-term deal after this season and stay in the league through his athletic prime. If not, he’s a potential candidate for the Chinese League.
- Will less minutes and a lower work load rejuvenate the 37-year old shooting guard?
J-Crossover turned 37 years old last March and will begin his 18th season in the NBA. He’s played over 36,000 regular season minutes and a couple thousand more in the playoffs. That Thibs used $4.3 Million of his precious little remaining cap space on such an old player raised more than a few eyebrows among diehard partisans who have paid close attention to Crawford’s recent seasons.
Player Efficiency Rating is an imperfect measure of player performance, but for an offensive specialist like Crawford, it is a pretty good measure of whether he is playing better or worse. Check out the clear trend that follows his career in his mid-30s, heading into this season:
By PER, Crawford has gone from an above to below average offensive player over the course of the last four seasons, and he continues to get worse with older age.
One thing that HAS remained steady in this timeframe, however, is his playing time. For each of the past three seasons, Crawford has averaged between 26 and 27 minutes per game.
Barring major injury to either Butler or Wiggins, that will not happen this year. In case you missed it, Thibs doesn’t play his bench very much. Last year, Brandon Rush only got up to 21.9 minutes per game because of LaVine’s ACL tear that thrust him into the starting lineup. Muhammad, a steady bench guy, averaged just 19.4 minutes per game.
The question for Crawford is whether a decreased amount of minutes and perhaps a smaller load of offensive responsibility next to Tyus Jones will help improve his efficiency in the last couple seasons of his pro career. If that happens, he could be the stabilizing veteran presence that the Wolves bench needs. If not, he might be a major negative and regrettable free-agent signing.
- How will Butler’s leadership influence Towns and Wiggins?
On one hand, it is wrong to frame the big Jimmy Butler question around two of his teammates. After all, it is Butler and neither KAT nor Wig who has played on winning teams and on All-Star Teams. He is the best two-way player on this roster, as of today. On basketball x’s and o’s, the biggest Jimmy Butler question is probably, “What percentage will he shoot from three?”
But Butler’s leadership really is the big question for this franchise, because for the Timberwolves to ever contend for championships they need Towns and Wiggins to play defense. Defense is where Butler shines brightest and the intensity that he brings to his team is going to inevitably do SOMETHING to players at such impressionable stages as the 21-year old Towns and 22-year old Wiggins.
Butler’s personality will draw parallels to Kevin Garnett, who famously mentored KAT a couple years ago. But there’s a very important difference between 2015 KG and 2017 Butler: the former was on his way out of the league and was not genuinely caring about wins and losses, while the latter is smack in the middle of his prime and coming off of a disappointing season in Chicago. Jimmy Butler cares very, very much about winning and losing and any barking that he does at either Towns or Wiggins will seem a lot more serious — and, probably, mean — than whatever KG said or did.
In a feature for VICE, Butler described his leadership as confrontational.
I’m confrontational. I feed off of confrontation. It makes me go. Not everybody’s like that.
And if Butler has something to say, he says it.
So yeah, I’ve changed, because I want to fucking win. I want to show that I can win. So the way I go about things, it’s not gonna be the way I went about things when I was a rookie, [when] I’m not gonna say anything. Now I’ve got something to fucking say.
Blunt confrontation from a star teammate could be exactly what the young Timberwolves need, or it could be exactly what they do not need. It could inspire Towns to play more disciplined and concern himself more with contesting shots than amassing rebound stats. It could light the proverbial fire under Wiggins’s butt to play with more consistent effort. Or it could alienate KAT into a trade demand and cause Wiggins to just shut down and coast.
Really, the Butler dynamic with the young cornerstones is that big of a deal for this team, and it’s the single biggest variable for how this group will or will not develop into a sustainable contender.
- What does Wiggins look like when he isn’t a featured scorer?
For all of the criticisms Andrew Wiggins faces for his inconsistent defense and poor stats in areas like assists and rebounds, nobody questions his ability to rack up points. As a rookie just two years removed from high school, Wig averaged 17 points per game. He averaged almost 21 the year after that, and then he averaged almost 24 the year after that. Through a combination of dribble jumpers, hard drives to the basket, free throws, and some threes, Wig is an all-around scorer with a variety of ways to attack a defense.
