After four weeks of play and going only 1-4 in week four, the Minnesota Timberwolves currently sit at 6-8. To the describe the start to this season as frustrating would be an understatement.
The Timberwolves ended week four by getting slaughtered by the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies before barely hanging on to a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though the Cavaliers were missing Donovan Mitchell, who has been playing at an All-NBA level, and 2022 All-Star center Jarrett Allen, it was still a quality, and desperately needed, win.
The vibes around this Timberwolves team have been atrocious, but maybe Sunday night’s win is them starting to turn a corner.
Historically Bad Lack of Hustle
Platitudes such as “it’ll take some time” and “we have to be better” and “we lacked energy” have flown fast and free in press conferences, and are infuriating to hear. The problem isn’t that these lack merit, because they do. The problem is that the faux-wise one-liners are all Wolves fans heard for ages. I understand a sense of self-awareness can be refreshing at times, but not if there isn’t anything being done to correct the constantly lingering malfeasances.
Most nights, it is shocking how easily a game can be boiled down to who played the hardest. Talent usually wins out in the end, but bad teams can be competitive and great teams often pull through on off nights purely because of their collective hustle and attitude. So far this season, the Wolves are barely jogging, let alone hustling.
Hustle permeates so many different aspects of the game, but it really surfaces in rebounding, transition, and defensive rotations. Coming into the season, the idea was that Minnesota would be an elite rebounding team. Despite Rudy Gobert leading the league in rebounds, the Timberwolves have the third worst defensive rebounding rate of 68.4%, per NBA Stats. This means that opponents are rebounding 31.6% of their missed shots. The last time a team had a defensive rebounding rate under 70% was the 2018-19 Phoenix Suns; they finished 19-63.
When you constantly allow teams to rectify their mistakes, they will make you pay. Opponents are currently averaging 18.4 points per game on second chance opportunities. The next closest is the Oklahoma City Thunder at 16.6, and their tallest healthy player is Alexsej Pokusevski, who stands 7-0, but is also 210 pounds — 20 pounds lighter than Anthony Edwrds.
If the Wolves’ mark of 18.4 continues, it would be the most second chance points allowed in the NBA Stats database, which goes back to the 1996-97 season. The next closest team would be the 1997-98 Toronto Raptors, and only two other teams in that span have allowed 17 or more. Not only has the Timberwolves’ effort and execution on the defensive glass lost them games, but it has been historically bad.
Another area where a lack of hustle rears its ugly head is transition defense. Against the Timberwolves, opponents are currently scoring 14.6 points per game on the fast break (21st) and 20.5 points per game off of turnovers (27th). That lack of execution and effort in transition is not a satisfying pairing with the Wolves’ rank of 24th with 16.1 turnovers per game. Making mistakes happen and not all turnovers are created the same. However, constantly hanging your head, not hustling back on defense, and allowing mistakes to compound into widespread issues is something that should plague high school teams, not NBA teams.
The final area where Minnesota is getting torched due to their lack of effort and execution is their 3-point defense. The numbers that accompany 3-point defense can be fluky, especially with early season sample sizes, but when the stars align, they’re trying to tell you something.
So far this season, the Wolves rank last in opponent 3-pointers made (14.6), 28th in opponent 3-pointers attempted (39.1), 26th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.5), and last in opponent 3-pointers attempted that are wide open (22.5). The NBA defines wide open as the closest defender is six feet or further away. Some of these attempts are spawned from long rebounds and are inevitable with today’s spacing. However, allowing opponents to take 24.1% of their shots as wide-open 3s is a recipe for disaster and a symptom of laziness.
Saying the Timberwolves don’t play hard feels too simplistic, but it is the root cause of how they are constantly shooting themselves in the foot. They don’t hustle back in transition and almost always miss their second rotation in the half-court. They expect that someone else will get the rebound, so why should they go for it when they can leak out in transition?
Replacing What They Lost
When the Gobert trade was made, all of the attention was placed on the bevy of draft picks that were given up. There was also some attention paid to the importance, and now absence, of Patrick Beverley’s accountability, but there was not nearly enough attention paid to the on-court contributions that left the best Timberwolves team in years.
One of the biggest differences in this year’s team is the complete lack of 3-point shooting. Last season, the Timberwolves ranked 12th in the league shooting 35.8% from 3, but they ranked first with 41.3 3-point attempts per game and first with 14.8 makes. This season, their 3-point percentage has dropped to 33.5% (24th), attempts have dropped to 33.5 (16th), and makes have dropped to 11.2 (21st). Those may not seem like drastic differences, but that’s 10.8 points per game that the Timberwolves don’t have in their offense this season.
