In the first season under the new regime of Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves finished the season 31-51, tied for the 6th worst record in the league. These 31 wins were only two more than the previous season and significantly fewer than the Vegas Over/Under.
Simply put, the Wolves did not live up to the expectations coming into the season, regardless of if those predictions were overenthusiastic. However, there were certainly bright spots throughout the season as well, not to mention another year of improvement from several of the players. Several statistics, such as Basketball Reference's Simply Rating System (SRS) and overall Net Rating paint the Wolves as more of an average team. As the Wolves ranked 19th in the league in SRS and 20th in Net Rating, both of which they were closer to 15th in the league before the disastrous end of season play.
This is our last Five-on-Five of the season as we wind down our regular season coverage.
1) Scale of 1-10, how do you feel about the season as a whole
Drew Mahowald: 4. I expected the Wolves to contend for a playoff spot into the last couple of weeks of the season. Minnesota had a chance to get this done, but the team fell apart down the stretch quicker than Nikola Pekovic's career (that might be bad taste, sorry ed. note - yes, yes it is). Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each spread their wings even further on the offensive side of the ball. Ricky Rubio may have been the most improved player in the league from game one to game 82. But blowing 20 10-point leads just won't get it done. How the young studs mature when it comes to closing games will define next season.
Kyle Theige: 6. This team had the raw talent to be just as good as Portland (who grabbed the 8 seed) and make the playoffs this year, yet they once again stumbled to the finish line and into another NBA lottery. My grade would have actually been lower if it wasn’t for the excuse of losing two significant contributors in Zach LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica. Healthy or not, would this team have stood a chance against the Warriors in the first round? Probably not, but even my optimistic and hopeful persona is starting to get weary as the losing seasons begin to mount.
Eric in Madison: 4? It was not very good. An improvement of only two wins is disappointing given how young the team is. This was Wiggins' third year, LaVine's third year, Dieng's fourth year. I was hoping for a much more significant step forward. To an extent that's mitigated by their improved point differential, which is why it's a four, not a two or something, but still.
Josh Clement: 5. Like most NBA seasons it’s hard not to get swept up in the overarching narratives of each segment of the season, not to mention be overwhelmed by recency bias. For example with the Wolves it would be 1) disastrous early season start marred by 3rd quarters, .500 play after the December 13th win against the Bulls, awesome post All-Star run, then late-season swoon. Within each of those mini-stories, individual players have had their ups and downs, although mostly downs. However, most of the stats do point to a real improvement this year from the Wolves, even if that was not expressed as clearly in the win column.
Dane Moore: 4 out of 10. If I'm looking simply at 31 wins, that's about five or six less than I would have guessed, and 11.5 less than Vegas gave the Wolves. I think baked into the 36 or so wins I projected I had Towns taking another big step, which he did and more.
Wiggins did little to make me excited. That little would be a greater ability to shoot the three (35.6 percent after being below league average his first two years at 31 and 30 percent). Wiggins duplicated the elite scoring ability he showcased the year before. Small strides in other areas did not inspire me. Holistically not blown away by Wiggins's year.
Probably the biggest knock on the season is the uncontrollable injury to LaVine (chill Thibs minutes truthers). Regardless of control, that injury is black-eye on the season. But hey, we kept Rubio and turns out he's good. So that's nice.
2) Which Wolves team is more real, the one that beat the Clippers, Warriors, and Jazz or the one that finished the season 3-12 in their last 15 games
Drew: The team we should expect moving forward is the team that beat the Clippers, Warriors, and Jazz. I think fatigue and a lack of motivation with the playoffs out of reach impacted the Wolves as the season concluded, specifically with the starting unit. This isn't to say next year's team will beat West contenders with regularity, but the fact that the Wolves were able to build leads on these teams for much of the game gives me optimism for the future.
Kyle: You are what your record says you are, and the Wolves were a 31-51 team that struggled mightily down the stretch. However; I find that post All-Star break stretch of wins against teams like the Clippers, Warriors, Jazz, and (almost) Rockets to be extremely fascinating and show a glimpse of how this team *should* look in the future if surrounded by competent bench players.
Eric: The obvious answer is somewhere in between, but probably closer to the latter than the former. The season as a whole bears that out. Hopefully, that flips next season.
Josh: To be honest, I have no idea. This team seems like it could coalesce into an awesome offensive juggernaut that plays good enough defense to jump into the playoffs. Or the defense could just be so abjectly terrible that it can’t be overcome, not to mention the Wolves habits of offensive dry spells, especially with the bench. I only hope for the best.
Dane: Somewhere in between, but probably the latter. Those are some nice wins, but those "good" games are 3.6 percent of the season and the 3-12 stretch to end the season is 18.2 percent of the season. There was more good than bad for the season as a whole.
