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5-on-5: Third Quarter (and change) in Review

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The Canis Writers take stock before the final stretch of the season

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As of March 13th, the Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 27-38 and 3.5 games out of the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Wolves have been playing their best basketball recently and are currently amidst a last-minute run at the playoffs. At Canis, we wanted to check-in as another quarter of the season has passed.

1) Scale of 1-10, how do you feel about the season so far?

Dane Moore:. I'm pessimistic. I didn't give the Wolves a chance of making the playoffs. I laughed when I saw Vegas set the over/under at 42.5 and thought I was all "smart" when the Wolves started 6-18. And here I am today only am thinking the playoffs are a possibility but I, now, will feel let down if they don't make the playoffs. It's been a roller coaster of a process but I'm pleased with the team having exceeded my expectations. 7 out of 10.

David Naylor: Right now I'm at about a 6. My hope and prediction at the beginning of the season was that the Wolves would be around .500 and how other teams developed around them would determine their playoff relevance. As it turns out, they're 11 games under .500 and would need to go 14-3 to make it, but on the bright side, the race for the eighth seed is a trash fire and the Wolves are still close. The longer-term goals of development and defense took much longer to become visible than many would have liked, but it's hard to argue with the recent success, only with how sustainable it is. I still think there are many questions about how the Wolves' pieces fit together and how Thibs' vision for the future will shape together, but the recent signs have been good.

Chris Riazi: Pre-all star break, I rated the season at 4. In the heat of the moment, after the Wolves have won 5 of 8 since the all star break, winning big games in Utah and against the Warriors, I’m feeling great about the prospects of the Timberwolves franchise. I can’t go higher than 6 because of Zach LaVine’s injury and my fears regarding its effect on his development and potential. Their abrupt and substantial improvement on the defensive end (#1 in defensive rating in their last 6 games), however, gives me faith that they are headed in the right direction.

Josh Clement: 8. While the opening stretch of the season was disappointing, the Timberwolves are just flat out a good basketball team at this point and have been so for quite some time. We certainly expected too much of out of this team coming into the season, but if the Wolves are playing at this level by the season’s end, it is time to really get excited about the future prospects of the Wolves. Also, the Wolves have this guy named Karl-Anthony Towns who is no doubt the best player in the NBA that was drafted in the last three years. That helps.

John Meyer: 6.5. They're playing great defense right now and the system looks to be sinking in. But the 6-18 start was extremely disappointing ... that remains in the back of my mind. All of those terrible third quarter showings put them in a tough position to comeback and make the playoffs. On the flip side, they've been 21-20 with an offensive rating of 111.7 and a defensive rating of 109.7 since that start. They have improved throughout the season and are currently playing at a high level so that's promising (112.7 ORTG/105.2 DRTG in the last 11 games / 7-4 overall)

Things I like:

  • Towns is an offensive monster and his defense has been much better after the All-Star break
  • Rubio wasn't traded and is playing at the highest level of his career
  • Clutch shots by Wiggins + his off-ball awareness on defense
  • Tyus Jones aka Tyus Stones

Things I don't like:

  • LaVine's ACL injury
  • Dunn's halfcourt offense
  • Underwhelming bench play and (at times) Thibs’ over-reliance on the starters

2) Are you a believer in #Thibsdust (i.e. Thibs' success at developing players)

Dane: We've really extrapolated this term. The Websters Dictionary of ThibsDust is; a magical powder derived from Tom Thibodeau's hair follicles to be sprinkled upon backup point guards.

ThibsDust used to simply be saved for the Aaron Brooks, D.J. Augustine, and Nate Robinsons of the world. Now we're putting it on Gorgui? I dunno, I'm confused by this theory. The jury is still out in my book. Thibs is running out of hairs.

David: Not yet. While Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have continued to make strides in the correct direction towards achieving their potential, how much of that is the sheer potential and natural talent they came to the team with? Beyond that, I still think it's too early to make any clear calls on any of the work he's done, and my confidence is not fully invested in him yet. I hope that changes.

Chris: I’m agnostic, but I’m leaning towards beginning to preach the tenets of Thibidism. I’m surprised that it took so long to start closing out on shooters with a sense of purpose, but the Wolves have radically improved their perimeter defense as of late. I am also impressed by Thibs’ willingness to adjust to the times. He’s been using Belly as the stretch-four we’ve been pining for, and Belly has responded and is playing confidently. Kris Dunn had a stretch of 7 games without a turnover. Ricky is playing the best basketball of his career. Wiggins has cooled off a bit, as of late, but has responded when Thibodeau has placed him in the closer role. Those opportunities can’t help but steel Wiggins and prepare him for high-stakes moments. KAT has continued to astound on offense, and Thibs has given him the green light on threes, even through tough stretches, which exemplifies more forward-thinking on his part. Thibodeau hasn’t been afraid to challenge his young superstar and even has him communicating and playing defense with urgency.

