This season has been marked as the beginning of the Wolves progression towards a fate better than the past decade, maybe even the path to becoming a contender. For the first time in years, Minnesota is regarded as a fringe playoff team. They are a team garnering national media attention, and a team that may actually justify putting some butts in the seats at Target Center.
If this progression from contender for the number one pick in the draft to contender for the number one seed in the West ever comes to fruition, there will have been many steps taken along the way. Now in the midst of a process that will likely take years, the Wolves find themselves in an interesting place. If the Wolves are no longer a cellar dweller, but also not yet a contender, who are they in the mean time?
A logical next step in the progression would be developing into a team similar to the Charlotte Hornets. For the fans out there that still have a Bobcat-type taste in their mouth when thinking about Charlotte, get that out of your brain. This Charlotte team is good. I would like to cordially introduce you to Good Charlotte.
The Good Charlotte Hornets
Last season, the Charlotte Hornets ranked in the top-9 in both offensive and defensive rating. Only the Spurs, Warriors, and Clippers could say the same in 2015-16. While the Hornets don’t have a Kawhi or Curry or CP3, they do have an excellent coach just like those teams.
Steve Clifford, like Tom Thibodeau, is a disciple of the Jeff Van Gundy coaching tree. The two were on the bench alongside Van Gundy with the New York Knicks in the early 2000s. Not surprisingly, Clifford has his team's commit to defense and limiting the possessions of opponents. Clifford and the Hornets were exceptional at defense and also led the league in DREB% last season. Being one of the best defensive teams and rebounding teams in the NBA last season is particularly impressive while giving the bulk of the big man minutes to Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Spence Hawes and Al Jefferson. Yeah, Big Al was a part of an elite defense.
All year Thibodeau has preached the importance of team defense and team rebounding. The epitome of that ideal is the Good Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets won 48 games last season and even after losing Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, and Courtney Lee in free agency the Hornets went on to win six of their first seven games this season. Despite losing their last two games to formidable opponents (the Raptors and Cavaliers) the Hornets, now, at 6-3 are still on pace for another season where they exceed expectations.
This is, of course, quite the opposite of the Wolves who have not met expectations, thus far, at 3-6. Unlike the Hornets, the Wolves have not been doing The Little Things. (Yes, that is another Good Charlotte music video.)
Expected Starting Lineups
Point Guard: Ricky Rubio
Shooting Guard: Zach LaVine
Small Forward: Andrew Wiggins
Power Forward: Gorgui Dieng
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns
Point Guard: Kemba Walker
Shooting Guard: Nicolas Batum
Small Forward: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Power Forward: Marvin Williams
Center: Cody Zeller
Matchups to Watch
Ricky Rubio vs. Kemba Walker
Walker escalated his game last season and is the engine of this team. Walker not only has the ability to finish at the rim (54.3 percent), but he has now become a dual threat. Last season, Walker shot 37.1 percent from three on 6.0 attempts per game. Meanwhile, Walker has increased the volume of threes (7.3 per game) and is shooting 47.1 percent from deep this season.
Slowing down Walker will not be a job limited to Rubio and the point guards, but also Towns, Dieng, Aldrich, and Bjelica. The Hornets free Walker consistently with a high pick from one of their bigs, or in this case both Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller set a high screen for Walker.
Due to Walker’s ability to make the three, his main defender (Kyle Lowry) is forced to desperately go over both screens and chase Walker. Because Marvin Williams (the first screener) is a threat from three, his defender stays home rather than hedging on Walker. This leaves a lumbering seven-feet and 265 pounds of Jonas Valanciunas to be the last line of defense. Here, Walker presents the threat of using his speed to get to the basket leading Valanciunas to wait back in the lane. This all frees up Walker for, a wide-open, pull-up jump shot. 49.7 percent of Walker’s shots this season have been of the pull-up nature where he also is shooting 47 percent.
Andrew Wiggins vs. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Nicolas Batum
After Wiggins 47-point performance against the Lakers on Sunday night, Danny Chau of The Ringer profiled Andrew Wiggins as The Russell Westbrook of Wings.
Wiggins ability to physically impose is, of course, most pronounced against players who are comparatively physically diminutive like Nick Young of the Lakers is. The Lakers didn’t have much choice but to have Young (their starting shooting guard) defend Wiggins. With Bjelica starting at the small forward position, due to LaVine’s injury, Wiggins slid down to the shooting guard matchup.
Zach LaVine is likely to return from a sore right knee this evening and Wiggins will then shift back up to the small forward position and therefore the larger defender. The Hornets offer two physically imposing wings to defend Wiggins with: Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Batum is the starting shooting guard at 6’ 8” and Kidd-Gilchrist is the small forward at 6’ 7”. Both are regarded as good to great defenders. Last season, Batum lowered opponents field goal percentage by 1.5 percent when he was the primary defender and Kidd-Gilchrist (small sample size) lowered opponents field goal percentage by 7 pcercent, according to NBA.com/stats.
It can be assumed the Hornets will be doing everything they can to prevent Wiggins from continuing the tear he is on. Wiggins may need to continue his aggression in ways different than simply looking for his shot. Presented with a difficult matchup in his rookie year, Wiggins was apt to force shots up through the defense, 69.3 percent of shot attempts were classified as defended tightly by NBA.com/stats. Hopefully, a more mature Wiggins will, tonight, be able to discern the efficient move.
These two teams strengths counter one another. The Wolves have the second-best offense in the NBA and the Hornets have the third-best defense so far this season. For the Wolves to win they will not only need to counter the Hornets defense but also their overall disciplined style of play on both ends. Right now part of the Wolves identity amidst the positives is one of immaturity and volatility. Under Tom Thibodeau, the hope is that those shortcomings dissipate and the Wolves evolve into something better. Maybe something like the Charlotte Hornets.
Vegas: CHA is currently -1.5 points with a 52.3 percent chance of winning
Canis Prediction: Hornets win 101, 97
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