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5-on-5: Early Season Review

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Canis Hoopus writers share their thoughts on the season thus far.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves currently sit 18-13, which is good for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. Here is how we think the team is doing.

How do you feel about the season so far?

Kyle Thiege: At 18-13, if your answer to this isn’t “excited, optimistic, and/or rejuvenated,” then what exactly do you want?

The Wolves are off to their best start in over a decade and have a starting lineup loaded with (mostly) young talent and guys just entering their prime. Are the starters overworked? Probably. Is the bench a concern? Absolutely.

But all of that aside, the professional basketball team in Minnesota is finally rediscovering what it means to play winning basketball, and that alone is cause for excitement and enjoyment (and relief).

Tony Porter: I feel good about the season. The Wolves currently sit as the number four seed, though they’ve had their fair share of ugly wins and horrible losses. At the same time, it’s still just 30 games into a season following a significant roster overhaul. If they maintain pace as the four seed, that would be an incredibly successful season.

Eric in Madison: Writing this after the Suns game, so...I feel OK about the season. I guess. The record is where I thought it would be, but the schedule has been fairly soft. Jimmy Butler has been fantastic, but he and Taj Gibson are already getting worn down. Overall, I'm a little more disappointed in some of the bad losses than I am impressed by the wins. Mostly I'm concerned that I get the sense they aren't really enjoying their basketball.

Josh Clement: Overall, things have been good. The team is still fourth in the Western Conference which was slightly above our expectations for the season. For a team that has not made the playoffs in over a decade, that is an amazing development. The journey to here certainly has not been as we imagined it might be, but I think that even though the reality does not match our expectations, this is still a great season to be a Wolves fan.

John Meyer: I feel pretty good about their record, but a few of the losses (Phoenix twice, and the ugly one in Memphis) have been super annoying. I wish the offense and substitution patterns were more creative. I wish Thibs would sit down on the bench and let the guys play some uninterrupted ball for a few minutes every night. I wish they played defense with any sort of consistency. With all that being said, their position in the West right now is satisfying. I figured it would take some time for the team to mesh and hash out the pecking order, as well as the style of play. Things are probably better than they might appear. Jimmy Butler is simply amazing to watch on both ends of the floor and that makes me really happy.

2. Where do you stand on the minutes issue?

Kyle: For me personally, the minutes thing is an enormous issue, but maybe not for the reason you think. Yes, overworking your best players in November and December obviously shows a short-term approach to a situation that is clearly a long-term issue. The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint.

But for me, the bigger issue here is the lack of trust and development it provides for the players coming off the bench. Coaches like Popovich, Stevens, Kerr, and even Stotts don’t give a damn about squeezing out every single win before Christmas, they just want to develop guys, establish roles, and see what their rosters are capable of as they build for April, May, and (hopefully) June.

For Thibs, if you don’t trust your guys in November/December, then how are you going to trust them down the road when the stakes are raised?

Tony: I think the starters play too many minutes. I think you can have those games where they play heavy minutes, but you shouldn’t do it on a consistent basis. Even if the bench has their bad moments, I think it’s important the reserves get run so you can rest your starters and see what you have when the postseason hits.

Eric: It is obviously a significant issue. They are the worst 4th quarter team in the league, and they are by far the worst team relative to the other three quarters. The frequently look exhausted late in games and we aren't even halfway through the season. That they've managed to hold on to some games when they've blown leads is a testament to their talent (and some luck,) but losses from ahead to the Suns twice, Sixers, Pistons, Wizards (all at home) have been deflating. Thibs isn't changing, and it's a big issue. (Not to mention running Jimmy Butler out there last night with an injured back. Oy.)

Josh: It’s a real issue, albeit one that is unlikely to manifest itself this year. The only player I am worried about in terms of a minutes workload is Taj Gibson and hopefully Nemanja Bjelica’s return will ameliorate that. However, there is an opportunity-cost to only playing the starters, as well as the rigid rotations. The team is missing out on the ability to experiment with lineups and playsets. Come playoff time, teams are going to be adept at shutting down what the Wolves want to do. Thibs is going to have a hard time working in an element of surprise if he does not trust anything he does not know.

John: Thibs obviously needs to play the bench more than he does and I think there's plenty more to get out of Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones (and Nemanja Bjelica when he eventually returns). We all knew wing depth was going to be an issue entering the season, but even giving Marcus Georges-Hunt a few minutes a night will help the cause and my hope is that's what Thibs will continue to do moving forward.

Gibson is playing way too many minutes. My fear is that he's not going to produce at the same rate in the second half of the season if these 38-40 minute nights continue, and it's pretty much insane to give him that many minutes when Dieng is just as capable. I also think Dieng should help take some minutes off KAT to keep him fresher in games. He looks gassed at times in transition. They have all looked gassed at numerous times in the 4th this season. I'm also more concerned about playing guys heavy minutes when they don't appear to be in the condition to handle it (see Butler against Phoenix when he was having intense back spasms).

