As a former high school teacher, I have a complicated relationship with grades. They were a necessary evil of teaching - a way to show students the progress of their learning.
It always seemed difficult to distill a student’s entire experience into one thing. How does this one letter represent everything they accomplished, everything that challenged them, all the varying insights they brought to class. With the new Minnesota Timberwolves season on the rise, these teacher tendencies took over as I asked, “What would it take for the Wolves to get an “A” grade on their season?
This initial question led to many more. What does an “A” grade look like for each player? What would it take for a player like Karl-Anthony Towns to look back on this season as a failure? Is playing Luka Garza 30+ minutes a game the only way to ensure a passing grade this season?
Is it possible to translate the complexity of offense, defense and intangibles into a simple letter grade at the end of the season?
I don’t know. But I made a system to evaluate each player based on certain markers of their performance. The grades will never be able to tell the whole story of each player’s trajectory–but they could be an interesting evaluative tool to track progress.
First, grading the team as a whole. All the chatter around the Gobert trade is given perspective based on what this team does in the postseason. Postseason success (or lack thereof) is the true measure of a successful season for the team as a whole.
“A”: Conference Finals appearance.
Win two playoff series and become one of the last four teams standing and see what happens from there. The Wolves would finish the regular season in the 1-3 seed range and prove they are entering the top echelon of NBA teams.
“B”: Competitive 2nd Round playoff series where the Wolves take a contending team to the brink.
Starting the playoffs with the 4-5 seed, they would win their first round series before ultimately falling to the 1 seed in a 6-7 game series.
“C”: Competitive first round series that could go in either direction.
Finishing the year as a 5-6 seed, they take their first round opponent to a full series. If they do manage to win, there is little question during the next series that the team they are facing is the better one.
“D”: Play-in followed by a first round loss.
They finish the season as the 7-8 seed, win the play-in game before ultimately falling in the first round 4-1 or 4-2 without much question of the better team.
“F”: Miss the playoffs.
The Wolves finish as a 7-10 seed and ultimately lose their play-in game(s). The team heads quickly into the off-season about way more questions than answers about where they are going as a franchise. The one bright side? At least this isn’t a totally unfamiliar place for us fans.
I think a good player grading system would be roles-based, acknowledging that roles can change as the season moves along.
Last Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, Naz Reid put on a performance that would have graded out in the “A” range - a 22-point and 13-rebound performance where his physical presence dictated much of the game on both ends. 22 points and 13 boards from KAT may not grade as high based on his expectations and role on the team. In fact, those numbers could be quite pedestrian and coupled with a poor defensive effort or foul trouble, could easily fall in the “C” range depending on the variables around him.
For changing roles, I’ll try to update expectations throughout the season. Injuries, trades or players earning/losing minutes based on performance happens every season. If something has changed during the first quarter midterm report (after eleven games) I’ll note it at the time and adjust expectations going forward.
To help make the whole grading process a little less arbitrary, I’m focusing on key stats specific to each player (three stats for starters, 1-2 for bench players) that I’ll be watching going forward. These stats are meant to highlight success in their team role and emphasize the player’s unique skill sets. These are not the only stats I’ll pay attention to, but if I have done my job in designing a good system, it should shine an accurate spotlight on the player’s performance.
D’Angelo Russell: Assists Per Game (APG), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), True Shooting Percentage (TS%)
“A”: Chemistry with Rudy Gobert leads to averaging 8+ assists per game as Wolves fans get to see what he flashed with Jarrett Allen in Brooklyn.
DBPM goes above 0.0 for the first time with the help of Gobert anchoring the defense and his TS% exceeds his career high by shooting 56.0%+. Russell becomes part of the All-star conversation and is given a multi-year extension before the end of the year.
“B”: D’Lo sets a new career high in assists per game (above 7.1) while showing marginal improvement on defense.
His DBPM ends in the -.5 to 0 range, and his TS% finishes in the 55.0%—56.0% range. While no new deal gets done in-season, the chemistry shown with Gobert and defensive improvement lead to the prospects of his signing a deal to be a lot more likely.
“C”: D’Lo looks like the same player as last year, albeit his shooting returns to more of his career average.
