As the first half of the season has ended, it is time for another 5-on-5 where your Canis Writers share their feelings of optimism and pessimism, taking a look back at the season so far and projecting what is yet to come.
1. Scale of 1-10, how do you feel about the season so far?
Kyle Theige: Six. Is the record right now what I thought it would be back in October? No. But I have been pleasantly impressed with the progress over the last few weeks (let’s just throw out Sunday’s performance against the Mavs). No core player (Towns, Wiggins, LaVine) has regressed, the front office hasn’t made a short-term panic move, and the overall future (roster, financial flexibility, etc.) is still as bright as ever.
Drew Mahowald: I'm at about a 3.5 right now. I didn't come into the season expecting playoffs as much as others were, but I certainly didn't expect a 14-28 start with as many ugly losses as the Wolves have taken. The defensive regression from some players is alarming, although I'm giving them a pass given that Thibodeau is their third head coach in three seasons. If the Wolves can go .500 from here on out, I'll be satisfied and hopeful going into next season.
Josh Clement: 5. This season is odd to say the least. Some of the improvements have been great, more so than what we expected, such as with Zach LaVine’s continued development, and I think the slow march up the defensive ratings ranking (now up to 23rd) will continue to around 20th or so by the end of the year. However, the negatives are real and Thibodeau seems much more willing to stay the course rather than deviate from his original plan. The fact that Brandon Rush cannot get minutes unless someone is hurt reflects that.
Clyde Frazier: 4. It is a shame the Wolves haven’t won more games, but while we look to assign the blame, efforts to improve have not been made in vain.
Dane Moore: Fatigued. And not the "whoa, this has been a whirlwind of ups and downs" fatigued. More so bored of the same narrative. Flashes of greatness spun into the predictable derailment.
See: Three straight wins, games in which they effectively slowed multiple MVP candidates, followed by a seemingly disinterested effort against J.J. Barea (CanisHoopus LVP). Or, a fully charged first-half against the Spurs (Wolves O-Rtg of 146) only to give up a 20-3 run in the second half.
Young teams are inconsistent, but it can weigh on a fan. 4 out of 10 with three fun points to KAT and one to LaVine.
2. What are you happy about and/or disappointed with in the season so far?
Kyle: Aside from the record, the most disappointing thing for me is the lack of production from the bench and Thibs’ unwillingness to trust them (goes hand-in-hand). I understand Thibs wants to evaluate what he truly has with his young core players, but certain guys have showed (and earned) the ability to have secure roles in the rotation going forward. I’m 100% #TeamThibs, but it’s lunacy that Brandon Rush made so many smart plays (and shots) in back to back games (both wins by the way) and then only got 3 minutes in a lifeless, momentum-crushing loss at Dallas. That type of stuff just can’t happen.
Drew: I'm not really 'happy' with anything at this point. Nobody has improved drastically from last season and there isn't a specific aspect of the game in which Minnesota is dramatically better. If I had to pick one thing, I would say the three-point shooting from pretty much everyone not named Towns has improved slightly, which is definitely an encouraging sign.
Josh: To be honest, I am pretty disappointed in Kris Dunn, Thibodeau, and Wiggins. The Thibs’ part is easy to explain, I think I would have bailed a while ago on Point Wiggins and not using the bench. At some point, I would have gone for wins. I understand his reasoning, I just wouldn’t be able to do it (from the vantage point of fan, of course).
Dunn struggles more one would hope for a rookie and his development path from here is more challenging as a result, but he is a young rookie not getting that many minutes, his trajectory could easily change.
Wiggins, while I know this is a contentious issue, is looking more and more like he must have an extreme outlier development curve to become a positive player on the court. That can certainly happen, but we are in year three and we are only seeing minimal (although real) improvements.
Clyde: In our opening night predictions article, I predicted Zach LaVine would put on shooting exhibitions, the like of which the Target Center had never seen. I’m happy to say he hasn’t let me down. I’m thrilled to see that he has become one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, ranking in the top 10 in both three-point point attempts and makes. In general, the fact that the Wolves are taking and making threes at a higher rate this year (22.7 vs 16.4 and 34.9% vs 33.8%) makes me happy that they are least playing a somewhat modern offensive strategy. On the flip side, I am most disappointed in our team defense. I thought Thibs dust was supposed to me magic, but our defense often looks tragic.
Dane: I'm particularly pleased with the flashes of offensive brilliance for Zach LaVine. One year ago, I was personally quite skeptical of LaVine's offensive projectile. And that skepticism is gone.
Zach LaVine Before All-Star Break 2015-16 Season (54 games):
FG: 43.4 percent (601 attempts) 3P: 34.5 percent (165 attempts)
TOVs: 2.7 per/36 minutes Offensive Rating: 101.6
Zach LaVine After 2015-16 All-Star Break Through 2016-17 Season (67 games):
FG: 47.3 percent (970 attempts) 3P: 42.2 percent (419 attempts)
TOVs: 1.9 per/36 minutes Offensive Rating: 106.6
I am disappointed with his continual struggles on defense. In that same time span, it is concerning that LaVine's Defensive Rating has dropped from 108.9 to 110.0. Although, that disappointment is not limited to LaVine, rather the team as a whole.
3. What change(s) do you want to see in the second half of the year?
Kyle: This one is easy. I would love to see the bench guys get more run, regardless of how close the Wolves do or do not get to competing for the 8-spot in the West. Brandon Rush and Tyus Jones deserve to see the court every night, and while the playoff drought could stretch into its thirteenth year, it’s not worth it to burn out Wiggins, LaVine, or Towns just to gamble for a chance to lose to the Warriors in 5 or less games. Long-term focus > short-term wins and losses.
