After almost three years of grinding the Minnesota Timberwolves organization into an even more disappointing granule than it was, it was a joyous day around the fan base when Tom Thibodeau’s reign of terror finally ended.
Naively, it felt like the black clouds and torrential downpour would immediately cease. Prodigal son Ryan Saunders would take over, sunshine would reappear, Andrew Wiggins would be fun and productive, and unicorns would majestically dance throughout the skyways downtown.
Unfortunately, life isn’t always as we picture it. In reality, overhauling the stupendous amount of Tomfoolery was never going to be a job capable of being completed during the grind of an NBA campaign. The grueling regular season schedule takes a backseat to nobody. Not even fresh-faced head coaches that are tasked with scrapping outdated offensive and defensive systems, and installing a new and modern methodology on the fly.
When you look at it that way, and add the assortment of injuries the Wolves have dealt with, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Saunders. After a crazy win over the Golden State Warriors and a grudge match loss to Jimmy Butler’s Philadelphia 76ers, he is holding a 15-21 win-loss record since taking over. Beating the reigning champs was a fun band-aid, but Saunders’ avalanche of problems seem to be getting heavier and harder to wade through by the second.
The deepest snows have come on the defensive end. Since his hiring on January 6, Saunders has watched his team stumble to the third worst defensive rating in the league while allowing opponents to shoot a scorching 47.2 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from beyond the arc, per NBA.com.
Thibodeau’s mantra of packing the paint and overloading the strong side of the court was a game-changing philosophy when he was leading the Chicago Bulls’ league-best defense pre-2014. However, it quickly became obsolete as the NBA evolved into a league where every Tom, Dick, and Harry can nail triples.
In turn, Minnesota gets consistently destroyed in the weak side corner. The aforementioned 3-point percentage is bad enough, but it gets even more egregious when you realize teams have nailed a whopping 43.3% of their corner triples in Saunders tenure.
It’s well documented that it’s the shortest and easiest spot on the floor to garner three points, and open corner shooters like the one you see above have become commonplace in Minnesota outings. Even with Saunders undoubtedly trying to detach his players from this mentality, half a season is not long enough to get the shrieking screams of Thibs from deep within their brains.
Of course, some of this boils down to personnel. Despite the eye-test and statistics proving that Towns has improved as a defender, he is still susceptible to defensive lapses. Andrew Wiggins has always been a lazy and uninspired defender, and heavily featured rotation players like Tyus Jones, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose are all limited physically or mentally.
Outside of Robert Covington, Josh Okogie, and Taj Gibson (who is likely to bolt in the summer), Minnesota simply doesn’t have a roster built to defend in an elite fashion. However, they could easily be around the middle of the pack if they polished up their schemes.
It’s easy to blame Saunders for this. He is the coach and — for better or worse — they are the ones tasked with shouldering the blame for systematic mishaps. For long-time Wolves servants like Towns, Wiggins, and Jones, who have never been defensive stalwarts to say the least, three years of working tirelessly to instill Thibs’ modus operandi is impossible to undo in a few short months. That’s not to say the interim man is faultless, he has his fair share of flaws, but it’s important to remember when evaluating the Wolves under him that he has had to scrape off a thick layering of grimy Thibs rust.
On the other end of the floor, things have been a little more rosy, even if they haven’t been perfect. Minnesota has made a concerted effort to ditch Thibodeau’s isolation-heavy offense, and have successfully put to end to Thibs’ offensive exile of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Instead, Saunders has completely unlocked KAT’s three-level brilliance. The two-time All-Star has averaged 27.2 points, 12.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per game since his former coach/dictator was given the boot. They’re numbers befitting of an eventual MVP candidate. Through a modern blend of pick-and-roll, post-ups, and ball movement, Saunders has been able to free Towns and inspire him to become the dominant offensive force we all know he can be.
With their franchise pillar doing franchise pillar things, the offense has been a far cry from the train wreck that we are forced to witness on the defensive end. Over the 36-game sample size, Minnesota has a registered a 111.8 offensive rating, good for 12th in the league over that stretch. It’s also a sizable improvement over the 109.4 (17th overall) rating that they put up in Thibs’ final stanza.
Sadly, Saunders hasn’t been able to get the most out of Wiggins. For the most part, the 24-year-old has been the same mid-range-jacking, defense-avoiding ball of disappointment.
The coaching staff has thrown a bunch of things at the wall hoping that something will stick with Wiggins, the latest of which has been to drop him in a bunch of pick-and-roll and ‘Point Wiggins’ situations — rather than relegating him to the spot-up shooting roll that Thibs employed. The result has been a noticeable uptick in Wiggins’ energy and box score output. In the last six games, he is putting up 22 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per night, shooting an encouraging 47.3 percent from the field.
If Saunders can find a way to make this Wiggins the norm, he will be hailed a hero around the fan base. Wiggins has been a shell of his pre-Thibodeau self this year, and needs to dramatically increase his production if he wants to get close to earning that $148 million deal he is on.
Fortunately for Saunders and a Timberwolves roster, one who must be sick of churning through coaches, all signs point toward owner Glen Taylor giving their 32-year-old leader a chance to stamp his print on this team for real. According to Marc Stein, Taylor is strongly considering dropping the ‘interim’ label and making Saunders the permanent coach of the team.
If and when Saunders does get that chance to put his team through a full preseason under his regime, then he can be judged completely. For now, it’s important to remember that he is trying to scrub away the mess that Tom Thibodeau created while concurrently helping his team flourish.