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5-on-5: Early Season Questions

Five of the writers at Canis Hoopus discuss the start of the season

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The opening month for the Timberwolves has been somewhat of a disappointment. The team currently sits at 5-11, which is third worst in the conference, although the team is also only 3 games behind the 8th seed.

Here at Canis Hoopus, we wanted to take the time to reflect on the early season so far.

Question 1: How has the season matched up with your expectations?

Drew Mahowald: I think I am on par with everyone when I say the Wolves have underwhelmed this season. Prior to the season, my prediction for the year was 39 wins -- a 10-win jump from a season ago, which I thought would be a pretty darn good accomplishment. But the defensive improvement that we all expected from Thibs just hasn't been there and it's a big reason for the slow start.

Dane Moore: I am that annoying sports fan that is pessimistic about everything, so I set my expectations low so as to not be disappointed. And because of this, I was the a**hole who writes for a Wolves website that bet on the Wolves under (42.5 wins). Today we are excited about a Wolves comeback victory against the Phoenix Suns that featured a vintage Tyus Jones game... Yeah, this season has been tough.

Vegter21: The easy answer here is badly. I came into the season imagining rainbows, unicorns, and a winning record. Five wins and eleven losses were not at all what I thought the first 16 games would look like. I was much more in the 11 and five camp. That camp is quite a bit more fun. There's cake, craft time, and smiling Nemanja Bjelica's. However, as I often do after discouraging losses, I'll search around for a nugget of goodness to repress those dark thoughts of a non-playoff season. Obviously, we need the record to improve, but the first half of most games have been a joy to watch. The skill level of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns has vastly exceeded my expectations. No longer do I wonder where points are going to come from or have to watch a giant black hole known as Big Al and his old school game. Those three provide excitement on nearly every offensive possession and I'm more often surprised that a shot doesn't go in than when it does. Having the expectation that we're going to score on every possession is not something that I'm accustomed to. It's exciting and frightening at the same time and is definitely beyond my expectations coming into the season.

David Naylor: It's been worse than I expected so far, but at the same time, it's not entirely surprising. The saying "young teams don't win" certainly applies to the Wolves, and some of the bad habits and lack of focus we've seen reek of a young team not staying locked in for 48 minutes of a game. The Wolves have lost a good few games that they should have won and that sucks. However, they don't seem to be that far from consistently winning games if they can fix that one big run per night that has been killing them.

Josh Clement: This season has been odd to the say the least. While we have seen some of the improvements we were hoping for, they have come from somewhat unexpected areas, such as Wiggins’ threepoint shooting. However, the team has really let us down in terms of defense and consistency so it is hard to say the first month has lived up to the outsized expectations that some of us put on the team after the preseason and summer of Wolves’ hype.

Question 2: Cause for optimism?

Drew Mahowald: The three-point shooting from this team has surpassed my expectations. In particular, Wiggins' improvement from beyond the arc is astounding. Is this kind of efficiency sustainable? Probably not. But does Wiggins' shot look exponentially smoother? Yes, it does. Big shoutout to Drew Hanlen.

Dane Moore: The answer is obviously Wiggins, but in the name of variation, I will say Tyus Jones and (gulp) Adreian Payne. For the two players that I had the lowest expectations for, it has been a positive to see Jones and Payne play productive minutes (234 combined minutes).

From a long-take perspective and without getting to salary cap-y, I can't emphasize enough how helpful it could be to have the Wolves future role players be the players currently under contract. The simplest way to phrase this is to say that, per NBA rules, teams can exceed the salary cap (almost exclusively) by retaining the players they currently have under contract. There will be a day when Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine are all on massive contracts and resources will be scarce. If Jones and Payne can prove to be rotation players, down the road the Wolves can utilize those resources elsewhere.

