Despite the promising 8-8 start to the season, I don't think anyone was realistically expecting the Wolves to make the playoffs this year. They have talent, but it's all either too old or too young.
That said, we were expecting the Wolves to be fairly competitive. That has not happened, for a number of reasons. The Wolves were not expected to compete for the playoffs, no, but they also were not expected to "compete" for another top-5 draft pick.
Yet here we are. Again.
The Wolves' archaic offense has been debated to death this year. There's no reason to go into detail; you can go anywhere here or A Wolf Among Wolves or Punch Drunk Wolves and read more than you ever wanted to about it. Poor spacing, poor ball movement, nowhere near enough three point attempts. Rinse, repeat.
What I do want to talk about is the player side of this - specifically Andrew Wiggins, who has entered, somewhat inadvertently but squarely nonetheless, into a mutual cycle of destructiveness with the offensive system, that's running counter to the positive synergy the other two of the Wolves' "three" have developed together.
Karl-Anthony Towns has exceeded everyone's expectations this year, including my own, and I only predicted him to fundamentally change the way NBA basketball is played. Towns is already the Wolves' best player by a pretty solid margin, leading the team in PER, TS%, rebounding, blocks, Win Shares, WS/48, and Wins Produced, and shows clear signs of where and how he will improve.
Rubio, likewise, is having a career year, despite the continued shooting problems. It's likely he will always struggle with his shot, but his contributions in other areas more than make up for it. Rubio is likely to set a career high in assists and a career low in turnovers this season, and is second on the team in WS/48, Wins Produced and Net Rating (and is second in that to Kevin Garnett, who plays part-time). He also leads the Wolves in RPM by a massive margin: 5.01, with the second being Garnett at 3.1.
And then there's Andrew Wiggins. Now, to be clear, this is not to write Wiggins off by any means. He's 20 years old. It's far too early to put his career in stone. As well, Wiggins is fighting against exponentially higher expectations compared to, say, Zach and Bazz; he is a #1 overall pick, after all.
That said, Wiggins has taken several steps back this season, from an already weak set of overall skills, and it's gotten to a point where I think it can't be chalked up to just youth and inexperience.
Compared to last season, Wiggins has regressed in everything non-scoring related. His rebounding, assists, steals, blocks (and likewise, reb%, ast%, stls% and blks%) are all down. His three point rate has gone up, but his three point shooting percentage has gone down, and his Box +/-, Replacement Player score, and RPM are all thoroughly negative.
|Andrew Wiggins||Points/36 (TS%)||Rebounds/36 (reb%)||Assists/36 (ast%)||Steals/36 (stls%)||Blocks/36 (blk%)||Usage%||Value over Replacement||Box +/-||RPM|
|2014-2015||16.8 (.517)||4.5 (7.2)||2.1 (9.8)||1.0 (1.5)||0.6 (1.3)||22.6||-0.2||-2.3||-1.66|
|2015-2016||21.0 (.524)||3.8 (6.1)||1.9 (9.5)||0.9 (1.2)||0.5 (1.2)||27.8||-0.2||-2.4||-3.56|
This statistical decline is most telling when compared to fellow sophomore Zach LaVine, who was by most statistical measures the worst player in the NBA last season as a rookie.
|2015-2016||Points/36 (TS%)||Rebounds/36 (reb%)||Assists/36 (ast%)||Steals/36 (stls%)||Blocks/36 (blk%)||Usage%||Value over Replacement||Box +/-||RPM|
|Andrew Wiggins||21.0 (.524)||3.8 (6.1)||1.9 (9.5)||0.9 (1.2)||0.5 (1.2)||27.8||-0.2||-2.4||-3.56|
|Zach LaVine||19.4 (.527)||4.6 (7.4)||4.8 (24.2)||1.0 (1.4)||0.2 (0.4)||26.7||0.2||-1.2||-3.05|
Part of this, honestly, needs to be genuinely credited to Sam Mitchell. Sam gets fairly criticized for a lot, but Zach's progress is one thing he deserves praise for. I really believe that Mitchell's 'tough love' strategy and combination of sternness and caginess have gotten through to Zach in a way that, quite frankly, Flip Saunders was never going to.
But a large part of this has to be attributed to Wiggins simply not doing enough.
This has been a constant criticism of Wiggins since his college days at Kansas. The lack of instinct. The tendency to 'float'. Andrew isn't, as Nate would say, a 'do-stuff' player. As he commented a few weeks ago:
I like to think of each player like a bucket of production. Every bit of production that gets poured in adds to the overall total. Rebounds, steals, deflections, miles run, points, TS, etc and whatever.
I think certain items put in that bucket are more highly rated than others. Scoring being #1 on that list. It's the easiest to see both in the box score and in person. It's also pretty hard to do efficiently.
