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As The Wolves Turn: Week Three Observations

It wasn’t the best or brightest week of Timberwolves basketball. What exactly went wrong? Let’s discuss.

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Well, that week sucked. The Minnesota Timberwolves have now lost four straight games. This week, the Timberwolves found a way to get torched by the offensively inept Orlando Magic, allow the Los Angeles Clippers to break out of their shooting slump with a historically great shooting performance, and then found a way to score only 27 points in the entire second half in their rematch against the Clippers. In the wise words of Pete Campbell, “Not great, Bob!”

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Dealing With the Whistle

I know; blaming the refs is incredibly obnoxious. It is homer-ism at its finest and the easiest path to complaining. I promise that is not my intention. HOWEVER, to say the Timberwolves get a fair whistle is absurd. The Magic outshot the Timberwolves by 11 free throws, and in their second game against the Clippers, the Timberwolves shot 25 fewer free throws.

“Well, that’s just a small sample size, and the Timberwolves don’t attack the rim as much as these other teams.”

Fair argument, but WRONG.

This season, the Timberwolves are taking 34.6% of their shots at the rim, the eighth highest rate in the league. However, they are shooting only 17 free throws per game, which ranks 27th in the league.

For comparison, the Utah Jazz shoot the most free throws in the league and rank 11th in at-rim shot frequency. The Chicago Bulls rank fifth in free throw attempts and sixth in at-rim frequency. The Memphis Grizzlies shoot the second-fewest free throws per game and rank 21st in at-rim frequency. There is a strong correlation between how many shots you take at the rim and how many free throws you are awarded. That is unless you’re the Timberwolves.

To further drive this point home, Anthony Edwards ranks in the 83rd percentile of at-rim shot frequency but is only awarded a shooting foul on 6.6% of his shots (56th percentile), which is down from 10.4% last season. Karl-Anthony Towns is only awarded a shooting foul 10.4% of the time (36th percentile among bigs) but is called for a foul on 2.3% of his possessions (88th percentile).

The referees clearly don’t respect the Timberwolves, but they have to do a better job of how they respond to the lack of whistles. It clearly affects them, but they have to just get the hell over it at some point.

This Team Needs a Point Guard

I know D’Angelo Russell is the fan-favorite when it comes to finding a scapegoat, but this team is significantly better with him than without. Patrick Beverley has been a godsend with his intensity and defense, but he can’t be the primary initiator. He is at his best as the sixth man and ancillary offensive piece. Jordan McLaughlin plays well in his 5-8 minute per game nights, but when given a more significant role, he has been dreadful. For both of those players to perform at their best, this team must have a healthy Russell.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Before you get all flustered and indignant about how bad Russell has been to start this season, I’m aware. This is the worst he’s ever shot the ball, and he is turning it over regularly because he is over-passing instead of making the easy play. Still, this team needs him and has a net rating differential of plus-19.3 when he is on the court compared to when he is off the court (91st percentile among guards).

There is some lineup chicanery going on with that number, but Russell hasn’t been as dreadful as his box score numbers suggest. Defensively, Russell has never been better. Admittedly it was a very low bar, but Russell isn’t playing with the constant aloofness of the past. He is better at navigating screens and disrupting passing lanes.

Offensively, Russell has been lousy, but his presence is still positive for the team. He is one of the few players on this team who can regularly beat the first level of the defense, and defenders respect his outside shot, which creates lanes for others. I struggle to believe Russell will be this bad offensively all season, but his presence is important for how this team wants to operate.

The Beautiful Disaster of Jaden McDaniels

I love Jaden McDaniels so much, but his start to the season has been a roller coaster. Let’s start with the good first because holy hell is it good. As a defender, McDaniels has picked up right where he left off last season. The team’s defensive rating is 17.8 points lower, with him on the court than off (95th percentile). Opponents’ effective field goal percentage is 9.6% lower with him on the court than off (95th percentile). McDaniels’ block percentage of 2.3 ranks in the 98th percentile of forwards, and his steal percentage of 1.7 ranks in the 72nd percentile of forwards. He is incredible at making rotations, moving his feet, closing out, contesting shots, and boxing out. Whatever the team needs, McDaniels does at an exceptionally high level.

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Even offensively, the Timberwolves are drastically better with him on the court. Their offensive rating differential is 9.3 points higher (82nd percentile), effective field goal percentage differential is 3.4 percent higher (76th percentile), offensive rebounding rate differential is 4.7 percent higher (83rd percentile), and their net rating differential is plus-27 (96th percentile). Simply, when McDaniels is on the court, the Timberwolves are better in essentially every aspect.

Unfortunately, there have been issues, and they mainly stem from McDaniels absurd foul rate. McDaniels currently has a foul rate of 5.6%, which ranks in the 0th percentile. McDaniels has recorded the same number of fouls as points scored (31). This habit takes him out of games, doesn’t let the Timberwolves fully utilize his defense, and ensures he can’t get into a rhythm on offense.

McDaniels is a much better shooter than his current 38/26/0 shooting splits (he hasn’t taken a free throw yet) suggest. He is an excellent cutter, devastating offensive rebounder, and intelligent ball mover. If McDaniels can contain his absurd proclivity to fouling, he should find a way to get into a groove on offense.

Frequent Sputtering of the Offense

I continue to be in disbelief at how bad this offense looks. The easy answer is that shots just aren’t falling, but it’s more than that. This team constantly goes away from running actions and gets obsessed with isolation play. There are far too many possessions that result in one or fewer passes being made and the ball never touching the paint. There is a tendency to settle for contested jumpers, and every time the Timberwolves face even a hint of adversity, they panic.

It’s cliché and an annoying reduction of what happens in a game, but the Timberwolves simply don’t know how to win. It is evident with their late-game execution or lack thereof. They constantly try to get back entire deficits with one play instead of committing to executing each possession. While Russell has been bad, he is still a legitimate option to run a late-game offense and allow the rest of the team to pick and choose their spots of when and where to attack. This offense should turn around eventually. It has to. So far, though, it has been dreadful.