Vegter21: It's early. It's still really early. There's a new coaching staff, they got through a unicorn injury, and they're still a young team. If they can figure out their third quarter woes and long stretches of extreme funkiness, they're going to start turning some of these L's upside down. Because I'm consistently drinking the pre-New Years Kool-Aid (optimism flavor), I think that these losses are actually going to start turning into blowout wins. If Thibs and the rest of the coaching staff can figure out how to translate the flow and effectiveness of the first two quarters into the last two quarters, the playoff dreams are still a distinct reality. I will continue to believe this, knock on every piece of wood I come across, and wear my lucky Timberwolves socks on game days until that dark day of mathematical elimination. For now, the optimism will continue to flow, just like Troy Hudson on the mic

David Naylor: LaVine, who still, in my opinion, hasn't been getting enough shots, is shooting 46.0%/38.9%/87.8%. The sample is still small, but I think that his shooting is absolutely real and is so critical to this team's offensive identity moving forward. LaVine can still dunk it like few others can, but his shooting within a team structure is a major key to opening up spacing for Andrew Wiggins to do damage without having to work through two or three opposing bodies when he enters the paint, which has happened far too often in this early part of the season.

Josh Clement: I think the biggest story of the season so far has been LaVine’s continued success. He was such a question mark moving forward that it was hard to pencil LaVine in as part of the Wolves’ true “core”, but he has shown his offensive skills are here to stay with the permanent shift away from point guard to shooting guard. Having a shooter like LaVine is incredibly valuable to a team.

Question 3: Biggest disappointment?

Drew Mahowald: I alluded to my biggest disappointment in the first answer. The collective defensive effort has been lackadaisical for many big stretches and I believe it's the main reason we see the opposition manufacture giant runs on a nightly basis. Simply put, teams can't be that bad on defense and expect to be a playoff team.

Dane Moore: “All you need is faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust." -Tinkerbell.

I am disappointed that Thibs Dust has not made the Wolves soar, rather Thibs himself has looked more like a Lost Boy. The Wolves were so scorned by the Sam Mitchell accident that literally any coaching change would have been an immediate bound forward. But Thibs has not magically transformed the defense into a top-10 unit, he has not utilized Ricky Rubio effectively (maybe even marginalized him), and Thibs's team looks and plays like a bunch of 20-somethings. Maybe the Wolves are mediocre defenders at best, maybe Rubio is marginal, and maybe the team is just a bunch of kids. I am disappointed there has been no magic to the Thibodeau coaching regime.

Vegter21: Shabazz Muhammad. And interior defense. And third quarters. But mostly Shabazz. My expectations were that he was going to be a scoring monster off the bench, that he would dominate opponents' second unit defenses, and that he could possibly be in the sixth man discussion at the end of the year. He's clearly still only comfortable going left, his defense is still terrible, and he can't resist doing his best Derrick Williams impression when driving to the basket. Against Boston, he committed the rarely seen double charge while trying to drive through the chests of two Celtics. He looks lost and doesn't seem to be endearing himself to the new coaching staff at all. Unless he quickly proves to be a reliable scorer off the bench, I think he'll be seeing less and less playing time, and we'll be seeing more and more of the razor sharp elbows of Adreian Payne.

David Naylor: Given how much I cheered at his signing over the offseason, Brandon Rush's complete inability to hit a shot has really disappointed me. Rush missed seven games with a toe injury and has only recently returned, but he is only 5/22 (22.7%) from the field on the season (3/13 from three). The bench unit badly needs scoring from somewhere, and if his shot isn't falling, even more pressure shifts onto Shabazz Muhammad, who has struggled mightily to begin the year, and Bjelica, who has shown flashes but needs more consistency in both his usage and his approach.

Josh Clement: Unfortunately there is so much that has been disappointing that it is hard to pinpoint anything in particular. However, I am starting to have this nagging feeling that the Wolves’ have zeroed in on a core a bit too quickly. I am a bit worried that LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns are all offense-first players whose defense will always be suspect and this season has not assuaged those worries at all.

Question 4: First thoughts on Tom Thibodeau as a coach?

Drew Mahowald: Thibodeau hasn't quite lived up to what I expected, especially in terms of defensive improvement. The one concern everyone had with Thibs appears to still be an issue, and that is playing his star players heavy minutes. Wiggins, LaVine, and Towns are all playing 36 minutes per game and often seeing 40 in games. I think this is playing a large role in the defensive lapses this team goes through.