That said, there is something to be noted about the Wolves ability to "play up to the competition." I know that's cliche, but in games against top-tier teams, those games often had the feel that the Wolves would be just as competitive as a game against a middle-tier team like the Blazers or Bucks. And I mean that as a positive. Eliminating some of that volatility comes with experience, I certainly believe that is a possibility. The Bulls play better under the lights of national TV (see: #TNTBulls) so maybe the Wolves will be the same when they reach the playoffs (i.e. Cavs-Wiggins).
3) What is your offseason priority?
Drew: The bench. I wouldn't be opposed to cleaning out the bench entirely (besides Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones) and starting over. You can't make the playoffs if you're bench unit is getting whooped by double digits every night. Plus, a reliable bench unit would allow Thibodeau to rest his starters an extra couple minutes each game. Whether he would actually execute that is to be determined, but at least he would have the option.
Kyle: Other than letting Wiggins and Towns take approximately 436 naps to recover from all the minutes they played this past season? Jokes aside, the Wolves were fairly wise with how they sat on their cap space last summer, avoiding disastrous mega-deals with guys like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. With that said, this franchise 100% cannot afford to put as much stress on their foundation players again next year as they did last year, and that starts (hopefully) by filling the roster with more consistent and productive role players that can better manage leads and game situations while Wiggins or Towns (or both) rests on the bench.
Eric: They have to improve defensively. They have to add players that can defend and have enough offense to play. In other words, they need multi-skilled, smart players. Hopefully some of the current crew emerge as such players, but the roster needs upgrades. More specifically, they need to figure out the power forward spot and need wing defense and three point shooting.
Josh: The Wolves can’t go into next season with the exact same lineup of the previous two seasons and expect dramatically different results. At some point, we kind of know who these guys are, especially with Gorgui Dieng and Rubio. That lineup has now ended consecutive seasons with 29 and 31 wins. I, personally, would try the Brooklyn approach and start throwing big contracts at RFAs that would fit well with the Wolves like KCP or JaMychal Green, then go for obvious routes like P.J. Tucker or Patrick Patterson. The Wolves should, hopefully, not be planning on someone like Paul Millsap walking through the door. Every fan base thinks they are the one that is going to get these guys and they almost never change teams.
Dane: Not simply finding a third big man to rotate with Towns and Dieng but finding the "right" power forward is my priority. For me, Paul Millsap is the dream. Go ahead offer him a four-year max, even if the final two years he is making close to $35 million at 35-years-old, this is the year we have the money to shell out. I'm cool with breaking the bank on an elite talent. Millsap is that, dude can ball in every way the Wolves need.
For me, Patrick Patterson or JaMychal Green are not the "right" power forward. While they bring something different than Dieng, I'm not sold on the idea that they would be more than the third big in the big rotation, but I'm open to the idea that I am a naive Dieng apologist. However, the four-year contracts Patterson and Green are likely to demand all but lock the Wolves into a long-term big rotation to Towns-Dieng-Patterson/Green. That group has a ceiling.
If Millsap, Blake Griffin, or Serge Ibaka are not available (likely), then I think the move is to pursue a middle ground in the trade market. Derrick Favors is a lesser (and cheaper/shorter contract) name I'm into right now. But he's flawed too. Favors for Kris Dunn, who say's no? (ed. note - the Jazz)
4) Biggest problems/disappointments from the season for the Wolves?
Drew: I think the defensive performance as a whole was one of the most disappointing aspects of the season. Thibodeau's pedigree as a defensive wizard had everyone, myself included, expecting a steady improvement after a disastrous 2015-16 season on the defensive end. Instead, we only received glimpses of brilliance in a season full of bottom-tier defensive play.
Kyle: While “missing the playoffs” seems like the easy answer, I think my biggest problem/disappointment is that I naively expected to see Tom Thibodeau 2.0, not the original version. In other words, countless articles were written last spring/summer about how Thibs spent his year off from the sidelines visiting and studying progressive, forward-thinking teams like Golden State and San Antonio. I assumed Thibs’ notes when he left those teams would include tips on just how important resting players is and the benefit of experimenting with a wide variety of lineups. Yet, as this season rolled along, the Wolves showed very little creativity in who they put on the floor and had two of the top five guys in minutes played. I really, really hope both of those things improve immediately this fall.
Eric: Defense, obviously. The guys who played the most minutes were terrible defensively, and that has to change. Youth is a reason, and hopefully is the reason, but there are no guarantees. I really thought we'd see more this season and we didn't. Also disappointed with the bench, and probably more to the point, the way Thibs (didn't) use it. I hate to single out individual players in this sort of thing, so I won't, but certainly questions remain to be answered about whether some of the guys they appear to be counting on going forward can be good enough in all phases to constitute a contending core.
