The Wolves fell to the Washington Wizards 92-89 Tuesday night in a game that was almost as tiring to watch as I’m sure it was to play in.
The Wolves came out of the gates energized, attacking Washington with a flurry of ball movement and surprisingly stout defense, building as much as a 12-point lead in the first quarter, only to see their verve die slowly and painfully until it finally gave in to the sweet release by the end of the fourth.
Unfortunately, this story isn’t anything new. On the season, the Wolves are being outscored by opponents by 86 points in the fourth quarter. Their total assists drop from an average of 126.7 over the first three quarters to 88 in the fourth. Their turnovers? They increase from an average of 68.7 total to 89. Their fouls increase from 87.3 to 112. Their field goal percentage drops to 41.4% from a 47.8% average. In other words, in the fourth quarter, the Wolves are significantly worse at moving the ball, turning the ball over, fouling, and shooting.
While the explanations for such a drop off are likely multifactorial – life rarely runs dichotomously, after all – it’s logical to come to the conclusion that player fatigue is the most impactful culprit.
Tom Thibodeau has become notorious for playing his starters an obscene amount of minutes ever since he took over as head coach for the Chicago Bulls in 2010 and this year hasn’t proven any different. Andrew Wiggins is second in the league in minutes played with 773, Karl-Anthony Towns is fifth with 734, and Jimmy Butler, who missed two games earlier in the season with an illness, is 15th with 690; Taj Gibson falls just outside of the top-20 with 676. The Wolves starting lineup – Jeff Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Gibson, and Towns – has logged 415 minutes in 16 games. (For reference: their second most used lineup – inserting Tyus Jones in for Teague – has seen only 78 minutes of action, most of which came over the last three games.)
Any player, no matter how hard they trained in the offseason or how genetically blessed they are, would experience significant fatigue towards the end of games with that high of a payload. Thibs, it would appear, seems to think otherwise.
Thibs on what hurt the Wolves tonight late: "The second shot."
Wizards had 3 second-chance points in the 4th quarter, Wolves had 9
4th quarter offensive rebounds:
— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) November 29, 2017
However, Thibs’ track record only partially explains why the starters are being relied upon so heavily this year – at least that’s what I keep telling myself. The rest can be explained by the largely poor performances the bench players have put forth as of late, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Jamal Crawford can put the ball in the hoop and wow with his dazzling ball-handling, but the Wolves hemorrhage points like an uncontrolled nose bleed when he’s on the court, giving up 113.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s even worse when Shabazz Muhammad (121.7 points per 100 possessions) is on the floor and he isn’t doing enough on offense to warrant much more playing time. Gorgui Dieng continues to struggle with defending the pick-and-roll and has seen his offensive value plummet with decreased minutes. The bench – besides Jones and Nemanja Bjelica – hasn’t exactly provided Thibs with much reason to extend their minutes or even trust that they can get the job done.
If the last three games – in which Jeff Teague (right Achilles soreness) and Bjelica (left midfoot sprain) have missed – have proven anything it’s that general manager Tom Thibodeau needs to step up and make some roster changes, for sure before the trade deadline in February, and perhaps sooner rather than later. The Wolves have an open roster spot and two-way contract. The bench isn’t performing to an adequate standard. The starters are playing way too many minutes, even for a Thibodeau-lead team. Changes have to be made to bolster the bench and cut down on the starters’ minutes, even if it’s just by a minute or two.
The obvious question that gets raised when statements like those above are made is “well, sure, but who?” There aren’t any high profile players on the free agent market and trades are always easier to talk about than make, but below is a list of current free agents according to Real GM:
There are a number of players on that list who could contribute positively to many teams in limited minutes right now. As far as trades, the Wolves have Cole Aldrich’s pseudo-expiring contract (only $2.3 mil is guaranteed next year if he isn’t waived by June 2018), the Oklahoma City lottery protected first round pick, this year’s and future second round picks, and perhaps even Gorgui Dieng. They have the assets to get something done.
With high minutes played, both acutely and over a prolonged period of time, comes increased player fatigue, which logically leads to declining play late in games and an increased risk for injuries. It’s on both GM and coach Tom Thibodeau to step up and recognize that changes with the roster have to be made and the sooner the better.