The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently 36-25, which is tied for the third-best record in the Western Conference. Here’s how we think the team is doing as they head into the final stretch of the regular season.
1) How has the season matched up with your expectations?
Anthony Iverson: All things considered, I think this season has been as good as any realistic Wolves fan could have hoped for. Tied for third in the ferociously contentious Western Conference at the All-Star break? I wouldn’t have believed that was possible coming into the season, yet here we are. What’s more, if you would have told me the Wolves would be where they are in the standings right now even after losing nine of their last 15 games, I would have assumed you were from another planet. Clearly, the Wolves still have a lot of room to grow, but the fact that they’re a team to be feared in the West again is an incredible step forward in my book.
Charlie Johnson: Almost to a T: they’re on pace to win a hair under 50 games, Jimmy Butler/Taj Gibson have been the culture change the Wolves so desperately needed, and the development of Towns and Wiggins has been consistently inconsistent.
I expected this to be the year the Wolves reinserted themselves into the competitive discussion, nothing more. While we’ve all had a difficult time adjusting our analysis due to inflated expectations, this team’s real upside should be seen in years to come. However, it has felt like a whole new world to watch a Wolves team that even meets an anticipated level of success.
Josh Clement: I did not think the Wolves would be making their over-under of around 48 wins, so I cannot count this season as anything but a resounding success. However, this season has certainly taught us that a winning season is still fraught with its ups and downs. I think that Wolves fans, myself included, were so used to losing that we really had no idea how to properly ascertain what a winning team looks like. The problems that we anticipated before the season have certainly manifested themselves, particularly with the three-point shooting and lack of depth on the wing, but this has certainly been an awesome ride so far.
Kyle Thiege: With the addition of Jimmy Butler, I thought the Wolves would be much improved, and they are. Did I think they’d have the 6th best record in the league at the All-Star break? No, although I’m still a little skeptical that their actual record doesn’t accurately reflect the product we see on the floor night in and night out (in a bad way).
Overall, I expected to see a team loaded with talent this season sniff the 50-wins mark and be a feisty out in the playoffs, and I think that’s exactly what the Wolves will end up giving us.
Eric in Madison: Record-wise, it’s gone about how I expected, perhaps a little better. The shape of the performance has been somewhat different--I thought they would start slower and be winning more now, but there are always ups and downs. The next month or so is going to be a matter of survival--through March 18th they have the Rockets twice, the Warriors, the Spurs, at the Blazers and Jazz...will be interesting to see where they are when the dust clears.
2) What is going on with the Wolves defense?
Anthony: Youth and lack of chemistry. Success on defense relies so much more on a team component than offense does, and since so many players rely on their offensive tools to get from high school to college and eventually to the NBA, they focus so much of their energy on that one aspect of the game. As much as I hate to say it, I think Sam Mitchell was onto something when he was spouting off criticism about AAU basketball a few years back. Obviously not every player on the Wolves’ roster went through the AAU circuit, but I think in general what it comes down to for the young players on this team is the lack of experience in a sound defensive system.
Wiggins and KAT both spent one year in a college system. Clearly, that’s not enough time for some of these team concepts to stick with them. This stuff takes time and I think defensive concepts in the NBA are much more complicated than they appear to be to the casual fan.
Charlie: Karl-Anthony Towns. Center is the most important defensive position on the court – more than any other player they find themselves as a unit’s last chance to get a stop. Towns has already proven this season that when things are clicking for him on that end, the Wolves’ defense has a pretty strong bite. But it’s been a rollercoaster, and when he’s bad he can be awful.
Each of the league’s best 10 defenses has a rim protector that ranks in the top 17 of qualified centers in defensive rating. Towns ranks 47 of 57. This isn’t a perfect stat for gauging individual defense, but it paints a decent enough picture.
Josh: I honestly have no idea. Like Charlie points out, the defense seems to go as Towns goes. It’s hard not to see a direct correlation between Towns being locked in and the overall defense succeeding. I think when we look at another young team like Boston that is able to have a strong defense, they really are benefiting from the veteran presence of Al Horford.
