Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are both in year three of their careers and their time with the Timberwolves. They were affectionately dubbed the “Bounce Bros” before they had even played a game in the NBA, as their obvious athleticism would enable the two to fly around the court with high, soaring dunks.
However, it was only relatively recently that we have seen LaVine and Wiggins play together in a positive manner, which was when LaVine was moved to shooting guard post All-Star break last year. That was when the Timberwolves’ offense really started clicking and the duo were able to complement each other offensively.
In a vacuum, LaVine and Wiggins’ skills on offense should work in tandem to make life extraordinarily difficult for the opposing defense, as both players score and attack the defense in different ways. Wiggins, at least this year, has been initiating the offense, scoring off pick-and-roll sets or isolation by either pulling up for a jumper or getting the rim. While LaVine has also been able to attack the basket effectively, he primarily spaces the floor and is scoring in catch and shoot situations, which is important as LaVine is immensely more effective in catch and shoot spots rather than off the dribble.
This year, the duo accounts of 42.6 points per game for the Timberwolves, which some hasty calculations show that the two rank third for Wing starting units in terms of points per game. The only teams that get more points out of their wing units are, unsurprisingly, the Golden State Warriors with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant at 47.9 points per game, and the Chicago Bulls with Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler at 44.7 point per game.
Those numbers are telling, as well as exciting for the Timberwolves’ optimists, as it is quite good company to be among Wing units whose points are being produced by All-NBA players.
Unfortunately, offense has never been the problem for the Timberwolves, but rather our obvious difficulties have been on the defensive end. This is the downside of the “Bounce Bros”, as their stunning offensive efficiency and abilities are only matched by some of the worst defensive numbers in the league. In fact, the wing rotation of LaVine, Wiggins, and Shabazz Muhammad makes up perhaps the worst defensive unit in basketball according to advanced stats.
One the problems, alongside a lack of defensive focus, understanding of rotations, defensive counting stats, and good decision making, is that, anecdotally, Wiggins and LaVine lack the strength to be able to match up with some of the bigger players in the league. Wiggins weighs in at 199 pounds according to Basketball Reference and LaVine weighs in at 189 pounds. Among the wing rotations that I looked up to check their points production, it is hard to find a team whose players are not bigger than LaVine and Wiggins at the shooting guard and small forward position.
Using Draft Express, their entire sample size, which goes back to 1987, has the average weight of Shooting Guards at 197 pounds and Small Forwards at 209 pounds. I took a look at the last six years or so, and the numbers move up and down slightly, but it does seem, upon average, that LaVine and Wiggins are about 10 pounds lighter than the average player at their position.
Now weight does not immediately causally relate to strength, nor does it to defensive prowess, but it does provide us some statistical evidence to back up the idea that part of the problem that LaVine and Wiggins have on defense is correlated to their ability to match-up at a strength level to their opponents.
This has been a problem that the Timberwolves’ previous coach Sam Mitchell realized, which is why he had Wiggins start the year at shooting guard and let Tayshaun Prince handle the larger players. It has seemed that Wiggins has an easier time scoring at the shooting guard position, as he is simply too big for most shooting guards and with his advanced post game he can score at will against smaller competition.
Using the position stats provided by Nylon Calculus, Wiggins spent close to 30 percent of his playing time at Shooting Guard last year, with most of his remaining time coming at Small Forward. His statistics simply do not reflect too much of a difference between his time at either position. In fact, some of the changes are quite non-intuitive, such as a drop in True Shooting from Small Forward, 56.2 percent, to Shooting Guard, 51.5 percent, that comes with a change in the opposite direction of Points per 36 at Small Forward, 20.4, to Shooting Guard, 22.1.
However, perhaps the most significant difference for Wiggins comes on defense as his overall Net Rating jumps from -2.7 at Small Forward to a positive .1 for Shooting Guard.
None of this information is truly news, although the numbers may provide us additional data for our arguments, but it has been obvious for some time that the future success of the Wolves’ will always depend upon their core making a huge jump in their defensive ability. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, but it will always be interesting to examine how the careers of Wiggins and LaVine, who are so similar in many ways but such polar opposite in others, shape out.