Dane Moore: I'm trying to stay positive on this one. Mostly because any calls for Thibs's head would be completely irrational. "My biggest disappointment" was the harsh reality that Thibs Dust appears to not be real. :(

On the simplest of levels, coaches are judged by results. The Wolves are 5-11, the offense has not improved from last year (11th in ORTG in both '15 and '16), and the defense has improved marginally (27th in DRTG in '15 and 18th in DRTG in '16). Based purely on results, Thibs, of course, could not be exceeding anyone's expectations. I'm still holding out on the ideology that he is hiding that Thibs Dust away somewhere.

Vegter21: Tom Thibodeau is a scary monster. His sideline bark is the sound of my nightmares. I honestly have no idea how he continues to possess vocal chords. Or a functioning heart. He is a bear that's taken human form, stalking the sidelines, roaring at refs and players alike. I absolutely love him. Being of the optimistic nature, I continue to believe that his defensive dust takes a while to fully infect a team. Yes, the Wolves held additional practices in preseason, yes we're thirteen games into the regular season, yes the defense has been worse than my preseason expectations, but I think that we won't be able to see the full results of Thibs defensive teachings until we head into 2017. On the offensive side, the presence of the three-pointer, and the team's success with it, has been a welcome surprise. Thibs did offer some clues into the increased propensity of the three point shot earlier this season, but it's been well beyond my expectations.

David Naylor: He has been resistant to change his substitution patterns. So often, players go for an entire quarter or more with no break (see: Tyus Jones' fourth quarter in Phoenix, many first quarters with Wiggins and Towns, etc.), and even when the devastating third quarter runs happen, the starters are left out there to just kind of suffer through it. He talked after the game in New Orleans about trying other things, but that hasn't happened yet. The defense isn't there, and while the offense has been, things don't feel right. Long-term, I think Thibs figures out how to do things. In the short term, however, I think he needs to explore different rotational options, starting with finding more minutes for Jones.

Josh Clement: While it has been a joy to watch Thibs bark at the team up and down the sidelines, it does seem like the minutes issue is real. Thibs has not really had a satisfactory answer, even after he joined the Timberwolves, to the criticism that he overplays guys on his team. LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns are all top-20 in the league in minutes per game and while they are all still young, it’s worrisome to say the least in a league where the value of taking care of the long-term health of your players has become incredibly important. It would also be nice if this whole defense thing would happen a bit faster, but I think we all expected too much too soon.

Question 5: Updated win predictions for the year?

Drew Mahowald: I still think the Wolves can make their way up to the upper 30s in wins this season. Offensively, this team has shown it can compete with just about any team in the league. It all rests on the defensive side and for now, I'll give Thibs the benefit of the doubt that he'll be able to pick that end up moving forward. 38 wins.

Dane Moore: FiveThirtyEight has the Wolves finishing 35-47. That would be winning 44.7% of the remaining games. This is a big adjustment for FiveThirtyEight who predicted the Wolves would go 46-36 at the beginning of the season. My question would be, 15 games ago you thought the Wolves were a team who wins 56.1% of the time and now that has dropped to 44.7%? I know there have been some major failings by the Wolves this year, but I don't know if a statistical model can recognize the "why" the Wolves have failed. It is my belief that the "why" is not an issue of talent but rather execution. I am almost certain a ten-game run of exceptional execution is out there for the Wolves yet. Maybe I'm not so pessimistic. I'll take the over on 35 wins, give me 38-44.

Vegter21: 71-11 - Longest winning streak in sports is on its way.

David Naylor: I said constantly during the offseason that I had the Wolves hitting 41-41, and the playoffs would work themselves out. At 5-11 now, they would have to go 36-30 the rest of the way, which is much more difficult but still possible. I'm sticking to 41. This team absolutely has the firepower to go on a winning streak if they figure out the one-run, one-quarter issues that have been plaguing them, and I think it happens sooner rather than later.

Josh Clement: I think the Wolves could easily swing wildly in any direction, good or bad, the rest of the year. The NBA has a couple top-tier teams, a few bottom-feeders, and the rest all filling out the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised to the see the Wolves pull out 8-game winning streaks nor 8 game losing streaks at some point this year. I do think they will end up around the 35-38 wins range by the end of the season.