It is pretty hard to complain about Thib’s player development, but I am sorely disappointed by Zach LaVine’s injury. I could be wrong, but the more I think about it, I believe that, due to his earlier hip injury, he wasn’t 100% when he hurt his knee, and, therefore, shouldn’t have been playing. Tom has a poor reputation when it comes to valuing the health of his players and that absolutely cannot continue.

Josh: It is always tough to differentiate between a players’ development due to their own natural progression and what the coach, or even coaching staff, is responsible for. I have not always been a believer in Thibs’ system throughout the year with the usual points of differentiation on how Ricky was used early on as well as the “Point Wiggins” strategy. However, what is abundantly clear is that Thibs believes in Thibsdust, whether or not that is good remains to be seen. That was never more obvious than the Wolves vs Spurs game, where the Wolves put Wiggins in iso sets or pick and rolls sets against Kawhi Leonard, which went less than well and probably cost the Wolves the game.

John: Thibodeau is a lifestyle and his magic dust is real. Haven't you been watching this team lately? The Wolves will be very good soon enough. Does that answer the question?

3) How have your thoughts on the Wolves evolved throughout the season?

Dane: They went something like this. "Okay, guys lets chill and be patient." To... "Well, now I'm pissed. This team sucks." To... "When Zach died, it all died." To... "Yeah, we're obviously a top-8 team in the West." So much has happened yet nothing has shocked me or overwhelmed me. Did I mention this year has been weird?

David: The frustration of the early season still lingers in the background of all the recent success, and the team's developing maturity in sustaining and keeping leads late in games, while good, needs more time to appear permanent. My belief that Zach LaVine is a key player in the future of the franchise remains firm, but the recent success has made it wobble just a little bit. My belief that Ricky Rubio should still be the starting point guard of this team at the start of the 2017-18 season, however, has not changed at all. My thoughts really haven't evolved that much, overall.

Chris: I was initially disappointed, like most of you, with the lack of success. On the Canis Hoopus podcast, John Meyer has made some great points about Tom Thibodeau’s philosophy in regard to the purpose of this season, and that has helped me put things in perspective. Thibs has a vision for the future of the team, and I respect that. Maybe the Wolves could have won more games this season by using Sam Mitchell-era switching tactics, or not going to Wiggins isolation plays in the clutch, but Thibodeau feels that implementing his defensive system and developing Andrew Wiggins’ confidence in the clutch are important for this team to realize its ultimate potential.

Josh: There hasn’t been too much “new” that we have found out about the Wolves this season. A lot of the things that we thought about the team before the season started are still true today. Ricky, Towns, and Dieng have been (within a margin of error in good or bad ways) around the same players that we knew they are/could be. It’s still unclear if Shabazz can do much but get buckets or if Bjelly can hang (don’t think he can). Dunn is still a giant question mark, but he is a rookie point guard so that is essentially the name of the game. The LaVine Wiggins wing pairing still remains a long-term question due to defense. The free agent signings have basically all busted.

However, there have been three things that have changed for me. 1) Tyus is legitimately a good basketball player and prospect. 2) LaVine is a flamethrower and can be one of the best volume three-point shooters in the league. 3) I’ve come around on seeing the superstar in Wiggins. The Wolves were always going to ride or die by betting on Wiggins and his lack of concrete development has always led to bellyaching, as he is a prime example of a volume scorer who does not bring a ton else to the table. However, in the most recent stretch of the season, even when Wiggins isn’t shooting well, he is able to do things that no one else on the team can do. That is worth the trouble.

John: Tough question. I'm not sure I know how to answer. I think we've learned something about every player on the roster and now everyone knows what to expect from Thibodeau. His process and ultimately his patience is more clear now. I believe they need another versatile, hard-nosed defender that can guard many positions (like Kris Dunn) and, if possible, an above-average stretch four next to Towns. That has become obvious as the season has progressed.

4) What should the Wolves be examining for the rest of the season?

Dane: I'd like to have a good idea of the big situation entering the offseason. It's been interesting to see a bit of a surge from Bjelica. Through that, Dieng has played less. (and worse). I think Bjelica has provided some anecdotal evidence to the idea that a stretch or playmaking four next to Towns is ideal.