His perception as a one-dimensional scorer seems bound for a shake-up with the arrival of Jimmy Butler, who replaces Zach LaVine as Wig’s no-pun-intended wingman at the other shooting guard/small forward position. While LaVine got plenty of touches himself (per NBA.com, he actually averaged more “touches per game” (57.9) than Wiggins (51.4)) he did not initiate the offense with the force that Butler does, and therefore did not use up as many possessions as a shooter or potential-assist passer.
With Butler taking control of a great deal of the offense, Wiggins will not be spoon-fed as many opportunities for the ball-stopping isolation sets which have helped define his image as a throw-back wing scorer. Instead, he will have the opportunity to score in easier ways — like baseline cuts and corner threes — but only if he wants to seek out those opportunities. In a worst-case scenario of sorts, Wiggins would disappear from games that Butler dominates, much like he did when paired next to the assertive Kevin Martin in the first half of his rookie season.
In a best case scenario? Wiggins develops the sort of inner magnetic pull to the corners that Klay Thompson has, knowing just when and how to position himself for that easy jumper every time that his All-Star teammates fold up the defense and are looking for an assist. In this scenario, Wiggins would expend less energy trying to score, and would therefore have more of it for important tasks such as playing defense and crashing the boards.
The Wiggins Question is a general one, and a big one. The league’s newest $150 Man will be under the microscope this year, and how he adjusts to playing in a winning context will go a long way in shaping the lasting narrative of his career.
THE FRONT LINE
- Is he a helpful defensive player?
With the acquisition of Taj Gibson and retention of Gorgui Dieng as a high-minutes reserve big man, the Timberwolves will not have much room for Nemanja Bjelica in the regular playing rotation. There will be injuries and foul trouble, however, and there might even be some tinkering with big and small lineups that make “Belly” a more attractive option than either Gibson or Dieng in some circumstances.
Regarding his question for the year, it seemed like last year’s Wolves team was FINALLY figuring out Thibodeau Defense… right until Bjelica got hurt and then they fell right off a cliff. Bjelica fractured his foot in the 67th game of the season — the March 15 tilt at Boston. In the 10 games after the All-Star Break through the Celtics game in mid-March, the Wolves played their best basketball of the season, racking up impressive wins against the Jazz, Clippers, Wizards and even the Warriors, Specifically, the Wolves were playing MUCH improved defense during that stretch, boasting a defensive rating of 102.4 against a tough schedule. (For context, the Spurs had the league’s best D last season with a 100.9 rating and the Lakers had the worst at 110.6. The Wolves were 26th at 109.1)
After Bjelica’s injury? In the final 15 games of the season the Wolves defense reverted back to its baseline and just continued to plummet into the abyss. They rocked a disastrous 116.5 D-rating for the season’s homestretch.
The question is: How much of that drop from great to terrible was related to Bjelica? And if the answer is at least, “some,” then can he help this year’s team defend better — even if in a limited role?
- If KAT ever sprains an ankle, can Gorgui keep the team afloat?
Gorgui Dieng is a solid NBA basketball player. Last season, his fourth as a professional, he played all 82 games, nearly averaged a double-double (10.0 points, 7.9 rebounds), shot 50 percent from the floor, and had the best plus-minus numbers of all Wolves starters.
As a bench player he will help this year’s team. But to me, the bigger potential question for “G” is whether — should the situation unfortunately present itself — he can help keep the team afloat as a starting player in the event of a Towns injury. If KAT were to sprain something and miss 15 or 20 games, I think people would fear that the playoff chances would go out the window. However, with Jimmy Butler around to shoulder more of the offensive load, a player with Dieng’s discipline on both ends of the floor might do surprisingly well.
I hope this question never gets answered because Towns plays through another healthy season. But it seems like more of a true “question” than anything related to Dieng as a reserve big man on this year’s team. He is what he is, and we pretty much know what we’re getting from him in his expected role.
While on Gorgui, be sure to check out his answers in “Being Muslim in the NBA,” an interesting roundtable discussion of current and former NBA players from ESPN’s The Undefeated.
- Is his new corner three a real thing?
We discussed this one in the roundtable preview. Taj never shot threes before coming to Minnesota, and he was launching them up from the corners during the preseason games.
