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How To Enjoy The Timberwolves

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A common opinion has popped up on my Twitter feed and in my notifications this season. It’s also been all over the comments section here at Canis Hoopus. The 2017-18 Timberwolves are not a fun team to watch. This is an interesting point of view being that it’s the best team assembled in Minnesota since 2003-04*.

Trying to understand why so many viewers seem to have this opinion about the best version of the Wolves in what feels like an eternity isn’t terribly difficult. It seems to boil down to two main reasons:

They don’t like the way Tom Thibodeau coaches

This includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Thibs’ over-reliance on the starting lineup, which seems to lead to late-game fatigue and crunch time ineffectiveness.

2. Nightly mismanagement of timeouts. The Wolves almost always see one or two disappear at the three minute mark in the fourth quarter when team’s automatically go down to two timeouts as the NBA adjusted the rule prior to this season. It’s meant to trim down dead time at the end of games to stop them from dragging out longer than necessary in an effort to increase watchability. But in this use-it-or-lose-it scenario, Thibs is consistently losing.

3. The sideline antics. Thibodeau is all over the refs and he’s almost never satisfied with what the Wolves are doing every game. He never sits down. He constantly drops F-bombs and JFC’s and the microphones are typically hot during the broadcast, picking up a lot of what he’s screaming. Some find this to be off-putting, though I actually like this part of the home viewing experience; it makes me feel like I’m near the bench.

4. The possibly outdated defensive philosophies and the fact that a “defensive guru,” touted for his ability to oversee top-rated team defenses, has his team sitting at a defensive rating of 110.8 (27th of 30) in year two of his program.

5. Late-game isolations that have four guys standing around watching the ball instead of cutting and setting screens.

6. His lineup combinations. Early in the season, Thibs was playing all five bench players together instead of staggering reserves in with starters and always having either Butler, Towns, or Wiggins on the court. (This has improved due to Nemanja Bjelica’s injury and Shabazz Muhammad’s ineptitude that has appropriately started resulting in DNP’s.)

7. Not enough emphasis on shooting three-pointers (currently 25th in 3PA per game at 22.7 but hitting a respectable .362, good for 17th)

8. TYUS JONES SHOULD GET MORE MINUTES!

9. Probably more things...like the god awful transition defense or not at least giving one of the young wings, Marcus Georges-Hunt or Anthony Brown, a trial run during one of these games.

They don’t like the roster construction

  1. Some people are still pissed at the New Wolves Order (Thibs and Scott Layden) for trading Ricky Rubio (although he wanted out.) A lot of fans also miss Zach LaVine. That means two huge fan favorites are out of the picture and many people may feel less connected or invested in the success of these Wolves.

2. Jeff Teague is the highest paid player on the team but he frustrates fans with some annoying tendencies. Those include: pump faking himself out of good looks from deep, dribbling the air out of the ball instead of getting the offense going early in the shot clock, dying on screens only to leave his big man exposed in pick-and-rolls, falling asleep off-ball in halfcourt sets, and not pushing tempo enough. He’s also not Rubio or Jones, meaning Wolves’ fans don’t feel a unique connection to him. He’s also perceived by some as being overpaid.

3. Too much money is locked-up in Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson ($28.1 million this season and $29.1 next year). Cole Aldrich was also signed to a 3-year, $22 deal two summers ago only to waste away on the bench. Lineups are going smaller and smaller across the league each season, prioritizing shooting over size, but the Wolves have gone a different direction and that frustrates a lot of people.

4. There is no wing depth to support Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, meaning lineups without them are going to be tough to watch and if one of them gets hurt or sick (as we saw with Butler) the Wolves are in serious trouble.

5. Speaking of Wiggins, he signed a Max deal with the franchise which bothers a decent amount of people who don’t believe he’s ever going to grow into that contract.

6. Probably more things...like drafting Justin Patton instead of a wing prospect (I believe in Patton for whatever it’s worth) or having Aaron Brooks be the third point guard on the depth chart when he’s completely washed (though an excellent teammate).

How To Enjoy The Timberwolves

Almost all of the points above are reasonable opinions or complaints. These are far from outlandish views. But the reason for this article isn’t to keep harping on these issues. Every team besides the Warriors have problems, and there are always going to be features or traits that drive every fan base nuts about their squad. So, what’s the point of this post? I spent all that time re-hashing all of the ways to be pissed off about the Timberwolves. There are good things too. Not everything is doom and gloom.

I don’t want to tell anyone how to feel or how to be fan; I’m not writing this because I think people should clap harder. We know that won’t make the issues go away. I’m writing this because through 26 games (and what I perceive to be a good start at 15-11) it feels like a majority of fans are not having fun at all. Even wins seem to be laced with this not good enough tone in many conversations. When did the expectations become so great that we can no longer enjoy winning a basketball game? It feels like it has to be the perfect win these days for everyone to be content.

Getting back to my original point, I think the Wolves have been fun to watch. It’s just that they’ve been annoying and frustrating too. But there are many ways to enjoy this team, and often this year I have felt that a lot of fans are so upset with the way Thibodeau operates, or how the roster has been constructed, because they see a ceiling to all of this, that they can’t find enjoyment in the wins or the individual success points. And that’s perfectly fine. I appreciate when fans think critically about their teams, and to be clear nobody owes this franchise anything for as bad as they’ve been for this long.

