Over the last 12 games, the Timberwolves have dominated fourth quarters to the tune of a 110.1-97.2 net rating (12.9.) Prior to this stretch, their fourth quarter net rating was 103.0-112.5, or -9.5.
They are clearly defending better, in large part thanks to their new defensive ace Robert Covington, and a renewed commitment from everyone on that end of the floor. Offensively, they are finally making use of Karl-Anthony Towns, their best and most efficient offensive player in a way they did not before due to the ball and shot dominance of Jimmy Butler.
In fourth quarters prior to the trade, Butler was carrying a 28.6 usage percentage, and Towns 21.9 percent. Since, Towns’ usage has grown to 28.1 percent, leading the team, and just as heartening, his assist percentage in fourth quarters is 18.8 over the last 12, verses a paltry 4.1 percent prior. His turnover percentage has also improved. In other words, the Wolves are getting their best scorer the ball, and he’s making good decisions with it for the most part.
Butler himself was quite effective in fourth quarters for the Wolves—posting a true shooting percentage of 64.2 in the nine fourth quarters he played, but the offense as a whole struggled without any real ball or player movement as everyone stood around waiting for Jimmy. His personal offensive and defensive fourth quarter ratings were essentially the same as the team as a whole.
Towns meanwhile is dominating, with a 25.3 net rating in the fourth. His offensive feasting is complimented by Covington’s defensive acumen without Butler’s ball-hoggery—RoCo is carrying just a 15 percent usage in fourth quarters as a Wolf. Derrick Rose is serving effectively as a second scoring banana with 60 percent true shooting.
All of a sudden, it’s a team that, late in games, has defined and seemingly effective roles around Towns. And the team seems to know this, with various quotes emerging over the last few days, notably from veterans Rose, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson in this excellent Athletic article from Jon Krawczynski.
As dominant as KAT has been recently, especially in fourth quarters when the Wolves have overwhelmed several opponents, there is another way to parse the Wolves since “The Trade:” Into Covington lineups and non-Covington lineups.
RoCo is a part of the two most used five man lineups since he joined the team: The regular starting lineup, and the four reserves+RoCo lineup. Both of them feature moderate offense, but terrific defense leading to significantly positive net ratings (+6.8 for the starting group over 200 minutes, and +16.0 for the bench group in 77 minutes.)
The non-Covington lineups are of a different nature: When they work, it’s because they dominate offensively. For example: Rose, Dario Saric, Teague, Wiggins, and Towns have a 128.6 offensive rating (and a +23 net) in 33 minutes. When Rose swaps in for Covington with the starters, they have a 117.9 offensive rating in 60 minutes (though also have had great defensive success, somewhat surprisingly.)
When Covington is on the floor, the Wolves defensive rating is better than the best overall defense in the league, but their offense performs at a roughly league average rate. When he’s off the floor, they still have a successful defense, though not as dominant (which is perhaps the best part of the last three weeks) but their offense improves to 111.5 compared to 107.7 with him on the floor.
All of which leads to the question of how we analyse Tom Thibodeau’s tenure as head coach. The team has performing much better since a trade that he resisted for months. But it is performing, and to his credit, he has found combinations that work in different ways. The top six five-man units are all have positive net ratings. All 30 2-man combinations that have more than 50 minutes together also have positive net ratings.
We knew the offense would get worse this season, it almost had to. But they have made huge strides defensively to mitigate.
Do we applaud Thibs for adjusting to a new roster and getting the most out of it, or do we criticize him for being too reliant on Jimmy Butler, and believing in the fools gold of last season, and the unsustainable offense? Freed from the apparently unhealthy co-dependence, the Wolves are thriving, but is that because Thibs has the chops to pivot and make the necessary changes, or in spite of his stubbornness?
Winning, of course, cures a lot of ills, and certainly the team is happier at the moment than they have been in quite some time. That joy and Thibs’ future depends on continued winning. I’m not a believer that Thibs is the long term answer for this team in either role he occupies, but if they win enough to save his job(s), I’m all for it.