Since the arbitrary date of December 12, 2016, which is the day before the Wolves beat the Chicago Bulls and a theoretical “corner” was turned, the Wolves have the 5th best defensive rating in the league at 103.8. The Wolves have been 8-9 during this time and their recent winning streak, before the fall-back-to earth game against the Mavericks, has led many to believe that Thibodeau’s defensive schemes may finally be taking hold among the Young Wolves. Of course, the other option is that the Wolves are simply on a hot streak and will devolve again this season.
The Wolves’ season long defensive rating numbers have slowly crept up to 107.0 which is 23rd in the league. This has been an improvement from last year, where the Wolves had a 110.1 defensive rating, which was 28th in the league. While many of us hoped that Thibodeau’s defensive reputation ensured a quick improvement to the Timberwolves’ defensive woes, this transition has not happened quickly enough to ensure the large win jump that many predicted. However, a move up from 29th to 23rd (and rising) is the type of slow, non-linear improvement that is more likely to continue. At least the line is heading up in the right direction.
Ricky Rubio’s Shooting
Checking back in on Ricky Rubio’s shooting based upon the trends we were looking for to deny or reinforce the conclusions I drew in the Deep Dive on Rubio’s Shooting, article here, which were:
- Corner threes
- Shots around the rim
- Assist percentage on three pointers
- Mid-range shots
As Rubio’s role this season has changed significantly, his shooting numbers have also varied quite wildly from his typical numbers. For example, this year he is shooting 42 percent of his threes from the corner (this should be good!), which is much higher than last year’s 19.5 percent of his threepoint shots from the corner. But this year he is shooting an abysmal 26.5 percent from the corner. Last year that number was 43.2 percent.
As a whole, Rubio is having a weird shooting season. He is shooting 25.3 percent from three, well below his career 30.9 percent. From 10-16 feet he is shooting 56.5 percent and from 16 feet to the threepoint line, he is shooting 41.9 percent. For his career numbers, he is 30.4 percent from 10-16 feet and 36.2 percent from 16 feet to the threepoint line. One would expect his numbers to approach their median as the year continues, as this sample size is quite small, such as the 10-16 feet percentage is based off of 22 total shots.
After last year’s hopeful improvement of 51.7 percent shooting around the rim (still not a good number), Rubio has dropped to 47.6 percent. Rubio’s made threes are still a hilariously 100 percent assisted this year.
The Young Big Three and Defense
We often talk about how the young Wolves have a long way to go on defense and that is no clearer than when looking at the trio of Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine.
The Wolves young “Big Three” and their DRPM:
- Karl-Anthony Towns is the worst of all Centers in the league at -1.60.
- Zach LaVine is the 2nd worst Shooting Guard in the league at -2.89
- Andrew Wiggins is the worst Small Forward in the league at -2.40
Now, this is just one way to measure defense and Town fares much better by DBPM, although Wiggins and LaVine show just as poorly (ranking 411 and 395 in the league). However, as their development progresses, it is concerning that the Wolves’ foundation may be built upon three players who are offense-only.
The Bjelicassaince (or Lack Thereof)
In the beginning of the year, particularly in the preseason, it seemed that Nemanja Bjelica was going to fully acclimate to the NBA, push Gorgui Dieng for the starting Power Forward spot, and serve as the Wolves “Stretch-Four” that would be able to space the floor and provide some playmaking.
Bjelica has not been able to do so, although he will still occasionally show his flashes of brilliance that inspired the adulation in the beginning of the year for his potential with this team. While Bjelica’s minutes have gone nominally down from last year’s 17.9 to this year’s 16.7, he has played worse in almost every possible category.
His shooting is down across the board, he is contributing a slightly smaller amount of assists, steals, blocks, and rebounds, and his advanced statistics show a general decrease in effectiveness. While Thibodeau has not given Bjelica an extremely long leash, he is still one of the few bench players that is getting consistent minutes.
Bjelica is still on an extremely team-friendly contract and is a useful bench player, but the ship has likely sailed on Bjelica fighting for a starting stop on the Timberwolves.
Towns is still good at Basketball and is getting better
It was always going to be challenging to properly evaluate Towns in his sophomore season. His rookie campaign was one of the most dominant in recent memory and he had so few glaring holes in his game. Instead, we were looking for slight improvement in a number of areas and an overall increased understanding of team defense.
While the defense remains a team-wide challenge, Towns has expanded his game and after a slow (for him) start to the season, he is still well on his superstar path.
The main difference for Towns this year has been his threepoint shooting. Last year, Towns shot 7.5 percent of his shots from three and that number has skyrocketed to 21.6 percent this year. His threepoint shooting percentage has dropped from 34 percent to 30.6 percent, but this number will hopefully stabilize a little higher.
His overall shooting percentage has dropped from 54.2 percent to 48.8 percent, as Towns no longer is being fed the steady diet of midrange jump shots that were provided in the Towns-Rubio pick-and-rolls that were heavily featured last year. His shot attempts from 16 feet to the threepoint have dropped from 27.9 percent last year to 9.2 percent this year. He has essentially traded those long-two attempts for threepointers, which would typically be a godsend for those who heavily criticized the previous regime’s antagonistic relationship with threepoint shooting.
The decrease in Towns’ success in shooting the ball is likely due to the heavier role he is playing in the offense, as his usage has risen from 24.9 percent to 27.3 percent, as well as what was probably unsustainable mid-range shooting from last year. Promisingly, this increase in usage has been accompanied by a rise in assist percentage and a decrease in turnover percentage, which reflects the gradual improvement in passing ability that Towns is showing.
Perhaps most telling, especially when compared to some of his teammates, Towns is clearly a positive impact on the court in regards to his advanced statistics. Towns’ posted a 1.6 OBPM his rookie season and this has risen to 2.7 this year. He is also posting the highest ORPM among all centers this year with 2.85.