I'm not totally freaking out quite yet about the minutes but Thibs isn’t doing a good job in this department either. He just needs to be more patient when the bench guys make mistakes. They play tight because they know the leash is short. That's not a great spot to be in.

3. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have had an up-and-down season. How does the rest of the season go for them?

Kyle: Since Wiggins and Towns both entered the league, their careers have been filed with instability. Every year a new coach, every year new teammates. With Thibs returning for year 2, and the starters playing a significant amount of time together on the floor already, I actually think Towns and Wiggins will display more consistency and higher levels of productions going forward as their roles and overall games settle in.

Less than half of the way through the season, you’re already seeing flashes of this with Wiggins moving more off the ball, and seeing Towns start to defend his position more with the guidance of Taj (and Thibs). I expect for these “flashes” to become more common occurrences going forward.

Tony: I am nervous about Wiggins recent scoring slump. KAT has been getting it lately on defense and he’s been stellar on offense so I expect his season to continue to get better. But Andrew is shooting 30.5 percent from behind the arc, right back to where he started his career at after a large jump in three-point percentage last year (35.6). His free throw shooting is way down this year, 13 points lower than his uber-consistent 76 percent his first three years. I am really hoping he can turn it around.

Eric: Not great. Towns seems to have regressed defensively, though he's had his moments recently. He's still a supremely talented offensive player, and I think overall he's looked better recently at both ends. He started slowly last year as well, this might just be his pattern. I expect him to play well for a while now, though we'll see if the minutes take their toll.

Andrew Wiggins...I don't know what to say. He has crossed the 10K minutes threshold and he's nowhere near being a star. At what point do we stop struggling for excuses for him? He does not impact games enough. I won't turn this into an article-length response, but he seems disengaged to me, and his numbers are not great. To answer the specific question, I think he'll probably shoot it a little better than he has, but more or less this is the player he is.

Josh: As Eric mentioned, I think its worth noting Towns started slow last year. He still is one of the most incredible players on offense in the NBA and I think he is still working into a rhythm with his new teammates. Towns was used to a steady diet of pick-and-roll with Ricky Rubio, particularly with the pick-and-pop. He has had to adapt his scoring to playing off Jeff Teague and Butler, but he will figure it out.

As for Wiggins, I don’t know. I struggle with bouts of optimism and extreme pessimism with Wiggins. His career outcomes still range from literally the most valuable player on the court, as do-everything wings rule the NBA, to an over-valued scorer whose contract will prove an albatross to the Wolves. However, there are no more excuses for Wiggins at this point if he cannot turn it around.

John: All we can do is hope Wiggins' three-point shot and free throw percentage come around (I think they will, but not sure to what degree) and that he continues to put forth a strong effort on the defensive end more often than not. I don't see much changing in his game at this point. One would hope his efficiency would improve and shots start to fall more frequently. He's in a huge slump so I think it's inevitable he will get out of it, but who knows.

As for KAT, I expect him to get stronger as the season goes on (like last year) and start to put up stupid stat lines similar to the one he recently had against Sacramento. I think he's going to stay the same defensively; exposed at times, but shining bright with strong rim protection at other times. There will be more struggles. There should also be some good stuff to be hopeful about.

4. How are the new Wolves doing?

Kyle: Outside of Jimmy Butler, most of the Wolves offseason moves were highly criticized. Trading away a fan favorite like Rubio and replacing him with the more expensive Jeff Teague was definitely a head-scratcher, and overbidding for Taj Gibson’s services seemed like a flawed move by a coach looking to surround himself with familiar faces.

Well, less than half of the way through the regular season, and it’s hard not to backtrack on any and all negative opinions you may have had of the Wolves offseason. Jimmy Butler is playing at an All-Star level, Jeff Teague is 8th in the NBA in assists, and Taj Gibson has shown to be the defensive Swiss Army knife that the franchise so greatly needed.

If Thibs the coach can find a way to get increased (and consistent) production from the new Wolves on the bench (primarily Jamal Crawford), it’ll go a long way in enhancing the resume of Thibs the PoBo.

Tony: Butler is fantastic. He is the leader this team needs and where he goes, the team goes. Taj Gibson is having a career year, as it’s statistically his best season with career-high averages in rebounds, assists, and steals. The big man’s defense and leadership has been invaluable. Jeff Teague has had his moments, good and bad, but overall a pretty good addition just based on his play. Jamal Crawford has had huge moments, but isn’t getting the playing time he’s seen previously in his career. He’s struggled at times which may be the reason why the minutes are down, also Thibs. I really like how the new Wolves have played this year as a group.

Eric: Taj Gibson has been terrific, much better than I thought he would be. I didn't like that signing (and the resource allocation is still a problem) but he's been great. I also think he's going to wear down under the minutes load, but that's on Thibs. Jimmy Butler has been as advertised, just terrific. But now hurting. Jeff Teague has been fine. More or less what he's always been. Defensively a bit of a problem, but consistent with his career.

