For a fanbase that is (crosses fingers) very likely to see their team make their first playoffs in over a decade, Wolves fans must come across as extraordinarily ungrateful. After all, this is a team that went 31-51 last season and has not had a winning season since 2004-2005. The Wolves, at the very least, have had 12-win jump from last year and feature a superstar in Jimmy Butler and two future stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They even had two All-Stars this year.
As Canis Hoopus Writer Kyle Theige outlined earlier today, there is a fair criticism that Wolves fans have become upset that winning basketball was not exactly what they imagined it would be.
Sure not everything has gone to plan, and Jimmy Butler’s injury has certainly exacerbated a lot of flaws, but no team has a linear trajectory from bad to great, there are always bumps in the road. This happens to every team as they struggle to deal with ballooning budgets as players transition from rookie contracts and tough decisions need to be made if players fail to realize their full potential. The goal is always to keep an even keel, as the NBA season is a 9-month grind.
However, things have started to come to a head with a lot of different problems, most of which fall under the auspices of the Wolves President of Basketball Operations/Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. Nearing the end of the 2nd year of his five-year contract, many have started to question the fit between Thibs and the Wolves. How did we get here?
Allocation of Resources
This past offseason was always going to be extremely important in the grand scheme of things. The Wolves had an inordinate amount of cap space, even with the acquisition of Butler, and the upcoming maximum extensions for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns made it unlikely that the team would have any financial flexibility moving forward.
Wolves fans had dreams of acquiring someone like Paul Millsap, or even a range of players like Patrick Patterson or P.J. Tucker, guys who could fill the void in the gaps on the Wolves roster and give them some lineup flexibility.
Instead, the Wolves traded Ricky Rubio and signed Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford. None of those moves were abjectly bad, but all of them were likely slight overpays by couple million dollars a year. Teague and Crawford also received player options, potentially limiting the Wolves ability to plan for the future. Gibson, while he has been tremendous this year, also significantly overlapped with Gorgui Dieng, who had just received a massive contract extension.
By the end of the summer, the Wolves were locked-in to a roster that was heavily overloaded at center, with Towns, Dieng, Cole Aldrich, and Justin Patton, and with a non-shooting power forward slotted next to Towns for the foreseeable future. The Wolves are currently the only team in the NBA to have four centers on their roster. This certainly was not a “pace-and-space” group that was in line with the three-point shooting NBA. Of course, trading Ricky Rubio did not help any matters in the fans’ eyes.
Lack of Wing-Depth
The result of this roster construction was an incredibly thin wing rotation. Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins were the obvious starters, but behind them was Jamal Crawford, who had looked his age the two previous years, and Shabazz Muhammad, who immediately played himself out of the rotation in the first few months of the season. After that, it was just Marcus-Georges Hunt, who had bounced around the league in his first few years. MGH did not get his first real minutes until December 14th against the Kings, and rarely cracks five minutes a game even now.
This was not truly a problem until Butler was hurt, as Wiggins and Butler were both close to leading the league in minutes. However, this lack of wing depth has never been addressed and now the Wolves have shortened their rotation by moving Nemanja Bjelica to small forward, which, while he has mostly been playing well, is out of position for the 6’10” power forward. With MGH unable to crack the rotation, Jamal Crawford has been soaking up more and more minutes, where the Wolves have been -5.5 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court.
Again, the Wolves have flown in the face of the modern NBA, where most teams are trying to stock up on a bevy of rangy wings so they can spread the floor and switch on defense, as it has become more important than ever to be able to defend out to the three-point line.
Minutes and the Bench
The most popular critique of Tom Thibodeau is that his heavy reliance on his starters is damaging to their long-term health over a long period of time. It is hard to really determine causation, but Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah have all struggled to stay on the court in their post-Thibs careers. In Thibs’ first year coaching the Wolves, Wiggins and Towns were 1st and 2nd in minutes played in the NBA, with Dieng coming in 20th. Before Zach LaVine tore his ACL, his 37.2 minutes per game would have tied with Wiggins for 3rd in the NBA.