A major reason for this decline is the loss of Malik Beasley. Beasley had his flaws, but he was an elite high volume 3-point shooter, especially from January 1st to the end of the year where he shot 40.7% from 3 on 7.4 attempts per game. This season, Beasley ranks in the 80th percentile as he is shooting 43%, per Cleaning the Glass. President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and his front office did a lot of good extending Taurean Prince and signing Kyle Anderson, but failed to replace this loss of outside shooting, and it continues to show.
Another area that the Timberwolves are sorely lacking in which they excelled last season is point-of-attack defense. Last season, Minnesota had multiple defenders and athletes who could navigate screens, switch, and pick up ball-handlers full court. Without Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, the Wolves lost their defensive identity. We already covered how that plagues the team in terms of missing second and third rotations and allowing 3-pointers, but it also hinders Minnesota’s ability to defend a simple pick-and-roll.
Both Beverley and Vanderbilt are adept at quickly slithering around screens, which allows the center to show and recover much quicker. This enables the low man to recover from the lane back to the outside shooter. Now, the point-of-attack defenders are dying on screens, disrupting the entirety of the defensive alignment.
One of the key selling points of the Gobert trade was the perceived immediate solidification of the team’s weaknesses in rebounding and interior defense. The move inherently changed what the Timberwolves would be capable of doing defensively. The scheme didn’t make Minnesota a tough defense for most of last year; the players did. Now, Head Coach Chris Finch’s crew is trying to please two masters by implementing both drop coverage and the high wall, but the players that would make that feasible are long gone.
New season, same request.
Jordan McLaughlin continues to be a really valuable piece to this team yet continues to have an erratic role. So far, McLaughlin has an on/off net rating differential of 18.2, which ranks in the 93rd percentile. The offensive rating is 12.2 points higher when he’s on the court compared to when he’s off, and the defensive rating is 6.0 points lower when he is on the court rather than off. All he does is contribute to winning basketball.
The biggest issue with McLaughlin is his lack of scoring. He is only shooting 13% from 3, and his effective field goal percentage of 45.5% ranks in the 23rd percentile. Even though McLaughlin isn’t a scorer, he improves the offense with his decision making and ability to penetrate the lane, pressure the rim, and collapse the defense to free up shooters. Oddly enough, especially for a 6-foot-1 point guard, McLaughlin is taking 33% of his shots at the rim (74th percentile) and making 80% of them (97th percentile). Finch never needs to worry about his backup point guard taking care of the ball, either, as J-Mac’s turnover rate of 10.5% ranks in the 77th percentile, and his assist-to-usage ratio of 1.87 ranks in the 100th percentile.
McLaughlin is a steadying presence who doesn’t make mistakes and impacts both sides of the ball. The elephant in the room is the poor play of D’Angelo Russell and how his historically bad start to the season influences McLaughlin’s on/off numbers. Plenty have clamored for Russell to see a lesser role, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen anytime soon. To Russell’s credit, he just had a brilliant game against the Cavaliers.
Besides Russell’s raw production in the Cavalier game, what stood out was that Russell shared the floor with McLaughlin for a stretch of really good possessions. This sparked a trend we saw at times last season — the two playing together and how effective Russell can be in a more combo/off-ball guard role. He’s able to further leverage his shooting, worry less about getting others involved and forcing the issue, and surrounds McLaughlin with another (historically speaking) solid shooter.
This season, McLaughlin and Russell have only played 25 possessions (Cavaliers game not included) so we can’t really make a concrete assumption on its effectiveness. However, in these 25 possessions, the Timberwolves have a net rating of -7.3. I bet that was a twist you didn’t see coming, but that’s right, I’m saying we need more of this two-man pairing that has produced a -7.3 net rating. I suppose I should be a little more specific. When we also include Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, this four-man lineup has produced a net rating of 18.9 (99th percentile) over 12 possessions.
The numbers are a fun way to visualize how certain combinations work, but in reality, those sample sizes are far too small to establish widespread beliefs. Instead, let’s look at player styles and tendencies and how they complement each other. By including McLaughlin with Edwards, Towns, and Russell, they now have a guard willing to do the dirty work. Someone who doesn’t need the shine but will be in the right place at the right time, make the extra pass, navigate screens, and hustle every second he’s on the floor. He’s a better decision maker than all three of them. He’s the best perimeter and team defender of the three. He would allow Russell and Edwards to fall back into more of that defensive playmaking role they thrived in last season.
So, more McLaughlin please.