The Timberwolves improved to 12-8 with their win over the Suns on Sunday afternoon. That means they are now 20 games into the season, and that means that it’s time for the first quarter report card post.
I’m grading the players in the 10-man rotation only. As a reminder, these grades are on a curve based on expectations for the player, given his potential and role on the team.
Jeff Teague: B-
The Nineteen Million Dollar Man who Wolves fans believe is wrongfully playing Ricky Rubio’s position is still adjusting to Minnesota. Teague is adjusting to his new teammates, which include a pair of slashing wings and a post-up scorer. He’s adjusting to his new head coach, who barks micro-management orders from the sidelines as if he might control each player’s movements as they occur. He’s adjusting to a new offensive system that involves a more tightly-congested floor than what he was used to in Atlanta.
It’s clear — sometimes painfully so — that the Wolves starting five unit is working to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Perhaps more than any other player, this mental labor is most visible in the movements, decisions, and emotional reactions of Jeff Teague. He’s cast in an unfamiliar position of being his lineup’s premier three-point shooter, currently connecting on 40.3 percent of his 3.7 attempts per game. While it would behoove him to chuck even more threes to increase his own scoring efficiency and increase spacing for his penetrating-wing teammates, Teague too often head fakes to drive. When he does that, there is usually a Wiggins cutting, or a Towns standing in the way, anticipating a fight for the offensive rebound.
There are other ways that Teague’s familiarity-in-progress is evident. Sometimes on defense, he allows his man to drive past him, clearly anticipating help that is nowhere to be found. Fans have a hard time knowing whose fault the breakdown is, but it never looks good to surrender easy drives to the rim. When the starting-unit offense bogs down, as it has in many a fourth quarters, the ball tends to find its way to Teague at the top of the key, and it isn’t clear what he is supposed to do with it. Again, maybe he failed to generate the ideal action with the initial set or should have a clear “Option B” in mind when he gets the ball back, but what we see is a dwindling shot clock, a lot of dribbling, and — ultimately — a difficult and usually missed shot.
But even amid this unfamiliarity and awkwardness, Teague is playing okay. He’s averaging 14.0 points per game to go along with 7.5 assists and 1.8 steals. If the offensive chemistry improves, perhaps he’ll find himself shooting less of those shots late in the clock, and that field goal percentage (41.8, below his career average of 44.6) will rise accordingly. In the on/off stats, Teague shows up as a helpful player. When he’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by 2.0 per 100 possessions, versus when he’s off when they’re outscored by 3.1. His issues really seem to be more related to learning his coach and his teammates more than basketball ability. He’s still quick off the dribble and knows how to score. I’d guess he’ll earn a higher grade than this in subsequent season quarters.
Tyus Jones: B-
It feels a little bit weird to grade Tyus this harshly, one day after writing about his potential candidacy for the starting point guard spot. That issue, frankly, has more to do with “fit” than performance or ability. Overall, Jones has not played particularly well this year.
He’s scoring just 7.2 points per 36 minutes (3.2 per game) on a weak 39.0 percent field goal shooting. Perhaps more disappointing is that he’s hitting just 31.8 percent of three-point shots, which is an area where a lot of his long-term upside hinges. As always, Tyus is rocking a nice assist-to-turnover ratio, but I expect him to average a few more dimes than the 6.1 per 36 minutes that he’s getting right now.
Jones’s overall play is solid and his defense is probably underrated/underestimated by people who don’t watch him frequently and closely. This might even include Tom Thibodeau. The team plays well with Tyus on the floor, which means something. (Net rating is currently +3.4 despite having to log a lot of minutes with plus-minus cancer Shabazz Muhammad.) But for a player whose upside is based exclusively on skill and not at all on physical tools, he needs to bring more efficient scoring to the table. If he’s only going to attempt 6.7 shots per 36 minutes, connecting on more than 40 percent of them shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Andrew Wiggins: B-
Wiggins is getting better in subtle-but-important ways, and is getting worse (or at least playing below his ability) in some more noticeable ones.
His overall defensive performance is improved from last season. I don’t think his defense was as problematic as his young teammates in recent years, but obviously some people disagree with my take and had him rated as a bottom-tier player on that end of the floor. Regardless of where he was before, he’s solid right now. His defensive rating (points allowed when he’s on the floor, per 100 possessions) is at 105.2. That isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either — last year, his was 110.4. And before you chalk the improvement entirely up to the Butler & Gibson additions, consider that Karl-Anthony Towns’s defensive rating has not improved from last season. Wig’s steals are up to 1.4 per 36 minutes, versus a previously-stable career average of 1.0. I think every reasonable eye test agrees with those numbers that he’s playing better defense this year.
Wig would grade better than a B- if his shooting numbers weren’t down. His three-point shooting is down from last year’s improved 35.6 percent to a poor 31.7 percent — and that’s after going 4 for 6, last night. Worse than his perimeter shooting is his piss-poor free throwing. He’s attempted a considerable 112 free throws and made only 70 of them, good for just 62.5 percent. If he were shooting 80 percent from the free throw line 35 percent from three, his points per game would be up to about 20.4 instead of the 18.9 where it is now. His assist numbers remain very low, despite what sometimes seems like an improved feel for when to pass and when to shoot. While he still passes up threes for long twos off the dribble at a maddening clip, he’s getting a little bit smarter about when to try to score versus pass after driving hard into the lane.
