The roller coaster continues. After one of the best eight game stretches in franchise history, the Minnesota Timberwolves proceeded to drop five straight before getting a much-needed win against the Portland Trail Blazers. The talk over the last month has bee that the “old Wolves” are dead. I was more than ready to hop aboard that hype train, but that feels a bit premature, even if there is a kernel of truth to it.
If the “old Wolves” were truly dead, we wouldn’t have seen them get completely run off their own floor for three straight games. However, they did respond and pulled out a tough win on the road in Portland, which is a place they’ve had essentially zero success in their last 30 games. The key to watching this team is to remember who they are. They likely aren’t that top-six seed we were hoping for during their 7-1 stretch, but they also aren’t the “get blown out in five straight games” team we dreaded recently. This team will likely end up at around .500, which means there are going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows. Instead of trading every win for a loss, the Timberwolves look like they prefer to do their work in bunches.
After snapping their six-game losing streak earlier this season, the Timberwolves proceeded to go 8-3 over their next 11 games. So, maybe this Portland win is setting us up for a few games of really enjoyable basketball.
The Little Things
The most significant warning sign that the “old Wolves” aren’t dead yet is this team’s complete incapability to execute the little things. They are constantly looking for the home run plays on both ends of the court, and when they swing and miss, the results are rather appalling.
The biggest source of frustration is this team’s indifference to making layups. The Timberwolves are one of the best teams in the league at getting to the rim. Much of this success is spurred by them ranking second in the NBA in offensive rebounds per game, but they also have some dynamic scorers who have no issues getting to the rim which is why this team ranks seventh in the league in at-rim shot frequency at 34.2 percent. For a team that is often slandered for their shot selection, the Timberwolves actually have a pretty stellar shot profile, in terms of areas they shoot from.
The problems arise with their effectiveness. Despite being seventh in at-rim shot frequency, the Timberwolves rank 26th in at-rim field goal percentage at 60.3. The outside shooting struggles are the easy thing to pick on because of the volume we see them at, but this team constantly missing layups is a major reason why they fall behind in games. If the Timberwolves can simply improve their ability to make the easy bunnies, their offensive effectiveness will skyrocket.
Another hair pulling aspect of the game in which the Timberwolves disregard is their ball security. The Timberwolves currently commit the fourth most turnovers per game at 15.8. The only teams worse than them are the Houston Rockets who don’t have a point guard, the Golden State Warriors who always have a lot of turnovers based on their high ball movement style of play, and the Los Angeles Lakers who are wading through their own mess of a roster.
The two biggest culprits for the Timberwolves are Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. Edwards’s turnover rate of 13.8 percent ranks in the 19th percentile for wings, and Towns’ turnover rate of 16.3 percent ranks in the 27th percentile for bigs. Both have frequently struggled with double teams, thrown some incredibly reckless passes, and driven into congested defenses without a plan. To make matters worse Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels also have troubling turnover habits. Vanderbilt’s turnover rate of 17.4 percent ranks in the 17th percentile of bigs, while McDaniels’ turnover rate of 14.3 percent ranks in the 19th percentile of forwards.
Neither of these players are as reckless with the ball as Towns and Edwards, but their turnovers stem from simply dropping the ball. I’m not sure if it is a hand size issue or they aren’t paying attention, but they both frequently fumble dump off passes at the rim or see the ball go through their hands after they make a lovely back cut.
Finally, this team is obsessed with fouling. Yes, I know they often get the crap end of the whistle (in one of my previous recaps I broke down their at-rim shot frequency and fouls drawn compared to other teams with similar at-rim shot frequency and it wasn’t ideal), but to completely deny that this team is undisciplined in terms of fouling is the epitome of homerism. The Timberwolves currently rank last in the league with 22.6 fouls per game. They currently have six players who rank below the 30th percentile in defensive foul rates for their respective positions. I appreciate the new intensity and aggression they play with on defense, but a hint of discipline wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Importance of D’Angelo Russell
I know I sound like a broken record with this, but D’Angelo Russell is incredibly important to this team. It is easy to hate him because his shot selection can be incredibly frustrating. However, without Russell on the floor, the Timberwolves lack any direction on offense. The Timberwolves offensive rating differential when Russell is on the court vs off the court is plus-5.2 which ranks in the 74th percentile. He has done a good job taking care of the ball (83rd percentile in turnover rate for point guards) and helps steady the ship late in games.
The most surprising number is the Timberwolves’ defensive rating differential when Russell is on the court vs off the court which is minus-18.9, which ranks in the 99th percentile. Russell isn’t a defensive savant, but he has been one of the best on the team at committing to the low-man philosophy, has improved his screen navigation, and is constantly communicating. The next time you get frustrated with one of Russell’s pull-up jumpers remember that this team is significantly better with him than without him, and that his net rating differential of plus-24.1 ranks in the 99th percentile in the league.
The Curious Case of Leandro Bolmaro
I know you don’t want to hear it, but Leandro Bolmaro isn’t ready for actual NBA minutes right now. The 6’6” rookie has a lot of promise and is too good for the G-League, but he has a long way to go before he starts making a positive impact in an NBA rotation.
The rookie has only played in 16 games where he is averaging 9.6 minutes and 1.6 points on 27/10/89 shooting splits. Bolmaro is a complete nonfactor on offense because he isn’t a threat to shoot at all, making him tricky to fit into a lineup that is already flush with non-shooters. He doesn’t look comfortable operating in the offense and like he is walking on eggshells.
Defensively, Bolmaro is consistently getting out-witted by veterans. He has a highly energetic play style that can wreak havoc but also lead to a lot of fouls and being out of position. To write Bolmaro off after 16 games would be foolish and is absolutely not what I’m doing. However, he has a long way to go before he is ready to contribute to winning basketball.
Go Big? Go Home
I’m as guilty as anyone in wanting this to work but pairing Towns with Naz Reid has been an abject disaster. In 113 possessions of these two playing together, the Timberwolves have an offensive rating of 101.8 (12th percentile), defensive rating of 119.7 (3rd percentile), and a net rating of minus-17.9 (3rd percentile). It hasn’t worked.
The theory behind it makes a lot of sense. Add more shooting along with size to help with the rebounding. Unfortunately, the fit is clunky, the defensive holes are glaring, and the utilization of it is mismanaged. The only times the Timberwolves seem to trot out this lineup is when they are already down big and desperately searching for a spark. By this point, the opposition has already heated up which may skew these numbers some. However, until they want to use this lineup in legitimate situations, please leave it alone because there have been zero redeeming aspects of it.