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What’s Gone Wrong and What to do About it

A crabby Friday after two grotesque losses.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Alright. Things have not been going well on the court for the Timberwolves over the last couple of games, and they sit at (a somewhat fortunate) 2-3 on the season. The absence of Jimmy Butler either revealed or exacerbated inherent problems with the squad, some of which might not be fixable. Still, we’re only five games in, and one of two things will happen: This will turn around, they will be good, and we’ll get to enjoy that. Or, things won’t turn around, gallows humor will reach a new level as we realize that, as princely frank has already accepted, they will never be good no matter what they do.

We can see that as a win-win, can’t we?

Let’s enumerate some of the problems, all of which are related:

  • Team defense. Now sitting at dead last in the league with a 116 defensive rating. That’s nearly three full points worse than the 29th ranked Pacers. They are allowing opponents to shoot an incredible 52 percent from the field, again the worst by a large margin. They’ve been getting killed in transition (38-6 in fast break points over the last two games) and from three. I could go on. They do not react to pick and rolls well, they are exposed by late rotations, skip passes kill them as they load up on the strong side. Karl-Anthony Towns has been dreadful on defense so far, a real disappointment.

Possible Solutions: Jimmy Butler and time. It’s pretty clear that Butler was holding things together defensively in the first three games, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to survive his absences as things are currently constituted. The last two without him have been abject failures, which is of course hugely disappointing. They should not be falling completely apart like this. Hopefully some modicum of cohesion and improvement will come over the course of the season, though “just wait until...” is wearing extremely thin. Which brings us to...

  • Towns and Andrew Wiggins have failed to step up. With Butler gone, these are the stars. Now in their third and fourth years respectively, excuses have to stop. Both of them failed to perform adequately and lead the team in a productive way against the Pacers and Pistons. Towns scored some, and had a few strong minutes against the Pacers until it fell apart, but his defense has been atrocious. Wiggins has largely been invisible since his game winner against the Thunder. Of all the things that went wrong in those two games, this might be the most disheartening. For better or worse, these are the guys the franchise is committed to, and if they can’t live up to that, it’s going to be another in a long line of disappointments.

Possible Solutions: Get better. I have long been a skeptic about Andrew Wiggins, but a big believer in Towns. I’m beginning to lose my faith a little in Towns, but it’s very early in the season, obviously. My level of confidence is neither here nor there. They both need to become better defensive players, which requires commitment, good coaching, and time. They also both need to improve as passers and decision makers. I would ask how long we should wait, but that decision is already made. We’ll be waiting a long time, with Wiggins on a five year extension that won’t start until next season, and Towns almost certain to sign one next summer.

  • Roster construction. All summer, we bemoaned the lack of quality wings behind Butler, a problem in any case but especially because Butler has a tendency to miss games. Tom Thibodeau elected to spend his cap space on Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, while ignoring this obvious problem. Even after the signing of 37 year old Jamal Crawford, who Jim Petersen is gaga over for reasons I have trouble understanding, Thibs promised more shooting. Where it was coming from was unclear, since Crawford cost the Wolves their last real chip, the room exception, and indeed it was not forthcoming. Instead, they resorted to bringing back Shabazz Muhammad on a minimum deal. Incredibly, Thibs has started Bazz (for want of other options) in Butler’s place, with predictable results. Meanwhile, Gorgui Dieng has been reduced to a $16M a year back up center, and has seen his minutes drop from over 32 a night last season to under 14 so far this year.

Possible Solutions: None that I can think of as long as Thibs holds the reins. He got the players he wanted. The amazing thing is he seems to actually want to play small at least sometimes this season, despite building a roster that has six players who are exclusively fours and fives. It’s a disconnect. Everything that happened after draft night was disappointing to one degree or another.

  • Coaching. As Nate in St. Paul is fond of pointing out, “try harder” is not a solution to the equation that 3>2. Thibs pays lip service to the three, but the Wolves continue to lag behind the league in three point attempts. Meanwhile, opponents are making over 40 percent of their threes against the Wolves. This should change, it’s largely a function of sample size. Still, forcing ball-handlers away from the middle and loading the strong side doesn’t work as well when teams can put shooters in both the weakside slot and corner. Skip passes and quick ball reversals lead to open shots and/or uncontrolled close-outs that leave massive gaps in the defense. When you don’t have a Kevin Garnett or Joakim Noah to patrol things and make ball movement more difficult, it leads to what we saw last season and again so far this.

Possible Solutions: Fire the coach? I’m not there yet, to be honest. Despite everything, I still have hope that Thibs will figure out a way for these guys to play that works for them. But they can’t keep doing the same things and expecting the results to magically change.

At any rate, they are back home tonight to face the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second time this season. Hopefully Jimmy Butler is back healthy and in the lineup, and hopefully they can get their second win over the Thunder in the young season.

What ya got?