The Wolves lost last night at Boston. Bill recapped the game here. The game was their 40th of the season, which means it’s time for a quarterly report card. These grades are curved for player ability and expectations. I think it’s more interesting to grade Jimmy Butler compared to Jimmy Butler, instead of Jimmy Butler compared to Tyus Jones. Maybe you disagree, but that’s how I’m doing it. First quarter grades are listed next to their 2nd Quarter Grade — click here if you want to review the 1st Quarter Report Card in full.
The stats included here cover games 21 through 40. I’ve only covered the guys who have been regulars in the rotation.
Jeff Teague: B- (1st Quarter Grade: B-)
We now know that Jeff Teague can get his own shot. We also now know that, on this year’s Timberwolves team, “can get his own shot” is not a top priority for the starting point guard; not on a team that has so much offensive firepower on the wings with Jimmy and Wig, and in the post with KAT. In the second quarter, Teague averaged 12.5 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting from the field, to go along with 6.9 assists compared to 2.5 turnovers. Those are all solid numbers. In the 13 games Teague played in, in the 2nd Quarter before his injury, he had a team-best offensive rating of 113.7. What brings his grade down a bit are two things: 1) His D-rating of 109.5 is both bad, and much worse than any other starting player. Any eye test confirms that he’s a weak defensive player; and 2) The extensive and growing sample of minutes that Tyus Jones plays with the starters makes it seem like this team should have a “great” starting five, rather than just a very good one. Teague might be dragging them down a bit. In the season’s second quarter, the Wolves performed better (+5.8) with Teague on the bench than when he was on the floor (+4.2). The same cannot be said for any other starter.
Tyus Jones: A (1st Quarter Grade: B-)
Much, but not all, of Tyus Jones’s value is derived not from what he is, but from what he is not. And what he is not, is somebody who needs or even wants to dribble the air out of the ball. Jones’s individual contributions on offense are modest: in the season’s second quarter, he averaged 5.8 points (51.3 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three) and 2.8 assists (versus 0.7 turnovers) in 20.8 minutes per game. Adjusted to “per 36” those become 10.0 points and 4.8 assists — nothing to write home to Apple Valley about. But Jones becomes a superstar in the “rating” stats that measure team performance when he’s on the floor. In the 2nd Quarter, he led the team with a net rating of (+11.7). His offensive rating was an impressive 112.4, and his defensive rating was a great, team-best 100.6. When you factor in that 13 of the 20 games had Jones playing with the Wolves shaky bench — the bench guys have bad plus-minus numbers — that net rating becomes much more impressive than it already is. When Jones has played with the starting lineup, they’ve outscored opponents by 94 points in 204 minutes, good for a cartoonish net rating of (+21.3). The Wolves have played much better defense and slightly better offense when Jones plays over Teague. On a team led on the floor and off by Jimmy Butler, a more deferential point guard who apportions more energy toward defense makes theoretical sense — they need more of a Derek Fisher than a Dame Lillard. Jones gets an A grade for the past 20 games.
Andrew Wiggins: C- (1st Quarter Grade: B-)
The 2nd Quarter Wiggins numbers: 16.1 points per game (in 35.9 minutes), 40.3 percent shooting (34.3 percent from three, and 61.4 percent on free throws), 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.0 steals. Offensive rating: 111.6. Defensive rating: 105.4. Net rating: (+6.3).
More than any other Wolves player, what should be said about Andrew Wiggins depends on whatever you just heard or read about him. Since everything Wiggins feels like an argument these days, you might be defending him one moment despite being unimpressed with his last performance, and then ripping on him the next, after one of his better games. For three main reasons, Wiggins is subject to high expectations: 1) He was a number one overall draft pick, and the Woves’ return in the Kevin Love trade; 2) He has all-time elite athleticism; and 3) He received a contract extension that will pay him about $150 Million for the next five seasons after this one. It is not unfair, in light of all of that, to hold Wig to a higher standard than most. While his advanced stats continue to be an overrated source of criticism — team performance with Wig on the floor continues to improve steadily as his career moves on, and what else really matters? — at a certain point, he needs to show up individually in some type of meaningful way. That has not been happening this season. A reduction in scoring makes sense in light of the Teague and especially Butler additions, but that should lead to an INCREASE, rather than a decrease in his efficiency. Wig, in his current role, should be making close to 50 percent of all shots; instead, he barely hit 40 percent in the 2nd Quarter. His free throw shooting has been abysmal. If you want to argue against extreme Wiggins criticism (ICYMI, it’s easy to find on the internet), you point out the team’s success when he’s on the floor, you point out how even when he shoots poorly, he still commands defensive attention away from Butler and KAT and limits what opposing teams can do with funky lineups that might get abused by Wiggins 1-on-1, and you start yelling and screaming about how the Butler acquisition was inevitably going to mean less plays run for Wigs and therefore less scoring for Wigs. But after you’ve done all of that yelling and screaming, you’re left forced to concede that his shooting has been terrible and there’s no excuse for that.
