The story for the Timberwolves all year was meant to focus on two things. Defense and gradual improvement in success under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau. The Wolves had a brief period of real success after the All-Star break, not to mention several months of legitimate .500 play, but the wheels have recently come off the train.
Nothing has made that more clear than recent losses to the Lakers and the Kings. While the Wolves look understandably gassed, those are two teams that the Wolves should simply not lose too, especially in the manner of where the team simply offered no defensive effort.
In the time between the All-Star game and the loss to the Celtics, the Wolves went 6-4 against stellar competition, had a net rating of 6.2 (fifth in the league) and the 6th best defensive rating in the league, which was 102.4.
Since then, the Wolves have had the worst defensive rating in the league with an astounding rating of 118.0. The team has gone 2-7 over this period.
Britt Robson’s most recent piece focused on this late season swoon and if it is becoming fair to wonder if either Thibs is reaching his young stars or if those stars have the capacity to learn effective defense. The Wolves recent malaise has been somewhat attributed to the loss of Nemanja Bjelica, as this may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. However, Bjelica is not exactly a foundational piece of this roster and for him to be attributed for the “glue” that was holding this team together would speak poorly of the influence of both the starting lineup as well as the franchise cornerstones of Wiggins and Towns.
Now, the jarring effect of watching the team play so well and so poorly in such a small stretch has likely made us a little more jaded about the team’s success. The whiplash is worse than the slow rocking back and forth between kinda-bad to mediocre.
To wit, the Wolves still have a positive net rating (0.9) since the oft-used December 13th cut off. They have gone 24-27 over this time. The team still has a pretty awful defensive rating over that period of 108.1, which is 22nd in the league.
A large part of the problem is the easiest to point to, the young age of the Wolves. It really is extraordinary, and quite out of the ordinary, what the Wolves have done this year. Many teams have several young stars they rely upon, but there really is not another team in the NBA (not to mention in its recent history) that has been as reliant on a complete team of young players, completely ignoring any sort of veteran leadership.
Understanding, or rationalizing, the Wolves lack of success this season is actually akin to the defense of Andrew Wiggins against advanced statistics critiques. There simply is not a good prior example of a player (or team) carrying this burden while being so young.
Instead, the Wolves veteran has been Thibs, and that doesn’t seem to translate as immediately to on-court success.
A Wolf Among Wolves had a great article that really illustrates just how unlikely it was for a team as young as the Wolves to succeed. There have only been five teams in the past few decades that have started three players that were 21-years-old or younger and those teams averaged 23.2 wins in a season. There are quite a few teams that did have success with only two young players, but those young players were usually playing more supporting roles or playing alongside established stars.
The only real prior example of success is the wunderkind OKC team that had the dramatic leap from awful to immediate playoff contention that we were hoping the Wolves would be able to achieve. Unfortunately for the Wolves, not to mention any team trying to replicate that success, the OKC model seems quite reliant upon drafting three 1st Ballot Hall of Famers and perennial MVP candidates in the span of a few years.
Looking ahead, the Wolves upcoming schedule does not give the team any sort of break, especially on defense. The team still has to play the Warriors, Rockets, and the red-hot Trailblazers twice. One can only hope that the team finds some sort of middle ground between their recent disastrous stretch and the brief spell of success that we hope to point to in the future as the harbinger for the eventual defensive improvement.
The Wolves are officially eliminated from competing in the playoffs. Hopefully, that does not mean they eliminate themselves from competing for the rest of the season.