However, that does not mean that the rest of the team is succeeding. Teague and (sometimes) Wiggins are still weak spots. I think the Wolves are pretty susceptible to the 1-5 pick-and-roll with Teague and Towns. That high pick-and-roll action is extremely prevalent in the NBA, which gives the Wolves fits. Crawford being a sieve is not helping things either.
Kyle: That answer is probably above my pay grade, but my personal opinion is that Tom Thibodeau’s core defensive principles that brought him so much success during his time with the Bulls may be slightly outdated. While 2010-2015 was only short time ago, the game has advanced at such a rapid pace that the same concepts that worked in 2012 (where the league average for points per game was 96.3) might not be sustainable in a new pace-and-space era (where the league average for points is now 105.9).
Eric: I have no answer for the defense. It’s the obvious disappointment of the season. They are still giving up too many fast break points, which makes me nuts. They don’t balance the floor well. They give up the highest field goal percentage within five feet in the league. That’s killing them--they cannot protect the rim. Compared to the Celtics who lead the league in that category, they give up four more points a game within five feet on the same number of opponent attempts. That’s a lot.
3) Do the Wolves have a point guard controversy with Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague?
Anthony: No, but it’s trending in that direction. I am all aboard the Tyus Train, but Jeff Teague is on this team for a reason. Replace Teague and how he’s performed recently with Ricky Rubio and all these Tyus chants suddenly become a lot quieter. Yes, I prefer both of those players to Teague, but let’s remember that this is Teague’s first season in Minnesota. I think Tyus is the future point guard for this team, but is he currently more qualified to lead a team in the postseason than Teague is? Not yet.
Charlie: This is a great follow up to question number two, as the answers rely on each other.
No. The Wolves do not have a PG controversy. Jeff Teague is the superior player, and in an ideal world, his ability to score fits best with this team. But for as long as KAT is an average (at best) defender, they have a point guard conundrum.
Towns’ struggles in off-ball defense mean that he needs all the aid he can get. When the Wolves play Jones and Butler, or even Jones and Wiggins, they have a backcourt that can consistently stay in front of their man. This gives Towns the flexibility to patrol for shot blocking opportunities, and it offers him an extra half of a second to react in help defense. On that end, Teague tends to allow quick guards to pass him so he can go for a steal, which puts Towns in a position that he is not yet ready to handle. When Teague had Paul Millsap and Al Horford behind him in Atlanta this was a more effective strategy.
As much as we love that Tyus moves the ball on offense, the real reason the Wolves advanced metrics soared with him at the helm is the flexibility his presence provides Towns on the other end.
Josh: Not now, but it will certainly be a discussion topic during the offseason. The Wolves cap picture is pretty bleak from here on out and it will only get worse with Karl-Anthony Towns receiving his extension. Moving on from Teague hopefully does not come at any cost and if the Wolves have an equivalent backup, it may simply be the right business decision. However, I will say that I think we underrate the shot creation abilities that Teague brings to the table. It seems odd, considering how strong the Wolves options are on offense, but there have been games when Teague’s ability to get to the rim and create for himself have been invaluable. Jones can do that at times, but I would be hard-pressed to believe the Wolves could count on him for a quick basket.
Kyle: 100 percent, unequivocally, yes. Does that mean Tyus should take the starter reins this Friday against the Houston Rockets? Probably not, but I am a big believer that Tyus is a core piece of this franchise going forward, right behind Karl-Anthony Towns and slightly ahead of Andrew Wiggins.
In his limited time as a starter, Tyus has made a convincing case to be a starting point guard in this league. Due only $2.4 million dollars next season before becoming a RFA in the summer of 2020, the Wolves have an extremely valuable asset for almost pennies on the dollar, and possess the ability to offer Tyus an extension at a team-friendly amount.