Part of the fun in all of this is to dissect the moves of the front office and put our fake general manager hats on. But I want to challenge every reader who might find themselves not enjoying the new Wolves, from top to bottom, to at least attempt to find ways to like this new group. Why? Because if going through the most successful season in 13+ years is absent of any fun, what are we even doing here?

If we’re constantly bemoaning this or that, focusing heavily on the bad instead of appreciating the good, what is the point? Whether the coaching or roster construction meets expectations, this is the best team that has taken the Target Center hardwood since I was in high school. Let’s try to enjoy the ride, even if the future is scary to consider.

I put out the following question to some of the other writers here at Canis: How do you enjoy the Wolves? In what way? Is there something specific that makes you happy or that you really like about this team?

For me, watching Jimmy Butler grit and grind every single possession is a real treat. The man gives absolutely everything he has to give. He is obsessed with winning and dedicated to the daily work required to achieve greatness. Jimmy is a leader who is unafraid to confront major issues holding the Wolves back (defense). I love when Butler says “it’s winning time” with his crunch time play. He is easily the best player I’ve ever been around. It’s still surreal knowing the Wolves finally found the alpha wolf they’ve been missing since KG left town, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.

I also find great joy in watching Karl-Anthony Towns develop personally and professionally and think the bumps in the road this season will make him better down the line. His righty hook is automatic and he’s shooting 36.7% from three and 85.2% from the free throw line. KAT’s passing out of the post has also improved. Sure, I want to see him set harder screens and obviously play way better defensively but I enjoy the process and have faith that everything will come together for him eventually.

Time for a song!

I enjoy these nights...

What do some of the other guys think?

Eric in Madison: I like that Taj Gibson is having a renaissance season (and proving me wrong about his decline in the process.) He does a ton of great stuff for this team, often guarding guys much bigger than him, getting key rebounds, setting fantastic screens, and just bringing a level of toughness and professionalism to the Wolves front line that has been lacking in recent times.

Josh Clement: I've really enjoyed watching Butler on defense. He has these plays where he sniffs out what the opposing offense is going to do and he completely shuts down a possession. He also has these moments in transition defense where he sneaks up behind a guard to pick a steal. His awareness on the defensive end is seriously impressive. The other thing I've really grown to appreciate is Wiggins in transition. I don't know if I have ever seen anyone stop Wiggins once he gets into the open court. He often doesn’t even look like he is trying at times, as he glides around a single defender for an easy lay-up. But, when you watch other players struggle to finish in transition, its amazing how easy Wiggins makes it look and how rarely his shot is actually impacted by the defender in transition.

I think another one is how surprised we all were when Towns won the Western Conference Player of the Week this season. Most Wolves fans' reactions were basically, "for what?" It's a bit crazy that Towns can put up the 20.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and two assists he did for that week and we just kind of forget about it because his ceiling is sky high. Most of the other "breakout" stars, namely Embiid and Porzingis, are getting a ton of love for putting up numbers similar to what Towns has been doing for over two years. He is just so good that this is what we expect out of him.

Anthony Iverson: I've really enjoyed Tyus this season and the steps he's taken on both ends of the floor. Jones is the floor general this team needs on offense. He's a great facilitator in the halfcourt and in transition without dribbling the air out of the ball like Teague sometimes will. Also he's been making some smart gambles on defense, which I love. He's kind of like the Ricky of this team, I'd say. Even Teague thinks he should be getting more minutes! Plus, as cliche as it sounds, it's hard not to get excited for the hometown kid.

Kyle Theige: For me, it’s a perfect storm of my favorite sport matched with my favorite team since I can remember watching sports. The last decade has been hard, but my biggest enjoyment right now is watching a team (attempt to) figure it out while playing winning basketball and re-establish some respect across the league.

Other things that I enjoy...

  • The rare sighting of Point Gorgui in transition! And off the court, I truly admire the person Gorgui is and everything he stands for. Please read this article by Marc J. Spears on how G gives back to his native Senegal. What an incredible individual.
  • The relationship between Butler and Gibson is fantastic to watch. These guys grew up in the league together and their friendship (Jimmy likes to troll Taj whenever he gets the chance) is one of my favorite parts of the team. After home games, Butler will occasionally ask Gibson if he’s going to come over to his house, saying “You gonna swing through tonight?” Taj always says yes.
  • The NBA’s leader in true shooting percentage before re-injuring his left foot, Professor Big Shots, Nemanja Bjelica. Watching Belly breakout and find himself in the league was a tremendous storyline over the first 18 games. He will be back soon enough and the Nemanjaissance will continue. Who doesn’t love yelling BE A PIZZA or 3jelica at the TV screen?

  • The floaters from both Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins. Much like Jim Petersen, I cannot get enough of a smooth, perfectly timed floater over the outstretched arms of an unsuspecting big man. The Wolves have two guys that are pretty good at it.

  • An offense that ranks 5th in ORTG (111.4 points per 100 possessions according to Basketball Reference).

  • When Wiggins decides to send opponents into the Upside Down with a monster slam.

My main point isn’t to tell anyone how to feel but rather present a reminder that there are many avenues to enjoying this version of the Timberwolves. When I see people say they aren’t fun to watch, I think about all of the other versions that have come and gone since I was 15 years old. Yeah...things could be a lot worse.

*One might be tempted to argue in favor of the 2013-14 Wolves, but I’m not buying it. Kevin Love was absurd that season (26.1/12.5/4.4 every night) but that team underachieved by blowing tons of games in crunch time under Rick Adelman (thanks a lot, Kevin Martin) and won 40 games instead of their 48-34 expected record.