For the season, he averages just under 7 APG, DBPM -1.5 to -1, TS% 55.0% - 55.5%. Russell has a season that looks a lot like last year and the fans continue to be split about if he is the right point guard for the team going forward.
“D”: Concerns over D’Lo’s lack of defensive improvement next to Gobert lead to big questions about his future.
Averages about 6.0 APG (nearly his low during his Wolves tenure), DBPM hovers around the -2 range and his TS% drops under 55.0%. Russell never bounces back from last year’s more inconsistent shooting and Jordan McLaughlin closing games becomes a bigger story.
“F”: Another cold shooting season and a slow team start lead to D’Lo’s name being one of the most whispered come the trade deadline.
Under 5.8 APG (new Wolves low), DBPM slips below -2, TS% drops under 54.4%. Trade chatter is heavy around the trade deadline as he is viewed as a piece that is holding the team back.
Anthony Edwards: FG% from 0-3 Feet, Free Throw Attempts Per Game, Stocks (combination of steals and blocks) per game
“A”: Ant finishes the year as a first time all-star and All-NBA buzz from national writers, more than justifying his top 25 ESPN preseason player ranking.
He improves one of his biggest offensive weaknesses: Finishing at the rim. Last season, Ant finished 142nd out of 228 players in finishing around the rim, shooting just 65.8% from 0-3 feet. This season he breaks into the top 50 by raising that percentage to 75.0%, while also breaking into the top 20 in FTAs by averaging 5+ per game. His offensive role is predicated on driving, drawing fouls, finishing and even though I didn’t put it as one of the three, dishing out assists.
Lastly, his defensive reputation grows as he consistently locks into guarding the other team’s best guard and has a 2.5 average of stocks to show his engagement.
“B”: Similar to the A expectation, just more of a step rather than a leap.
All-star but no All-NBA talk. 2.25-2.5 stocks per game shows an increased defensive effort and begins to bear witness to his higher defensive aspirations.. He slightly improves his free throw attempts to just under 5 a game. His slight improvement in finishing around the rim is shown by shooting 70.0% within three feet.
“C”: Not quite the highs of playoff Ant, but still a small improvement over most of his regular season numbers.
Still shows to be a quality NBA player, but no massive 3rd year leap from what he was most of the season last year. Small improvements in FTA and finishing, but has quite a few frustrating games where he seems to settle for long 2s or heat check 3s. Defensive engagement is hit and miss as he finishes just above last year with 2.2-2.5 stocks a game.
“D”: Selective defensive engagement and poor shot selection keeps him from progressing as a player.
Looks more like he did at the beginning of last year than the end of the year. Defensively has selective engagement (maybe the occasional national media matchup), and he shows no improvement in his finishing, ending the season right where he was last year, finishing at the rim at 65.8%.
“F”: Hero-ball offense with Ant shooting a league-leading percentage of deep 2s leads to frustration between him and his teammates as losing piles up.
None of his notable metrics improve and questions about if he can be a max player start becoming a major talking point next offseason.
Jaden McDaniels: Fouls Per Game (FPG), Corner Three Percentage, Defensive Win Shares (DWS)
“A”: An All-Defensive team selection while limiting his biggest defensive weakness last year: fouling.
He averages around 3.0 FPG while raising his corner 3-point percentage to a career high 42.5%+ which would have put him just outside of the top 50 last year. With Gobert protecting the paint, Jaden is able to take advantage of his length and raise his DWS above 2.5, easily setting a career high.
“B”: Takes steps towards rounding out his offensive and defensive games as a key role player on the team.
Jaden manages a few All-Defensive Team votes while still having the occasional foul trouble. It is still improved from last season (under 4 per game), but takes him out of a few key games. He still shoots a career high in corner 3-point percentage, around 40.5% - 41.0% and his DWS finishes between the 2.0-2.5 range.
“C”: Slightly improves his fouling, while his shooting never settles above league average.
No national recognition for his defense, but he ends up with just above his career high DWS with a 1.75. Corner 3PT% is better than last year, but below average when compared with the rest of the league as he shoots around 38.0%.
“D”: Fouling and poor shooting become the main story of his season as he loses minutes to more consistent players.