For a really great dissection of Wig’s situation, check out Michael Pina’s latest for VICE Sports.
Jamal Crawford: C- (1st Quarter Grade: C)
Now that Shabazz Muhammad is out of the rotation, Jamal Crawford is the team’s weakest link. In the 2nd Quarter, the Wolves outscored opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions in the 560 minutes that Crawford was on the bench. (As a reference point, the Warriors lead the league in net rating this year, at (+11.0).) In the 410 minutes that Crawford played, that margin fell off a cliff, down to (-5.2). Make no mistake, this is causation and not simply correlation. Crawford’s defense and shot selection hurt the team. He would grade lower than a C- here, but for his huge 23-point outburst against the Blazers on December 18, sparking a 1-point comeback win at a time the team needed one badly. He can still get hot from time to time, but not nearly enough to offset his default mode, which includes a lot of ball stopping, difficult shot attempts, and weak defense.
Jimmy Butler: A- (1st Quarter Grade: B+)
After opening the season unselfishly and allowing Wiggins and Towns to score more points, Butler has grabbed the wheel and is in control of the Timberwolves. In the 2nd Quarter, he posted per-game averages of 25.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.9 steals in 38.3 minutes per game. He is the man now. When Jimmy was on the floor, they outscored opponents by 9.7 points per 100. When he was off, they were outscored by 11.8 per 100. Butler is not going to win league MVP this year — neither the team record nor his own stats will measure up to LeBron and Harden — but he will be a fringe argument in barber shops, and he’ll be All-NBA. The only reason he gets an A- here instead of a straight A is that he holds the ball too long, too often, too early in the game. They’ve blown leads because of this Prevent Offense (see: the Milwaukee Bucks game) and he could afford to share the rock a bit more, like he did in the early part of the season. Wiggins and Towns would certainly appreciate it. So would Timberwolves fans. That’s nitpicking the larger point here, however, which is that we’re getting the Full Jimmy Experience. He’s quite a player.
Taj Gibson: B (1st Quarter Grade: A)
Thibs knows what he’s getting from Taj Gibson: consistently-good defense, rebounding, and intelligent, sometimes effective offense. Taj averaged 12.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the 2nd Quarter. Impressively, he shot 58.8 percent from the field. Compared to the season’s first quarter, however, his on/off splits were much worse. He was very much in the positive for his “on” stats, at (+5.5), but that was second-worst among starters (to Teague) and the Wolves were (+3.8) when he sat, suggesting he’s less indispensable than in the season’s 1st Quarter, when those on/off numbers were (+7.7) and (-14.4). Taj probably plays more minutes than he should, given his role of “hustle defense rebounder guy.” He’s solid, though, and will continue to do his job.
Nemanja Bjelica: D- (1st Quarter Grade: A-)
It might be unfair to give Belly a grade here, since he played only 7 games in the 2nd Quarter and was recovering from injury in some of them. He averaged 1.9 points in 11.2 minutes per game, shot 22.7 percent from the floor, and had a net rating of (-13.8) in 78 minutes. Here’s hoping the Belly of the 1st Quarter returns before too much longer. The bench could certainly use that guy.
Gorgui Dieng: B- (1st Quarter Grade: B-)
Gorgui’s minutes increased to 20.3 per game in the 2nd Quarter, up from 15.3 in the first. His production was solid but unspectacular: per-36, he posted 11.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.7 steals. His net rating was bad (-3.2) and I think this cuts two ways for his grade: First, he should be excused from bad plus-minus stats because so many of his minutes are with Crawford. In 311 minutes with Crawford in the 2nd Quarter, Dieng was (-43). In his other 94 minutes, he was (+6). He’s also been logging some time with the catastrophic Aaron Brooks, in recent games. ((-18) in 56 minutes.) But second, Gorgui should be able to do more to offset a bad bench teammate or two, considering the fact that he’s being paid like a starter. I don’t know what to do with this information but give him another B- and move along.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A (1st Quarter Grade: C-)
Towns faced true public criticism for the first time in his career and has responded wonderfully. Following the 1st Quarter when KAT lineups were outscored by opponents, he led the regular starters in net rating in the second. When Towns played the Wolves outscored opponents by 10.8 points per 100. When he sat, they were outscored by 12.6 points. He scored well — 19.6 points per game on 53.5 percent shooting — but did not
hog hold the ball as much as he did in the season’s earlier games. The wild change from Quarter 1 to 2 was on defense, however, where KAT’s rating dropped from 110.7 (terrible) to 102.6 (very good). Towns hit over 42 percent of threes on about 4 attempts per game. He had 12.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. In a Thibodeau system, these are approaching ideal numbers from KAT. He’s apportioning more than half of his focus and energy to defense and allowing Butler to shoulder a bigger load on O. The results have been outstanding. If KAT continues to play at this level for the rest of the season, he will be on an All-NBA team and the Wolves will easily make the playoffs.
What a difference 20 games can make.