Josh: Jimmy Butler is a joy to watch. He is absolutely incredible and plays with such a fire. The other additions have been surprisingly predictable in their results. Taj Gibson has been a solid big and role player whose contract was slightly larger than it needed to be. Jeff Teague offers a different skill set on offense than Rubio ever did, but has moments where we wish he was a different player than he is. Jamal Crawford has been a great sparkplug, but one that is past his prime and offers little on defense.

The problem was really never with the players, but with the resource allocation.

John: Taj Gibson has been outstanding. I call him Mr. Clean for a reason. That guy just does his job every night and cleans up his teammates messes all over the court. I love what's he brought to the team. Teague has been fine, I guess. Kind of a disappointment in my eyes but not a huge one. He has his moments of really awesome point guarding. Other times his defense is just a joke or he dribbles the entire shot clock out because he can't decide where to go with the rock. And I have to say, every time he pump-fakes an open three, and the team settles for some other cruddy shot instead, I die a little bit inside. So, I'll probably be dead by the All-Star break. But I love the floater he has. It's deadly. I really like when he focuses on facilitating and he's not afraid to take big shots. He can be better on this team though. That should be the expectation. Georges-Hunt is a 3-and-D prospect I'm excited about. Jamal Crawford has won them two games with his offensive heroics. I could spend 5,000 more words raving about Jimmy Butler but I'll spare everyone the time. He's one of the best players in the league and the difference between the same old Wolves of last year and this 18-13 squad.

5. Will the Wolves ever figure out their defense problem?

Kyle: Yes. Again, I think you’re seeing more and more “flashes” of good defense from the Wolves over the last few weeks, and if Thibs can find ways to reduce the minutes of his starters so they are fresher for the end of games, I think you’ll see their league worst fourth-quarter defensive rating settle in more with the league average.

Tony: It’s tough. This far into the season, you pretty much are what you are. That means the Wolves are bad on defense. If it truly is an effort and motivation thing, then they can definitely turn it around. It’s not just the younger players who have been bad. There are veterans on this team that have had plenty of bad moments. Let’s hope more time with Butler can improve the defense for a second-half turnaround.

Eric: I don't know. We've talked a lot about them not being a good defensive team until Towns figures it out, and that's a big part of it. But the other guys--especially Teague, Wiggins, and Jamal Crawford (who is low-key hurting them badly) are also problems. The system doesn't seem to be working. I think they will get better at that end if they don't wear down completely, but I'm not expecting a top ten defense at this point.

Josh: I only hope they can climb their way to about 20th in defensive rating. At that point, that would be a worthy effort to consider a success. The team just has so many negative defensive players that a couple stellar defenders are not making a difference. I am not optimistic that we will see too much improvement.

John: Maybe? At some point we have to wonder if Teague, Towns, and Wiggins (to a lesser extent in my opinion) are even able to be part of a five-man lineup that can string together a bunch of stops and actually get this team to a top 20 defensive rating. And that's not even asking a lot given the way this team is building around these guys. I am hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, that this is the season they make the jump defensively like we had hoped. It starts and finishes with Towns. He's getting targeted in pick-and-rolls every night for a reason. Until he takes the next step I doubt the team will.

Sorting out the transition defense would go a long ways in improving the defense as well. Perhaps Thibs should just say “NO MORE CHASING OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS?” Their floor balance on offense is also terrible often enough (guys get stuck in the corners and don't get back) that sorting it out could fix some of these transition woes too.

Bonus Question - Wolves rank 4th in Western Conference. Will they move up or down?

Kyle: As of Sunday night, the Wolves found themselves fourth in the Western Conference. Barring multiple injuries or the unforeseen folding of a franchise for the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, or San Antonio Spurs, there is 0 percent chance the Wolves move up in the standings.

With that in mind, I’ll say they slip a little, possibly falling back to the five seed by the end of the season. Home court advantage is obviously a dream scenario for the Wolves as they attempt to end their thirteen-year playoff drought, but just avoiding the Warriors/Rockets/Spurs in round one would be a major victory.

Tony: Since I don’t want to say push, I am going to say down. Not sure how bad Butler’s back injury is but if any major contributor goes down for an extended period of time, the team will most likely struggle. The Wolves have avoided it for the most part this season, we’ll see if that continues.

Eric: Well, they aren't moving up, since they are behind three significantly better teams. Everyone behind them has their problems as well, but if it's one or the other, they will move down.

Well, they aren't moving up, since they are behind three significantly better teams. Everyone behind them has their problems as well, but if it's one or the other, they will move down.

Josh: I think the Wolves hold out with either the fourth or fifth seed. Even though the team does not have too much of a lead for the fourth seed, I would hesitate to say any of the teams below them are better than the Wolves. The lower half of the Western Conference has been decimated by injuries and, as a result, the Wolves have a bit of a cushion.

John: I could see a world in which they put a big winning streak together and make a run at the three seed but it seems pretty unlikely. They still play up and down to their competition and that will probably keep them around the same spot in the West all season. I'll put my Canis Hoopus points on sticking in the 4th seed and getting a first-round home playoff series.