All that said, the Wolves need Dieng to also be impactful. His very large contract extension kicks in next year. I'd like to see Dieng and Bjelica both have success down the stretch so I can believe in a Towns, Dieng, and "stretch-4 to be named later" future.

David: The future plans for the fringe pieces of the roster that they already have. Shabazz Muhammad has played the best basketball of his career in the last few weeks, and with trade rumors having already discussed him in February, his value as a restricted free agent this summer will be fascinating, as will be how highly the Wolves value keeping him. Brandon Rush's one-year deal is done after this season. Will he sign for another cheap year? How much money will Lance Stephenson want, if the Wolves want him and he wants to stay after his second ten-day contract? The Wolves, just like last season, have a foundation, and now have another year of experience on their key players. Figuring out what to put around them this offseason is vital.

Chris: They should be examining whether they can make winning a habit! Unless they are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they need to solely focus on what/who is helping them win games. Of course, the team needs to consider his value, so Shabazz Muhammad needs to show that he can be a part of winning team. If the Wolves find themselves to be out of the playoff race with games to spare, I’d like to see them give developmental minutes to Tyus and Kris. Alas, I wish they would free a roster slot for 10-day contract experiments.

Josh: I think once the Wolves find themselves out of the running for the playoffs, which will probably happen with around five games or so left in the season, that Kris Dunn should get a little bit more run time as well as a more integral role in running the offense. Having the film for the team, and Dunn himself, to go over during the offseason of Dunn playing with a longer leash could be helpful.

John: It might be smart to play Wiggins/Shabazz next to each other more often instead of starting Brandon Rush. We have seen the two succeed before on the wing together and I'd probably use the rest of the season to gather more information/data on that pairing.

The Wolves will have a tough choice this summer with Muhammad hitting restricted free agency. Some team is going to make a big offer. I flip-flop all the time on whether or not they should keep him or hang on to the money to use elsewhere. Everything depends on how much Muhammad is going to ask for annually and if any team will give him some crazy type of deal like Allen Crabbe got last summer (4-year deal worth $74.8 million/$18.5M this season). Will Muhammad be more in the Solomon Hill range (4 years for $48M)? Somewhere in between at $13-15 million per year feels like what Muhammad is going to get.

The Wolves need to figure out if they should pay him or not, so starting him next to Wiggins might make some sense moving forward since there's no guarantee Rush is around next season either. The duo looked great together in Muhammad's spot start last Wednesday in the win over the Clippers at home.

5) If you were in charge, would you fight for the 8th seed or tank for the draft pick?

Dane: I'd go for it. A real tank isn't really feasible at this point. Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Phoenix are pretty well locked in for on through three. The next group of teams is almost too bad to "catch." The Wolves are four games or fewer ahead of Philadelphia, Orlando, Sacramento, New York, and New Orleans. That ices the Wolves out of one through eight.

I think they are now positioning with these other teams fighting for the 8-seed-- Denver, Portland, and Dallas. If the Wolves get the 8-seed they will likely draft 14th. If things kind of fall apart, they will draft 9th. The opportunity cost of going for the playoffs (5 picks) is worth it in my opinion. Plus, I don't know if you heard, the Wolves just beat the Warriors...

David: There's no way I would be tanking. There's no better scenario to stretch and test the experience of your young roster than the challenging final 17 games of this season, and should the Wolves manage to win enough of those to scramble their way into the eighth seed, that would be a remarkable bonus. At this point, they should be trying to win each and every game and figuring out how to win as a team around their star players. The more success they can learn how to have this season, the better the future will look.

Chris: As of now, I would absolutely fight to make the playoffs. Learning to play hard, win games, and establish a winning culture should be the main focus of the team. They should cross the tanking bridge when they come to it. If they are mathematically eliminated, that will be the time to look at the standings and the math and then decide what to do.

Josh: To defend the question, I posed the tank or compete query before the Wolves rattled off victories against the Clippers and Warriors. At this point, the Wolves have no choice but to go for it, and it’s not like they have too much to gain by tanking anyways. If they continue their current path, they will likely end up riding a wave of goodwill and excitement into the end of the season while still picking in the top-ten. That’s a win-win. They have a very challenging remaining schedule and that will likely be answering the question for the Wolves.

John: The margin of error is super small right now (and I don't think they will get the 8th spot ultimately) but OF COURSE YOU FIGHT FOR THE FINAL PLAYOFF SPOT. Making the playoffs is the only way this franchise can take the next step. All of the key players need that positive reinforcement and everybody is tired of hearing about the drought. Winning and competing until the end (can you even imagine Thibs tanking?) is the best path.