Drew: More Brandon Rush is optimal. Thibs needs to get him 15 or more minutes in the rotation one way or another. If that means trading Shabazz Muhammad, so be it. Rush is the 3-and-D wing the Wolves need to fix so many of their lineups.
Josh: There are a lot of changes I would like to see, but I don’t think any will happen. Thibs more than anything seems to stick to his plan. Of course, I would like to see more Brandon Rush, more Tyus Jones, more Towns at the Center position, more experimenting with other players at the 4, and more Rubio-Towns pick and rolls.
Clyde: Because of a lack of loquaciousness, our defense often sinks into atrociousness. I’d like to see more communication and cohesion, and less unnecessary and ineffective help on defense.
Dane: A big issue for me has been the defense. This frustration may be born of irrationally high expectations due to the idea of Thibs Dust. Last season the Defensive Rating under Sam Mitchell was 28th in the NBA at 110.1, while there has been more scoring in the league this year, it is still disappointing to see that number remain the same this year.
If there were two players I could sprinkle my own defensive magical pixie dust on in the second half it would be the frontcourt starters, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng. They not only are the last line of defense at the rim but also the first line of defense in pick-and-roll defense. If those two take a step forward, I think the defense as a whole would soon follow.
4. Will the Wolves make any roster changes before the trade deadline?
Kyle: Absolutely. Look, no one is a bigger Brandon Rush supporter than myself, but if Thibs continues to force feed minutes to Wiggins and LaVine, you absolutely move him at the deadline (he’s a FA this summer) to a contender and try to secure a late first (unlikely) or some other sort of asset that can be used down the road. This same thinking applies to Shabazz Muhammad (if you don’t think you can or are willing to re-sign him this summer). Let’s wait and worry about the PG logjam until the summer.
Drew: Besides doing whatever they need to do with Nikola Pekovic, I don't expect much to happen before the trade deadline. Thibs has been practicing development over immediate wins this season and I doubt he would make a move to jeopardize that philosophy.
Josh: No. Rubio likely won’t get moved till draft night, or somewhere around there. There really are not a lot of great trade partners for him at the moment and Dunn clearly isn’t ready. Maybe Shabazz gets traded but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Clyde: I hope they don’t make major moves this season. Trading cap space for assets or trying out D-leaguers sound like good moves, but I don’t want to see a major shakeup, especially if it means moving one of the LaVine, Wiggins, Towns trio or Rubio. If any of those guys are moved, it had better be a “no-brainer,” not a “Thibs-has-gone-insane-er.”
Dane: Boring answer: Probably a few 10-day contracts. Nothing that has a positive effect on this season.
Fun answer: I think Shabazz Muhammad being sent out in a trade makes the most sense. Muhammad is a restricted free agent this offseason. This essentially means, to re-sign Muhammad, the Wolves would need to value him more than any other team in the NBA.
I think it is likely Muhammad receives a multi-year offer in the offseason from some team desperate for wing scoring. The Wolves will likely not want to commit long-term money to anyone this offseason, let alone Bazz. So, if we assume he is gone in the summer the Wolves may as well move him for some sort of asset. If the Wolves are to trade anyone (Tyus Jones, Ricky Rubio, etc.), I would like to see Muhammad attached to that player. I just don't know if any team is out there thinking, "Muhammad will help us in the playoffs this year." That's why I'm making my boring answer my actual prediction.
5. Will this team finish closer to the 8th seed or a top 5 pick?
Kyle: 8th seed. Lock it down. Listen, the Nets, Suns, 76ers, Heat, and Mavs are simply less talented than the Wolves and have a laundry list of guys who will miss random games from here on out due to “rest” or other arbitrary injuries only found on WebMD (think Dirk, Embiid, Whiteside, Lopez, etc.). The Wolves have a stretch towards the end of the month where 7 of their 11 opponents are well below .500, including games against the previously mentioned teams (Brooklyn, Phoenix, Miami). Ideally, the Wolves would win all of their remaining games and compete for home-court advantage in the first round, but more realistically look for them to finish 10th or 11th in the Western Conference, well ahead of at least 8 or so teams in the league.
Drew: I still think they'll finish closer to the eighth seed, only because the bottom half of the West continues to be a dumpster fire and none of the teams has shown any sign that it will change soon. Over the last few weeks, the Wolves have shown some improvement—specifically on defense—that is enough to make me believe they can stick around in the hunt for the eighth seed longer than it might appear now.
Josh: I think closer to the 8th seed, but that says more about how bad the bottom of the conference is. I think finishing around 34-36 wins puts us only a couple games out of the playoff picture. This team is 8-10 since the arbitrary “corner turn” of December 13th. However, if Rubio gets traded, fire up the tank engines, as a Dunn-led offense for 36 minutes a game will not be pretty.
Clyde: That’s tough to say, because the difference between a top 5 pick and the 8th seed has been hovering around 3-4 games for a while. I could see them hitting their stride and going on a run, so I’m going to say they end up closer to the 8th seed, but who knows how far that will be from a top 5 pick even by the end of the year. A playoff appearance would be fun, but the Wolves are probably better off with a chance to draft number one!
Dane: If the season were to end today, the Wolves would have a 55.2 percent chance of a top-5 pick.
At 14-28 the Wolves may be only four games behind the Denver Nuggets who are the current eight-seed in the Western Conference. However, wedged between the Nuggets and Wolves are; Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Dallas. I would struggle to assume the Wolves finish with a better record than any of those teams individually, save Dallas. Towns is great, he seems like a player who "should" be in the playoffs, but so do Damian Lillard, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis...
I'm playing the odds and guessing a top-5 pick is more likely.