When Tom Thibodeau was brought on to be the President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves a new era officially began for basketball in Minnesota.
Gone was the Country Club (at least Glen Taylor’s) and coming in was the hard-nosed, defense-first philosophy that would mold the yet-to-be-determined future of the Wolves’ young core, which was full of blinding potential but light on substance.
A full year has not yet gone by, but it is instructional to look at some of the overall differences between this year and those that came before. This is especially true now due to Zach LaVine’s injury, as we have seen this year from both Thibs’ off-the-court interviews as well as his on-court lineups that he has a definite plan in mind. LaVine’s injury is the first thing that will throw that master plan off its predetermined course and force an adjustment, which leaves the beginning of the season till around now as perhaps the best period to examine the differences between the Thibs era and the Flip/Sam Mitchell epoch.
To start, after an ugly beginning to the year, this year’s team is just flat-out better. Now, this is not completely due to Thibs’ influence, as a team full of young first and second-year players can really only get better. However, it is remarkable that the Wolves are now simply “middling bad to mediocre” rather than flat out terrible.
Relative ORTG (as compared to league average)
Relative DRTG (as compared to league average)
2014-2015: 6.6 (so a full 6.6 worse than league average)
Now, while the Wolves are not world beaters, being a team that is competitive on most nights is still a drastic improvement than the teams that were fielded from 2014-2016, not to mention that short period of time from 2006 to 2012. Sadly enough, not including the 2013-2014 year, this is the best Wolves team across the board in SRS, ORTG, and DRTG since 2005-2006, a team which rates pretty similar to the current team.
The team’s current slow rise in defensive efficiency has already been covered at length, and that crawl up the rankings should only continue throughout the year, especially now that one of the Timberwolves’ largest net negatives on defense will not be playing the remainder of the year.
The Wolves current win percentage is .377, which would put them around 30-31 wins. However, the team has been hovering around .500 for almost two months and the team certainly looks like it will continue to win at that pace, which would leave the team with around 34 wins.
The team has also embraced, slowly, the threepoint revolution. This pace will likely drop without LaVine, but the Wolves have been averaged 22.1 threepoint attempts a game, which is still only 27th in the league. However, the team was shooting only 16.4 threepoint attempts last year and the 2014-2015 team was taking 14.9 threes a game.
The team’s four factors are slightly up as well, except for free throw rate. The team has an effective field goal rate of 50.9 percent, last year was 48.8 percent. The offensive rebounding rate is 27.1 percent (Wolves have been one of league’s best all year), last year was 24.3 percent.
Turnover percentage is 13.2 percent compared to last year’s 13.9 percent. The only drop, in free throw rate from 26.3 percent to 22.4 percent, has been due to a decrease in free throw rate from Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Most notably, all of these improvements have come from largely the same players as last year. The Wolves’ lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, and Towns have played 880 minutes together. That is second in the league to the Wizards starting five. The next highest five-man lineup is the Thunder starting five, which have played around 550 minutes.
It is easy to get excited about a team moving from bad to good and the lead up to this season exemplified how easy it is to get caught up in the anticipation. The comparison of the Wolves to the Thunder suggested this dramatic ascension was possible, as young players could quickly develop and the Wolves with Thibodeau could be a force to be reckoned with in the West.
It is less viscerally thrilling to watch the slow rise of a bad team to a mediocre one. However, that succession is certainly more relevant to the Timberwolves and one that is important to be cognizant of.