Josh: The stagnant development of defense is certainly the main story in the disappointment department, not to mention Thibs reluctance to change up his strategies (and minutes distribution). I know that we aren’t supposed to judge rookie point guards that closely following their rookie years, but Kris Dunn certainly has quite the hill to climb.
Dane: My biggest disappointment is the at times apparent disregard for defense. I think it's safe to assume the defense is being harped every day, yet it's amazing the plethora of possessions the key pieces on the roster seem uninterested in exerting effort on that end.
I think, as Wolves followers, we have almost been accustomed to the dismal level of defensive effectiveness the roster shows. Since the Wolves drafted Andrew Wiggins, they have had the 30th, 28th, and this year 27th best defensive rating in the NBA, per basketballreference.com.
5) Biggest surprises/success of the year
Drew: Rubio's improvement over the course of the season after a rough couple of months to start the year was a pleasant sight to my eyes. Thibodeau slowly started to put the ball in Rubio's hands more and more as the season wore on and it only helped the Wolves on the offensive end. He hit 40 percent of his shot attempts for the first time in his career and gained confidence we have never seen from him as a shooter. Thibs may have initially planned on letting Rubio go when he joined the Wolves a year ago, but the Spaniard made one heckuva case as the starting point guard to bring the Wolves to the playoffs in 2017-18.
Kyle: I, for one, feel very privileged to be alive during the Ricky Rubio Renaissance. Yes, Towns is a future Hall of Famer and Wiggins can score with the best of them, but I sort of knew both those things back in October of 2016. What I DIDN’T know was that Ricky Rubio could successfully (and finally) pair a real, modern offensive threat of scoring with his already magical floor vision and lengthy defensive wingspan. While I entered this season dreading it to be Rubio’s last magical act in a Wolves uniform, I now (somewhat confidently) embrace his encore performance next year for the same team.
Eric: The consistency of LaVine's shooting was a great success. Towns put up incredible numbers for a guy his age; he still seems on track, although, like everyone, the defense has to get better. Ricky Rubio's improvement over the second half of the season was fun to see. Andrew Wiggins has shown great durability in his career, which is underrated, and scored a hell of a lot of points for a guy his age.
Josh: Rubio’s last few months were amazing. Towns is still on track to be the super-duper capital S Star. That’s kind of a big deal. LaVine is an absolute flamethrower and Wiggins is still working with the toughest job in Basketball, being an everything wing. Now do all these pieces fit together? I don’t know. But in the abstract (and ignoring that whole wins and losses thing) it sure seems like the Wolves are still on track to be good down the road.
Dane: Because most people will say, Ricky Rubio, (rightfully so) I'll take the path less traveled. Gorgui Dieng flies under the radar unless he's talking trash to JaVale McGee, so I'll give him some love.
Amongst the Wolves rotation players, Dieng has the best defensive rating, fourth best offensive rating, second best value over replacement players, second best box plus-minus, best defensive box plus-minus, and third best win share total.
Is this where I say, "Take that for data?”
Bonus Question) How many games do the Wolves win next year
Drew: 45. Is that too high? Probably. Do I have valid support for that number? Nope. I just think if next year isn't the year for the proverbial jump into the playoffs, it will never happen.
Kyle: 44-38, 7th in the West, upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
Eric: I'm out of the prediction business for now, especially before we see what happens during the summer. But whatever the over/under is, I've learned to take the under. Someday that bet will lose.
Josh: 40-42. Barely missing the playoffs. These things take time. Just looking at the Bucks and Jazz show a team that seems like they should be on the cusp can easily miss out.
Dane: Here are three very hypothetical scenarios I see as possible:
- Best Scenario: Sign Millsap without giving up anything outside of cap space because he's a free agent, LaVine comes back full strength for game one, draft Malik Monk as a bench scorer, and add another actually useful bench piece (Tony Snell?). That team is winning in the high 40s, let's say 47.
- Average Scenario: Sign Patrick Patterson, LaVine comes back slowly but isn't himself until the second half, draft a point guard that needs time (De'Aaron Fox), re-sign Shabazz Muhammad (gulp) for the bench. 43 wins, maybe sneak into seven or eight seed.
- Worst Scenario: Extreme patience. While that may not be stupid from a long-take perspective, it would lead to the lowest sum of 2017 wins.
For example, sign a place-holder third big (Ersan Ilyasova or Amir Johnson), draft a project like Jonathan Isaac, and roll with a similar rotation: Rubio-Jones-Dunn-LaVine-Wiggins-Bjelica-(Ilyasova or Johnson)-Dieng-Towns. I think that team probably misses the playoffs again, 39 wins.