Wiggins has a long way to improve his shooting/shot selection in order for his scoring to be a dependable net positive for the team. That's what is so limiting about his game/future prospects if he doesn't diversify his game. It's also why he sticks out. His thing, he doesn't do it that great, and isn't showing much of anything else. It's also the easiest thing to see on the court and in the box score.
I think the catch is that the do ish guys tend to be the best ones. The bar for scoring efficiency is pretty high and (I'm using this as a matter of short hand because I don't want to check across the board) the only 3 players in the top 20 RPM right now who are there mainly for scoring are Curry, Durant, and Harden. And those guys do other things, too.
What will be key if the Wolves ever make the playoffs with this group is having a wing player who can defend, defensive rebound, have a higher TS with more 3point efficiency as part of it, and maybe get a few more steals. This is 95% of the game and the team will be much better for it if Wiggins can improve his value during that time instead of the other 5.
He's a volume scorer who is a net negative producer compared to the average position player in non-scoring situations while gaining his scoring advantage by almost doubling up the free throw attempts of his SG peers (he shoots 7% less than the average sg at the line).
Development-wise, I don't get why this dude is being force-fed iso scoring instead of being asked to, say, grab 10 rebounds a game or get 3 steals on a given night. He's not that good of a scorer where him having more chances to do so is going to make a big dent. Him rebounding better, getting more steals, being a defensive monster...these are things he can likely improve much more than his scoring (and would also be better for the team), which is hugely dependent on the idea of a subpar free throw shooter taking a lot of free throws (never mind the post up attempts). The coaching staff needs to be force-feeding him do-shit challenges every night that don't involve scoring the ball.
This is dead on, both in terms of what makes a good player good, and why Wiggins is causing problems. "Lacking diversity" is a very generous way to put Andrew's current production, and it is indeed apparent in the box score. Every advanced statistic is a derivative of the basic box score, and as we can see above, Wiggins is thoroughly negative on them all. Some, alarmingly so.
No more was this apparent than last Friday's game against the Jazz, in which Wiggins played 36 minutes without grabbing a single rebound or making a single assist. That is inexcusable. And unfortunately, not far off from normal for Andrew. He has tallied 4 or fewer rebounds in over half his games thus far (70-130), including 30 games of less than 2 rebounds, and 6 games of 0 rebounds. Likewise, he's had 89 games of 2 or fewer assists, including 23 of 0 assists.
The assists are what I believe is the most visible example of Wiggins' struggles:
|Usage %||Assist %|
When he's on the floor, Wiggins counts for well over 1/4th of the Wolves' possessions - "usage" - meaning those possessions end with Wiggins doing something with the ball. Yet, when he's on the floor, he accounts for only 10% of the Wolves' assists. That is horrendous. It basically means he has the ball a lot and makes good passes with it almost never.
For context, here's the group of wing players in the ballpark of 28% usage:
|Usage %||Assist %|
See the problem?
Wiggins' assist percentage is what you'd expect from a low usage center, not a high usage wing. Indeed, the names around his mark are the likes of Roy Hibbert, John Henson and Robin Lopez. The wings near his mark are either straight catch-and-shoot role players (Chase Budinger, Arron Afflalo) or notorious ball-stoppers (Dion Waiters, JR Smith)
Now, I certainly wouldn't say Wiggins is an unwilling passer. He's not a voluntary ball stopper like Waiters. But he is stopping the ball nonetheless.
Wiggins' passes tend to have two flavors: bailing himself out of an ill-advised drive, or bailing himself out of a double team. In neither case is his passes coming in the flow of the offense, progressing a play, or setting up a teammate. Usually, he's just trying to get rid of it. The issue is, pitching the ball back out to the perimeter resets the offense. Which then resets the defense. It basically wipes out any progress towards getting a good shot and forces the team to start over with half the shot clock available. For example:
This comes largely because Wiggins' shot selection tends to have two flavors: post up isolation, or isolation drives. These two shot types make up over 40% of Wiggins' scoring, yet are statistically the two least efficient shot types available. It's very, very easy to double players in isolation. By contrast, the most efficient shot type - the basket cut - makes up just 5.8% of Wiggins' offense.
This speaks to Nate's point that it's really damn hard to be an efficient scorer in this league, and harder still to be an impact player with scoring as the only contribution. Wiggins certainly scores the ball, but does not do it overly-efficiently (his high FT rate is offset by his mediocre FG% and terrible 3PT%). He still has the habit of starting plays before thinking them through, then trying to use sheer athleticism to bail himself out.
A lot of times this results in those awkward looking drives that end with Wiggins chest-to-chest with a defender, bent backwards like a bow-and-arrow as he tries to loft something over outstretched arms.
That's Wiggins trying to jump over guys. Which kinda-sorta worked in college, because he was the top 1% of the top 1% in athleticism and centers are regularly 6'9" and everyone's skill level is low. But that doesn't work in the NBA. Pro basketball is an endless parade of great defenders. First it's Kawhi Leonard. The next night, it's Jimmy Butler. Then Tony Allen. Then Wes Matthews. Then Paul George. And if you somehow get past Kawhi, you're going straight into Tim Duncan. It's just not a winning strategy.