Shooting never rounds into form and has similar issues with foul trouble (around 4.5 per game). Shoots similar to last season from corner 3 (36.0%) and ends up losing out on crunch time minutes consistently to a bench guy like Kyle Anderson who offers more stability.
“F”: The team calls Utah to see if they can get one of their first round picks back in exchange for him.
Fouls plague his season and his confidence goes with it. Ends up getting benched due to inconsistency and has a hard time carving a role out with the team due to established vets ready to take minutes.
Karl-Anthony-Towns: Assists Per Game, Three Point Attempts Per Game (3PA) and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player)
“A”: Thrives at PF next to Rudy as he shoots more threes than ever at a similar efficiency and finishes as an All-NBA player that has developed a whole new dimension to his game.
KAT finishes the year as a top 20 player in 3PA by taking close to 7 a game, quite a big increase from 4.9 (80th most) in 2021-2022. His overall game improvement is marked by a VORP above 5.5 for the first time in his career.
Perhaps most essential to his new role at PF, KAT’s passing takes the next step. Rather than try to emulate Jokic with overhead passes out of the post position, KAT takes advantage of defenders closing out on his shooting and his quick first step to get the defense to collapse as he passes to Rudy for easy buckets, or finds open shooters in the corner. He goes on to set a new career high in APG at 5.5+.
“B”: Has some slight growing pains at the 4, but still finishes the year in the All-NBA conversation.
KAT finishes the year in the top 50 in 3PA, averaging around 6 per game. His passing shows improvement with a career high in APG (above 4.5). Defense improves next to Rudy which helps him have a VORP above 5.0 for the first time in 4 years.
“C”: Chemistry between the two bigs is a work in progress while both still flash their individual skill sets.
The splits between him and Rudy sharing the floor vs off the floor are noticeable, but they both still manage to stay close to their career averages - just no marked improvement. He ends up shooting just a slightly higher amount of threes (between 5-5.5) and his assist numbers settle in around 4.0.
“D”: The position change to the PF proves to have too many bumps offensively and defensively.
He gets beat off the dribble by smaller/faster 4s and struggles with foul trouble, getting fouled out of 10+ games. The team begins to stagger Karl and Rudy’s minutes so much that KAT is a defensive/offensive sub in late game situations.
“F”: The KAT and Rudy experiment starts slow and only gets worse.
No chemistry with Rudy, and their previous rivalry begins to show in how they communicate. It becomes a national media story as KAT has a down year in every major statistical category and trade talk becomes the #1 story of the offseason.
Rudy Gobert: Team Defensive Rating (DRtg), Blocks Per Game (BPG), Assists Per Game
“A”: Rudy sets the tone as Minnesota’s team defense has a top 3 rating in the NBA.
Rudy immediately develops P+R chemistry with D-Lo catching lobs and getting easy finishes (finishes 1st in TS%) and the big-to-big passing gets Rudy to a career high in assists per game at 2.5+. He wins his 4th DPOY title, sets a franchise record in blocks and the Timberwolves team thrives with his presence.
“B”: The Timberwolves defense takes a step forward to a top 6 defensive rated team in the NBA, but isn’t quite considered to be elite.
Rudy’s offensive stats look like his Jazz years and every part of his game just comes over to a new city with very few kinks to work out. In conversation for DPOY. He finishes just above his career high of 2.0 assists per game.
“C”: Rudy sees a drop in his offensive touches and his defensive presence isn’t felt as much as was hoped.
It’s a bit of a struggle mixing KAT and Rudy together. Rudy’s offensive numbers take a hit and the team is around the 10th best defensive rated team in the NBA. Both KAT and Rudy tend to play a little better when they are alone on the floor.
“D”: It is clear from the get-go that Rudy and KAT is not a long-term answer and some infighting begins for who should get more minutes at center.
Rudy’s limitations offensively keep him off the court in crunch time - small ball offenses and the playoff narrative about his limitations against them become the story of his year. The team finishes with a slightly worse defensive rating than last year (12th+).
“F”: The Gobert trade goes down as one of the biggest franchise missteps in history.
Both bigs fall out of the All-NBA conversation and whether or not they voice it publicly, they blame each other.
I’ll be later in the week to round out the grading system for the bench players once we get a better look at their roles and initial rotation. Until then, let’s go Wolves!