Similar to how NFL teams occasionally strike gold with a cheap, mid-round quarterback that allows them to focus more of their cap on surrounding him with complementary pieces, the Wolves may be faced with the possibility this summer to unload Jeff Teague’s remaining 2-years/$38 million dollar deal to free up more space to extend Towns and Butler, while also surrounding the team with more complimentary pieces.
Eric: No, because Thibs won’t let there be one. He’s going to start and play Teague and that’s it. Jones is the backup. You can make a strong argument for Jones to play more, or even be the starter (Teague’s on/off is roughly even, Jones is +7/100. The starting lineup with Teague has been very good, with Jones it’s great.) But Thibs picked out Teague and paid him handsomely last summer, and he isn’t going to sit him down. And he’s alright. Not my favorite guy to watch, but not a bad player.
4) Is the Jimmy Butler Iso-Ball in the 4th Quarter a problem?
Anthony: Yes, for a couple reasons. The first reason is that he’s taking away quality touches from Karl-Anthony Towns. I think KAT is capable of making bigtime shots down the stretch, but if we want him to develop into that kind of player, he needs those reps. The second reason is that the Wolves won’t make any sort of impression in the playoffs if this is their go-to strategy when the game is on the line. The postseason is a totally different game, playing the same team night after night. This kind of iso-ball will not stack up, and at the end of the day, I’m afraid focusing on it so heavily during the regular season will leave this team high and dry once April rolls around.
Charlie: In the short-term, yes. In the long-run, no. It can be frustrating to watch such a potent offense bog down to ISO basketball late in a ball game, and when it doesn’t result in a win it feels especially criminal. But as much as it has become a cliché, this is how competitive playoff games end. If the Wolves manage to win a playoff series, we will find ourselves thanking ISO Jimmy.
Josh: I am agnostic on this issue. There have certainly been games where the Wolves have looked despondent and off as they were just relying on Jimmy to carry them through the game. However, Jimmy has won games all by himself at times when no one else on the Wolves was able to get going.
I put a bit of this on Thibs. The fourth-quarter offense just stalls out and he has not figured out a way to kick-start it other than just giving the ball to Jimmy. There have to figure out some other options they can roll with to change things up.
Kyle: Yes, a huge problem. Can Butler-Ball win games in February and March? Sure, but it’s a whole different ball game come April and (hopefully) May/June. If the Wolves only strategy in late-game situations is to give Jimmy the ball and spread the floor, the Wolves are going to be extremely easy to game plan against in a seven-game series.
With a playoff spot likely locked up (begins rapidly knocking on wood desk), the Wolves would be smart to start tinkering with alternative late-game options that provide more crunch time options come playoff time.
Eric: I do wish they would run some more things in the fourth quarter, and especially get Towns more involved. But having Jimmy Butler with the ball in his hands is a luxury, not a problem. He’s a fantastic player, a superstar. We’re lucky as hell to have him. So I’m not going to call it a problem, but yes, it would be nice to see them expand their fourth quarter repertoire.
5) Are Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns making the improvements you were looking for?
Anthony: For the most part, yes. We all know Wiggins is capable of scoring. He’s had a few cold streaks this season, but I think a lot of that has to do with him sharing touches with Jimmy and the rest of the new guys. His real improvements have come on defense where, again, he’s streaky, but it’s the kind of improvement we’ve all been holding our breath for since his rookie season. His DBPM is up to -1.5, which, I know, is still negative///////. But that’s up from -2.9 last season.
The same exact thing goes for Towns: We all know he can score, but he’s starting to get the hang of team defense as a concept by making the right reads and rotations and not hunting for blocks as much as he has in the past. They’re both trending in the right direction, Towns especially. Obviously, Wiggins has a longer way to go -- and his dip in efficiency this season doesn’t help his case -- but he’s taken strides in certain areas of his game and that is encouraging to see.