The core of both Wiggins' scoring inefficiency and rock-bottom assist rate is something we've discussed about Andrew since Summer League before his rookie year: his lack of reliable handles. Wiggins simply does not control the ball well off the dribble, which affects, well, everything. He can't consistently get past defenders, he can't consistently get into a good shooting form, and he can't consistently get his passes to go where he intends to. Sometimes he wows with a quick turnaround or smooth spin move; other times, things just....get away from him.
This is where things get complicated. Sam Mitchell's offense isn't doing anyone any favors, Andrew Wiggins included. BUT...but, at the same time, Wiggins honestly isn't giving Sam many options to work with. As much as the offense limits Andrew, I believe he limits the offense just as much in return.
A big reason I think Wiggins is fed the ball so much in isolation - particularly in the post - is because he's simply not capable of doing much else right now. He either lacks the necessary skills or the awareness.
The skill side of this is easy to see. Wiggins doesn't do much spot-up or hand-off work because he's simply not very good at it - again, the weak handles - and his isolations are usually the post-up kind, where he has his body between the ball and the defender and doesn't have to change direction in mid-move often.
On the awareness side is basket cuts, which are statistically the most efficient shot in basketball, because they're happening usually when the defense has already been beaten. A lane is opened and a player flies down it towards a wide open net. Mitchell's offense doesn't exactly generate a ton of opportunities for cuts, but it's hardly devoid of them either - Shabazz and KG get about 10% of their offense from making cuts to the hoop. Gorgui gets over 15% of his...nearly three times Wiggins' rate of just 5.8%, and Dieng's a center. If anything, he and Andrew's rates should be flipped.
A basket cut isn't a complicated shot type. If your defender, for whatever reason, isn't between you and the basket, run straight to the basket. That's all there is to it. All it takes is the awareness that your defender is out of position or isn't paying attention.
And then there's catch-and-shoot, which is both a skill and awareness thing. This may be the most telling part of Wiggins' scoring game because he's genuinely awful at it - Andrew converts just 32% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities. Dieng and LaVine both convert over 40% (wow, Zach's good off the ball? No way %), Towns converts 48% and Prince converts over 50%. 31% is horrendous for a high usage wing, and closer to Ricky Rubio's mark (29%) than any of his other teammates, which should really tell you something.
Basically, Wiggins is being force-fed the ball in isolation because it's, in a pretty real way, the only thing he can do. Mitchell might not be able to run a different system around him whether he wants to or not because Wiggins hasn't shown he can score well in any other way. This is a bit what Eric means when he says teams have "figured Wiggins out". Yes, they have, but that's on Wiggins in the end. He pretty much only does two things with the ball: post-up or crash into the defense head-on. Without even the threat of a pass, there's not much to "figure".
(This is also ironic, as it means Wiggins is far less reliant on Rubio than Zach or Bazz because he's doing all the work himself, which means he's technically probably the best suited of those three to be coming off the bench. Not saying I advocate this, but I am saying...)
And then Wiggins is very nearly just flat out not contributing in other areas. OK, in the Utah game, Wiggins' shot was off. That in and of itself is livable; bad shooting nights happen. But when he also didn't produce a single rebound or assist, that changes things from "bad shooting night" to "complete waste." For 36 minutes on Friday, Wiggins left the Wolves basically playing 4-on-5 on both ends of the floor, and it showed.
This is why it's important to be a "do-stuff" player. If one aspect of your game is off on any given night, you can contribute in other areas.
Karl-Anthony Towns doesn't have many off scoring nights. He's fifth in the NBA in FG%. But on those rare occasions when his shot isn't falling, he has other aspects of the game he can turn to. Towns is 11th in the league in rebounding and 9th in blocks, and ranks 20th among centers in assists (a figure that has gone up dramatically in the past month, as the Wolves have quietly given up on force-feeding the ball into Wiggins). Ricky Rubio shoots only 34%, but is fifth in the league in assists and 6th among point guards in rebounding.
Wiggins, in contrast, is 80th among wings alone in both rebounds/48 minutes and assists/48 minutes. When he's not scoring, he's (quite bluntly) not doing much of anything. 36 minutes, 0 rebounds, 0 assists. That's a problem.
If the Wolves are going take a big step forward, Wiggins is going to have to vastly diversify his game. With Towns, Muhammad, and (likely) LaVine, the Wolves can live without Wiggins being an absolute scoring force. What they can't live with is a wing who doesn't rebound, stops the ball, and is a general liability when his shot isn't falling. Good teams thrive on crisp offense that moves the ball to break apart the defense, and players who contribute in all areas of the game. Right now, Wiggins isn't helping with either of those things.