This has not changed this year. Butler is 2nd in the NBA in minutes per game, Wiggins is 9th, and Towns is 14th. To be honest, I have a hard time believing this really impacts the young players too much, but it must be hard for Taj Gibson, at age 32, to be playing by far the most of his career. Most teams, namely led by the Spurs pioneering the way, have embraced the importance of rest and player maintenance over the long-term.
The other negative impact of this is with the bench, who, other than Jamal, does not get a lot of playing time.
We've now heard Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague both actively campaigning for more minutes for the bench, if you're scoring at home.— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) March 26, 2018
The players who feel this most acutely are Tyus Jones and Dieng. Jones has had something of a breakout year and looked tremendous during his stint filling in for Teague as the starting point guard. We had some serious discussions here about if Tyus was a better fit than Teague for this offensive-heavy team.
However, Jones struggles to reach the court some games and, like the recent game against the Grizzlies, will have games where he barely plays. Dieng has seen his minutes drop from 32.4 per game to 17.1. Dieng, in particular, looks as if his play has plummeted as a result.
Whether the Wolves bench is bad or whether they are bad because they do not get enough playing time is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg argument. However, we can say that the Wolves starters have looked gassed at times under these heavy minutes and the team loses the advantage of trying out new lineups, as Thibs simply refuses to deviate from his rotations, nor expand the roles of bench players unless forced to by injury.
The likely only reason we have seen Nemanja Bjelica take a step forward in a real way is that he was given the opportunity, even out of position, to get more minutes.
Lack of Improvement on Defense
Thibs’ other calling card is his renowned defense, which he helped develop in Boston under Doc Rivers and then institute in Chicago. Before Thibs arrived, the Wolves young stars were offensive dynamos, but could not stop anything on defense. It seemed the perfect marriage, as if Thibs could get this team to succeed on defense, the sky was the limit.
However, it’s hard to say any real improvement has taken place. In the 2015-2016 season before Thibs, the Wolves had the 28th ranked defensive rating the league. In Thibs first season, they had the 27th ranked defensive rating, and in the current season they are ranked 27th year again.
Some of this is on the players. Towns has not been able to serve as the defensive anchor, although that is probably one of the hardest duties in the NBA, and Wiggins has been slow to develop as a team defender. Last year, the team was just so young and we assumed there was going to be a learning curve to working through the new system.
This year, even with the additions of renowned defenders in Butler and Gibson, the improvement still has not taken place. It is quite possible that a lot of that is due to Crawford, as the lineups just tank on defense when he is in the game, but there is a reasonable argument that Thibs’ defensive systems have become antiquated in today’s NBA.
The Spurs are 2nd in defensive rating. The Wolves are 26th. You can pretty easily figure out why by comparing the red and green on their defensive shot charts pic.twitter.com/O7W5PvWAoO— Key Sang (@Phantele_) March 27, 2018
As Dane Moore from Zone Coverage (and formerly Canis Hoopus) lays out here, the ICE system, which is the foundation of Thibs’ defensive schemes forces players into situations that are conducive to weak-side three-pointers. The Wolves, seemingly, have difficulty in defending corner threes and teams have been able to exploit that all season long. The ICE system also allows big men to catch the ball unencumbered at the top of the key, which was optimal a decade ago, but now that is exactly where players want to be.
In Thibs first year, the Wolves ranked 30th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game. In the second year, after trading Zach LaVine and not bringing on any wings other than Crawford, the Wolves were always going to lose the three-point battle. The argument coming into the year was that four average-ish three-point shooters in Teague, Wiggins, Butler, and Towns were adequate to space the floor.
This has not been the case. They rank 30th again in NBA in three-point attempts per game at 22.4. They have still been able to operate an elite offense by winning the battles at the free throw line, turnovers, and offensive rebounding, but in games where that does not work, the Wolves have no recourse. This becomes abundantly clear when the Wolves play a team like the Houston Rockets, who will go on crazy runs on offense that the Wolves cannot keep up with.
In a league where teams have embraced the statistical advantage of the three-pointer, the Wolves lag far, far behind. Again, some of this is on the players, but the Wolves’ offensive strategy repeatedly ignores the benefits of this simple math problem.