Charlie: No. Wiggins’ improvement in impacting winning basketball has gone underappreciated, but his inability to gel as the third option in this offense has overshadowed any other gains. While Towns is on a short-list of the most exceptional offensive talents in the league, we already knew that. These two players are in years four and three of their respective careers, year two with coach Thibodeau. Even though they’ve both shown some development in this regard, and I feel they’re still on track, for as long as their defense is wildly inconsistent they won’t have made the improvements I’m looking for.
Josh: I’ve given up on the Wiggins debate. It either is going to happen or it isn’t, but we are along for the ride regardless. Obviously we were looking for much, much more improvement all around from Wiggins, and he certainly looks better some games by the eye-test, but all advanced metrics still rate him so poorly. I’m just hoping that trying to be a third option is what is causing these problems.
For Towns, it’s hard to ask for much more (other than defense). He is one of the best players in the NBA on offense and is plausibly en route to an All-NBA selection. The dude is good.
Kyle: When looking at this question, it’s important to remember that both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are still only 22-years old. KAT is coming off his first All-Star game appearance (a game in which he dominated despite only 17 minutes), and Wiggins is under team control through 2023. While KAT has clearly exceeded my expectations (and is still getting better), I’d love to see more out of Maple Jordan, but I still believe that his ceiling is enormously high and that continued growth is in his future.
Eric: Not exactly. Towns is a hugely impactful player--they are 13.8 points/100 when he’s on the floor rather than off. Most of that is on offense, however, as they are only slightly better defensively with him out there. I was hoping for a more consistent defensive impact. Still, he’s an All-Star and deserving of it.
Wiggins is obviously a divisive player. I think he’s been better defensively this season than in the past, but overall it’s hard to say he’s taken real steps forward, which is disturbing for a guy in his fourth season. He is not scoring in the same volume (to be expected) and his efficiency is poor, leaving us with what, exactly? For better or worse (and for whatever reasons) he disappears for long stretches, rarely touches the ball late anymore, and just doesn’t seem as essential as he has in the past.
Bonus Question) What team would you prefer to the play in the first round?
Anthony: Assuming the standings stay similar to how they are now: Denver. I know they’re on a hot stretch coming into the All-Star break (and without Paul Millsap), but Oklahoma City is going to be a menace in the playoffs and Portland makes me nervous. Plus Denver has less playoff experience, just like the Wolves. Sure their bench is deep, but their rotations will get shorter during the postseason, and I would worry a lot more about Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s shooting in the playoffs than Gary Harris and Jamal Murray’s.
Charlie: Outside of the Warriors or Rockets, the Spurs and Thunder will likely be every team’s most frightening first round matchup. Beyond those four, the team I would least like to play is the Portland Trailblazers. The Wolves don’t have a great counter to that star-studded backcourt, and it’s shown in a number of their matchups this year. The Wolves either have to double team Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, which leaves their other shooters open on the perimeter, or they’re forced to allow the duo one-on-one opportunities, which the Wolves struggle to defend. That said, I would still favor the Wolves in a matchup against the Blazers at this point.
So, I guess I would prefer to play any team other than the ones mentioned.
Josh: Denver. They, like the Wolves, have so much youth and. other than Paul Millsap, do not have a ton of playoff experience. I also think that Jimmy Butler would just absolutely demolish the Nuggets in that series. I have no wish to play the Thunder and think the Blazers are dangerous for the Wolves due to their three-point shooting. I also do not want to play the Jazz due to the existential crisis it would provoke.
Kyle: Easy answer – the Portland Trail Blazers. For one, while the Blazers have one of the best backcourts in the NBA, I think the Wolves have the size at nearly every position to wear down the Blazers and give the Lillard/McCollum plenty of fits on both ends of the ball.
Also, as a transplant Wolves who hasn’t attended a Wolves playoff game since I was in high school, I selfishly would love the ability to attend a game or two and attempt to out-scream Thibs for 48 minutes.
Eric: Answering the bonus question seems like a recipe for bad karma, but OK. All of the possible opponents are dangerous, and to be honest, just making the playoffs was my goal, but I suppose I would feel pretty confident facing the Nuggets (or the Pelicans, but I’m not sure that’s a real option.)