Will that continue?
If so, will it help space the floor better than last year’s team, which had a pretty congested offense at times?
We shall see.
- What direction does his career go?
When KAT was drafted first overall by Flip Saunders in 2015, everyone around the Wolves organization was excited. He was projected to be the best player in a great draft class and the perfect big-man addition to a team whose other young pillars played perimeter positions. That KAT went out and unanimously won Rookie of the Year before turning in an absurd second season with per-game averages of over 25 points and 12 rebounds shows that he was worth the hype. In the NBA general manager’s poll, Towns has earned the most “If you had to start a franchise with one player…” votes for two consecutive years. Not yet 22 years of age, Towns was just ranked the league’s 10th best player by the Washington Post and the 12th best by ESPN.
KAT’s resume has only one big stain on it, and it’s an ugly one:
Last season, Towns was bad at it. While Wiggins takes more public criticism for “effort” related matters (probably because he has such a mellow face, while KAT plays with outward fire) KAT was probably the worse defensive player on last year’s team. According to NBA.com, the Wolves allowed 110.8 points per 100 possessions when Towns was on the floor (worst on the team) and just 103.6 when he was off of it (best on the team). In other words, whether Towns played or sat was the difference maker between the Wolves playing their worst defense, or their best.
According to ESPN.com’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus, Towns was the worst defensive center in the league last year, ranking right behind famously-terrible defenders like Jahlil Okafor, Enes Kanter, and Al Jefferson.
Defensive struggles for a big man logging huge minutes just a couple years removed from high school is not unexpected. Without question, Towns has more physical upside as a defender than the dudes listed in the last paragraph who are plagued by slow feet. He absolutely can get better with more experience and dedication.
But the question is how soon that will happen, and how MUCH that will happen. The mostly-sad history of the Timberwolves is written largely about two players named Kevin. Garnett put up great statistics, but never had his overall value questioned because he was the consummate team player whose stats were an afterthought. Basically, everything he did on the basketball floor — much of it on the defensive end — was to improve his team’s chances of winning the game. Love, on the other hand, eventually came to face more criticism. His teams never won games like KG’s did, and fans eventually began to question how much of that might be Love’s fault. While he led the entire league in rebounding, it sometimes seemed like they came at the expense of his teammates and he cared too much about the stat. (He even admitted once that “there’s no such thing as a selfish rebound.”) When an opposing guard drove into the lane and it was Love’s job to help over and contest the shot, sometimes he’d hold off — perhaps to avoid foul trouble. Before he was traded away to Cleveland, Love was considered to be one of the league’s Top 5 or 10 players. He made 2nd Team All-NBA in 2014. Forwards on the 1st Team were LeBron and Durant. But after Love was dealt to a championship contender, teamed up with LeBron and Kyrie, his perceived value took a big hit. No longer able to focus on stats, Love is no longer viewed as an elite player. He’s still considered to be very good, don’t get me wrong, but not “Top 10 Player” good. That WaPo Top 100 ranks him 32nd in the league, while ESPN had Love at 26th.
After KG was traded out of Minnesota, he won Defensive Player of the Year and a championship on the Celtics, and if anything, his reputation soared upward — cementing him as one of the all-time great power forwards.
What does this Timberwolves history have to do with KAT, aside from developing the contextual lens through which fans will observe his development? It means that his career has come to an early crossroads: down one path is continued statistical achievements and short-term individual accolades. If he can average 25 & 12 a couple more times, he will make an All-NBA Team if the Wolves improve just a little bit. Down the other path is lower per-game scoring and rebounding numbers, better attention to defense, more winning, and a more sustained reputation as one of the league’s truly great players.
On Media Day, Towns told us that he was thinking too much on defense last season, that he now understands the Thibs system, and that he plans to play on his instincts this year. Clearly, he is confident that whatever ailed him and his team last year when trying to force opponents to miss shots has been cured.
For the Timberwolves to reach preseason expectations of 48+ wins and a playoff spot, they need to be better than 26th in defense. Much better. The single biggest individual area for improvement is Towns’s center position. How he goes about his business this year will signal to everybody paying attention just exactly how he plans to enter his prime as a basketball player: a guy who cares about numbers, or who cares about winning.
Stay tuned to find out.