Failures to Make In-Season Roster Adjustments
Without Jimmy Butler, the Wolves lineups shrunk dramatically. Having waived Shabazz Muhammad and with an already thin wing group, the Wolves roster seemed untenable. However, the Wolves have, over the course of the season, failed to make a single move other than signing Derrick Rose. They still have unused roster spots and have not made any inclinations to utilize the players they have on two-way contracts in the G-League with Amile Jefferson and Anthony Brown.
A substantial part of the Wolves roster is thus simply window dressing at this point. Aaron Brooks has become the 4th string point guard and Cole Aldrich will only see the court when the game is essentially over. Marcus Georges-Hunt gets spot minutes here and there and Justin Patton remains in the G-League for the foreseeable future.
It is hard not to leave this at Thibs’ feet as damning evidence.
They were offered many of those guys, like Kilpatrick. But know this: Thibs wasn't signing someone he doesn't know. And even on Rose, they had healthy debate about whether he has anything left.— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) March 8, 2018
That phrase, if true, “Thibs wasn’t signing someone he doesn’t know” is a terrible way for an NBA GM to operate. Smart teams fully utilize their roster, cycling through players at the end of the bench to look for contributors. There were plenty of players who hit the buyout market like Ersan Ilyasova, Jeff Green, and Marco Belenilli that the Wolves could have certainly used.
This was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. After a year of rumors of the Wolves trying to acquire Rose, including a theoretical Rose for Rubio trade that would have caused this site to erupt in flames, the Wolves claimed Rose off waivers after he was traded from the Cavaliers to the Jazz, who promptly waived him.
Rose has not had a good journey on the way to the Wolves. He, by all accounts, has not been a positive player on the court several years and suddenly left the Cavs this year for a while to decide if he wanted to continue his NBA career.
On top of that, his off-the-court situation is messy at best and incredibly offensive at worst. As Eric laid out here, this signing continued the problematic trend of the Wolves turning a blind eye to domestic assault and violence against women.
However, he is a Thibs guy. This was the worst fears realized of Thibs being the de facto decision maker for the organization, as he has seemed blinded by his previous relationship with Rose and has vehemently defended Rose’s up-and-down play in the few games with the Wolves. It’s unclear what will happen with this situation moving forward, but it is likely incredibly damaging to the fans’ opinion of the franchise. On the court, the Wolves have been mostly killed in lineups with Rose and Tyus Jones’ ability to get on the floor seems to be diminishing when Rose is available to play.
All of this is not to say that the Wolves should be pursuing a coaching/GM change. They still are having their best season in over a decade and Thibs’ long-term contract makes it unlikely that the team makes any sudden decisions. All of this becomes moot if the Wolves make a playoff run and are able to build off their success next season.
Not to mention, there is a big factor with the relationship between Butler and Thibs. Butler has consistently espoused his loyalty to Thibs and there is a decent chance that any regime change would jeopardize the Wolves ability to re-sign Butler.
It is also not always prudent to try to follow the new “it” thing in the NBA. Not every team has the personnel nor system to emulate the Rockets and Warriors and trying to imagine how to challenge these teams only leads to a dichotomy between calling for teams to blow up their rosters a la the 76ers or to over-commit. The Spurs, oft-cited as the league model to follow, are known for going against the grain depending on their personnel, whether that was the revolution of the pace-and-space strategy or a mid-range heavy focus with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
However, that does not seem to be what is happening here. Instead of adjustments being made to the personnel, the players are being forced into a rigid format from which no deviations may be made. That is the Thibs way. Unfortunately, if this format simply is archaic in the current NBA, that leaves the Wolves standing flat-footed while the rest of the league zooms past.
Wolves fans are all too aware of how rare of a chance it is to have players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler together. But we also know how easy it is for a team to screw it all up. We’ve seen it happen before.
Would Wolves fans complain while their team is on the way to a victory parade? Maybe. But on the other hand, some fans’ worst fears may be coming true that a stubborn, despotic President of Basketball Operations that refuses to adjust his potentially obsolete strategies is ruining the best chance the Wolves have to truly compete.