The Wolves are 14-11 after 25 games, which is a 46 win pace, right around what most of us expected heading into the season. And yet, I’ve seen plenty of consternation about the team both here on Canis and elsewhere, especially my twitter feed.
It seems time to take stock and discuss why the agita?
I think there are several factors at play here. First of all, the Wolves have managed to outscore opponents by only 11 points on the season. There have been long stretches of dreary play, and they could just as easily, based on that point differential, be 12-13, one game behind their expected record, as one game ahead. They’ve competed like a mediocre squad.
But that’s small beer. The real issues as I see them:
- Lingering disappointment over off-season roster construction. The Jimmy Butler trade was magnificent, and it gave us a vision of potential greatness. But the rest of the summer was...debatable. Taj Gibson has been much better than I expected, but he (along with Jeff Teague) ate up all of their remaining cap space. The dearth of wings on the roster was obvious to everyone, and was not adequately addressed, which has predictably come back to bite them. With three veteran guys taking up large salary slots, and two younger guys about to embark on maximum contracts, it’s reasonable to ask whether this past summer put an unnecessary ceiling on this iteration of the Timberwolves.
- Bad defense is bad. More than that, it appears stubborn, and not getting better, though I could argue that it is. They were absolutely horrific on that end in October, but much better in November, when they were 13th in defensive rating (per NBA.com.) However, the nightmare has returned with some particularly egregious performances in three December games (112.3 Drtg.) And more than that, they are bad defensively in a particularly noticeable way: They allow a ridiculous number of easy shots. They have the highest two-point field goal percentage against in the NBA, and are 28th in opponent eFG percentage. It’s obvious, and it’s ugly.
- Style of play. We think of good offense/poor defense teams as perhaps not very good teams, but at least entertaining teams. The Wolves are fifth in offensive rating and 25 defensively, so they should fit this mold, but they don’t. Just as what they are bad at defensively is glaring, what they are good at offensively is not particularly aesthetically pleasing. They play a slow pace. They get to the free throw line a ton. They grab a lot of offensive rebounds. They don’t turn the ball over. Those are all good things, but they aren’t “fun to watch” things like the Rockets running and hoisting, or the Warriors’ ball/player movement and shooting.
- Concern about the young stars. Even with the acquisition of Butler, the Wolves need Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to become stars in their own right in order for them to become a very good team. If they don’t develop like that, the team lacks the high end talent necessary to compete at higher levels. It’s been...a bit of a disappointment for those two so far. Towns especially appears to have regressed, and I wonder if his natural desire to please is clashing with Tom Thibodeau’s nature to yell and criticize. Wiggins has perhaps made some marginal defensive improvements this season, which is good to see, but in his fourth year, still does not resemble a great player. This is concerning.
- Recency bias. The Wolves are 4-6 in their last ten games, and it hasn’t been a murderous schedule. It has included some disappointing losses: At home to the Heat and a John Wall-less Wizards team, allowing the Thunder and Grizzlies to end losing streaks against them. Even their most recent win, against a decimated Clippers team at Target Center, required a Herculean effort from Butler, and was overall frankly a poor performance.
All of those are legitimate, and human. We always want better, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with noting and discussing the real problems than plague this team. The defense has to get better, and the fact that well into Thibs’ second season, with Butler and Gibson playing heavy minutes it’s still such a problem is concerning.
The fact that they’ve already invested a max contract in one young player, and will do so for another this summer, while both guys continue to show the same weaknesses and don’t appear to be moving forward in meaningful ways is worrisome.
All of that said, I urge you to find a way to enjoy this team. They are winning more than they are losing, something we haven’t been able to say for more than a decade. They are fighting for a playoff spot (as early as it still is.) We’ve seen plenty of bad basketball this century, what we’re seeing now is something else. Perhaps it’s not great basketball, or even particularly good basketball, but average basketball has been in short supply, and now it’s here.
I also think there’s a path to being even better. (Of course, there’s a path to worse too, involving fatigue, burnout, and possible injuries, but that’s another article.) The defense has, on the whole improved some since the start of the season. Some of it has been variance, in that teams are shooting ridiculous percentages against them that won’t entirely sustain. Towns is going to re-emerge and dominate some games. He’s struggling mentally right now, but is too good not to break out of it.
The Wolves have a soft schedule for the rest of the month:
@ Clippers (tonight)
@ Lakers (Christmas)
Hopefully they can take advantage and get on a bit of a roll, and make us forget what has been a bit of an ugly stretch over the last couple of weeks.
Either way, we’ll be here to talk about it, and hopefully enjoy it together.