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Monday Musings: The New Starters

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Taking a look at how the Wolves have been playing since Zach LaVine has been injured

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

When Zach LaVine went down against the Detroit Pistons and left the game, no one knew that the Timberwolves season would be inextricably altered. LaVine’s season-ending injury essentially laid to rest most of our hopes of making a run for the 8th-seed (semantics from ownership aside), as LaVine was a key cornerstone of this team. Not to mention the Timberwolves schedule is significantly more difficult in the post-All Star break period.

However, this does provide the Wolves with a different sample of games to examine, as one of the prevailing theories about the team earlier in the season is that LaVine and Andrew Wiggins may be too problematic on defense to play together long-term. Not to mention that Wiggins may be better suited to playing shooting guard, a notion that previous coach Sam Mitchell subscribed to for the better part of the previous season.

Before LaVine was injured the Wolves were 19-32, with the 13th best offensive rating in the league 24th worst defensive rating. Now, we typically have been examining the team since the “turning-the-corner” date of December 13th, when the Wolves beat the Bulls in a comeback victory.

From the period of December 13th to February 4th, the Wolves are basically a .500 team, which was much more in line with what many of us expected from them coming into the season. During that time, the Wolves were 15th in defensive rating and 15th in offensive rating (perfect mediocrity!), while posting a 13-14 record.

When LaVine was injured, many of us expected a few things to happen.

  1. The injection of Brandon Rush into the starting lineup would stabilize the defense, based upon the few games earlier in the year where Rush stepped in for LaVine
  2. Andrew Wiggins would take on more of a starring role
  3. The offense would likely become less effective as the Wolves lost their best threepoint threat

Now, it has only been 9 games since LaVine is injured, which certainly has small sample size alarms ringing, but the Wolves have actually had the third best offensive rating in the league, a blistering 114.7, in these 9 games, albeit with the 25th worst defensive rating. As far is the team is concerned, it’s tough to take too much stock in just 9 games, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on as the season goes on.

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins has demonstrably been better over this 9 game stretch, although that could certainly simply be a hot streak that he is on. He has been averaging 30.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 2.9 APG. His entire year numbers are 23.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, and 2.5 APG. While these numbers are not drastically different, with the major change being in scoring, Wiggins defense and playmaking has certainly improved over this recent stretch.

Part of this could also be that Wiggins is simply getting better, as well as adjusting to Thibodeau’s system. Right around when LaVine was injured, Wiggins advanced stats were essentially the exact same as last year. Those numbers have already reflected a slight bump in Wiggins’ production in these past 9 nine games.

It is difficult to ascribe too much success in this recent stretch of games to Wiggins playing primarily shooting guard again, as he had another hot streak earlier in the year, especially from the threepoint line. But this is the Wiggins that the Wolves need to see more consistently if they are going to take the next step. We often talk about how the Wolves’ future will likely be determined by the rise and fall of Andrew Wiggins and its good to know what that success could look like.

Brandon Rush

Brandon Rush might be cooked. Or perhaps there should be a happy medium between riding the pine the entire game or playing almost 30 minutes per game.

When LaVine went down and Rush was inserted into the starting lineup, many of us hoped that he would be able to provide some of the floorspacing that LaVine gave the team while having a calming veteran presence on the court.

Instead, Rush has been a retread to the Tayshaun Prince experience without the defensive pedigree. In the last 9 games, Rush has averaged 27.6 minutes and put up 4.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, and 0.8 APG. He is shooting 29.6 percent from the threepoint line, a far cry from LaVine’s flamethrower impressions. Most impressive was the last game against the Rockets where the Wolves put up 130 points and Rush was able to add zero in 33 minutes.

However, it is interesting that the Wolves offense has certainly not skipped a beat, and actually has drastically improved, even with the lack of production from Brandon Rush. There is likely some confluence of a multitude of factors for the team’s offense success and it certainly is way too premature to believe that LaVine’s absence has been the root cause, especially since the Wolves’ record has been essentially the same. But if this helps unlock the star potential in Wiggins, or gives him more room to grow, than this change may prove important down the road.