Many wondered how Wig’s offense would be affected by Butler’s arrival. His touches are slightly up in number, from 44.0 to 44.7 per game, and slightly down in time, from 2.7 to 2.4 minutes of possession per game. His shots are down from 19.1 to 15.5 per game. He’s shooting 1 less free throw per game (5.6 versus 6.6). He’s making 23.1 passes per game this year, slightly down from last year’s 25.5. Basically, there aren’t any radical changes in how he’s playing offense — he just needs to make more shots. Ideally, he’ll develop an all-around game that includes consistently setting up teammates with shots. Before that happens on this team, I think the general familiarity issues mentioned in Teague’s paragraph need to be sorted out. All of the starters find themselves needing to create a shot of their own against a packed defense, and Wiggins is not a clever enough ball-handler or passer to generate many assists in that environment.
Jamal Crawford: C
J-Crossover has been an occasionally necessary, sometimes helpful, great locker room guy and media-friendly personality… whose overall style of play and poor defense have not led to much of a positive impact on the basketball floor.
His minutes per game are down under 20 for the first time since his rookie year. That was in 2001. Coming into the season, I expected lower minutes for Crawford than the 26-30 he’s long been aaccustomed to, and wondered if that decreased workload helped boost his effort and efficiency. At this point, it doesn’t seem to have affected much about how he plays. He’s hitting on 40.5 percent of field goals and 36.5 percent of threes, compared to career averages of 41.0 and 35.0. His per-36 minutes scoring and assists are at 19.1 and 4.2, versus career-avgs 18.0 and 4.1. Where the stats damn him most is offensive rating (102.3) and defensive rating (112.5). The lineups that include Crawford have been getting pummeled fairly consistently. His defensive shortcomings were well understood coming into this year, but the idea would be that the second unit would get a ton of buckets to offset the weak D. To this point, that hasn’t really happened.
From my eye, Crawford’s ball-dominant style and crossover dribbles, which is (extremely) cool to watch, is limiting what Tyus and Belly can do. They encourage and prefer a ball-movement system with a lots of cross-court passes and movement. That all stops when Jamal gets the rock and goes to work on his defender. If he could defer more to Jones and be a bit more selective with the isolation stuff, it might help the team. As for defense, that is just going to be an issue for the 37-year old vet.
Shabazz Muhammad: F
Bazz is off to a rough start. A score-only player, he is putting up just 12.9 points per 36 minutes (compared to 18.6-per-36 career average) on just 39.3 percent shooting from the field. From three, where he could be really helpful, he’s 4 for 19 thus far, good for just 21.1 percent.
The plus-minus stats really ruin Bazz.
When he’s on the floor the Wolves are scoring just 102.0 points per 100.
Also when he’s on the floor, they’re allowing 121.5 points per 100.
That’s like a dozen points worse than bad, and in some new category of his own.
We’re talking about a 243-minute sample, which isn’t nothing. Clearly, the two games where Butler was hurt and Bazz subbed in with the starters were catastrophic. But that isn’t nearly enough to explain this away.
It’s reasonable to wonder why Thibs has yet to make a change with his fourth wing spot. If Bazz doesn’t get it together quickly, he will leave his coach no choice.
Jimmy Butler: B+
Jimmy Butler is good at basketball. We already knew that when he was acquired on Draft Night. He’s playing good basketball for this year’s Wolves team, doing the “little bit of everything” that has defined his career. Butler’s averaging 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He’s hitting 38.3 percent on a somewhat-low volume of 2.6 attempts per game. He’s hitting 43.9 percent of all field goals, which is slightly below his career average of 44.7 percent. His off-ball defense is so good that it often makes the viewer wonder if Butler knows the other team’s play before they start running it. He’s made a habit of jumping passing lanes for steals, without many instances of getting burned backdoor due to reckless gambling.
Butler’s two drawbacks, so far, that keep him below an A grade are his free throw infrequency (4.9 attempts, down from 8.9 last year) and his on-ball defense, which has been more inconsistent than we might’ve expected. While his work to fit into this new collection of players has sometimes been as evident as Teague’s, his early-season deference to Towns and especially Wiggins seemed very unselfish and helpful in some big moments. If throughout the course of the season he can find ways to get to the line more often while still sharing the wealth with his ambitious young teammates, he will max out his potential on this team.
As things stand, he’s clearly a huge help. This was most evident in the two games that Butler missed due to illness: the Wolves lost by 23 at home to the Pacers and then by 21 at Detroit. On the season as a whole, the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 with Jimmy, and are outscored by 7.3 without him.
Taj Gibson: A
Thibs-Layden, LLC has made some good moves, some bad moves, and some questionable moves, in its brief tenure operating the Minnesota Timberwolves. The early returns on the signing of Taj Gibson suggest that it might be their wisest decision to date.
The on/off numbers basically tell the story:
The Wolves win by 7.7 per 100 with Taj on the floor, and get borderline demolished — losing by 14.4 per 100 — when he’s on the bench. That +22.1-point swing is the best on the team. While his defense and rebounding are as tough as advertised, Gibson’s OFFENSIVE rating best on the team. The Wolves score 111.4 points per 100 with Taj on the floor. Whether that’s his hard screens, offensive rebounding, sneaky-good shotmaking around the hoop, or correlation with the high-octane scorers that surround him in the starting lineup is a good question. I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above.
Gibson has been an incredibly valuable player on this year’s team. Without him, they would not be above .500 at this point in the season. Even if his backup is also turning in a career season…
Nemanja Bjelica: A-
Before he was injured near the end of last season, Belly was finally starting to look like an NBA basketball player. The foot fracture that he suffered, and the surgery it required, cast some doubt as to whether or not he would begin this season like he finished.
It turns out that he looks even better now than he did then. More than anything else, Bjelica is shooting threes with less reluctance and (a lot) greater accuracy. Attempting the same 5.4 threes per 36 minutes as a season ago, he’s connecting on 51.2 percent of them, good for first in the NBA at this moment (!). Last year, he attempted a ton of threes but only made 31.6 percent of them. If even half of the improvement lasts, and he finishes the year out as a high-volume 40 percent three shooter, he’ll have a really nice season as a reserve stretch four. His defense has been really solid, for the most part.
On the growing list of criticisms of Coach Thibs, perhaps the most common is the limited minutes for Bjelica. He’s averaging just 15.3 minutes per game, which is the lowest of his three-year career; this despite the massive uptick in his efficiency and productivity. (His PER is at 18.2 and WS/48 at .163, compared to his career averages of 11.8 and 0.82.) It’s becoming increasingly clear that at least a few more minutes of Bjelica are in order.
Gorgui Dieng: B-
Gorgui’s minutes are way down, due to the Taj Gibson signing and the Taj Gibson excellence, through 20 games. “G” played 32.4 minutes per game last year, and didn’t miss a single one. That average is down to 15.3 now, and he’s often on the floor with the semi-dysfunctional crew that includes both Crawford and Bazz. To his credit, his productivity is ahead of his career averages, scoring 14.4 points and pulling down 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. His PER and WS/48 (15.6 and .111) are both above average. But the Wolves are getting smacked when G and the bench are on the floor — his net rating is (-7.7). It wasn’t unreasonable to think of his as a “plus” bench guy who could help that unit perform reasonably well. That it hasn’t falls at least partly on the big man’s shoulders.
This first quarter has been a setback — the first of KAT’s career. His defense is holding his team back from greater success than it could be having, the media has taken notice, and it’s impossible to ignore how this is going to affect the core dynamics of this franchise if things don’t change.
I wrote at length about the heightened scrutiny of KAT’s game recently, and don’t need to rehash all of the points here.
Offensively, there are nits to pick at — he holds the ball too long sometimes and forces some difficult shots instead of allowing the system to generate easier ones for him — but overall he’s been very good. He’s scoring 20.9 points per game, most on a team filled with primary scorers, and shooting 52.9 percent from the field, along with 35.6 percent from three and 86.0 percent from the foul line. When he’s on the floor, the Wolves are scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions, which is borderline elite-level offense.
The offense is fine.
The problem is that the defense is terrible.
Despite that impressive O-rating, the Wolves are slightly outscored when KAT is on the floor; this, in contrast to every other starter, for which that is not the case. That’s because opponents are scoring 110.7 points per 100 when KAT is out there. That’s almost exactly the same as his D-rating from a year ago (110.8). There hasn’t been any improvement.
Some of KAT’s defensive struggles are due to physical immaturity. He isn’t as big as he will eventually become and he doesn’t yet have his (Jim Petersen voice) grown-man muscles. Many NBA centers bother KAT for the simple reason that they are bigger and stronger. This list is longer than some are comfortable admitting, and lately it feels like we add a new name to it each week: Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard…
There are times when it just plain seems like Towns should play power forward instead of center.
But the issues are definitely not entirely physical and KAT could improve to at least decent defense if he upped his awareness level, controlled his ambitions to get blocked shots, and worried more about getting back in transition defense. He has better quickness and coordination than almost every center in the league and should not rate as poorly as he currently does on defense.
This is a big micro-issue for this season — the team defense is ranked 25th in the league as of this writing, which effectively means they aren’t going anywhere far unless it improves — but is equally a macro-issue for the long haul. It isn’t good when the franchise player is getting blamed for the losses. As long as Towns struggles to play decent defense, the media that has considered him an all-around darling for two years will take notice — it already has. So will Jimmy Butler and so will Thibs.
Do you think Thibs and Butler will tolerate a bottom-level defense for 82 games?
I don’t, and while I don’t know what things will look like if and when they are put in the position to stop tolerating bad defense, I doubt it will be pretty.
Here’s hoping that KAT returns to being the A-student that he was in his first two seasons in the league.