After three weeks and ten games, the Minnesota Timberwolves are sitting in tenth place in the Western Conference at 5-5. Another uninspiring week of play found the Timberwolves failing to adjust and compete with title hopefuls in the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, before thoroughly routing the Houston Rockets. The Rockets win was much needed, but it was also the baseline expectation. Wins against the Suns and Bucks weren’t expected, but a higher level of competitiveness would’ve been nice.
The Timberwolves have another tough stretch of games as the face off against the New York Knicks, Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, and Cleveland Cavaliers. All four are at very least playoff hopefuls, with some having much higher aspirations. Even though week three was far from ideal, there were still steps in the right direction and steps and trends for this team to build on.
Starters Are Struggling
So far this season, the starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert has a net rating of -10.7, per Cleaning the Glass. This lineup is by far the most used by the Timberwolves as it has recorded 282 of the team’s 1010 possessions; the next most used lineup has recorded 31 possessions.
The starting group has been strong defensively as their defensive rating of 107.5 ranks in the 50th percentile of all lineups and would rank as the fifth best overall defensive rating in the league, just behind the Los Angeles Clippers at 106.2. They are allowing an effective field goal percentage of 50.6% (71st percentile) and a free throw rate of 10.3% (89th percentile). So not only are they contesting a lot and offense forcing misses, but they also aren’t putting the opposition on the line. While they are forcing plenty of misses, they are failing to corral rebounds (opponents’ offensive rebound rate of 29.5 ranks the Timberwolves in the 21st percentile) and force turnovers (their turnover rate of 12.5% ranks in the 25th percentile and is down from 15.4% overall last season). All in all, though, the defense has been solid for the starters.
The concerning problems come with the offense. Their offensive rating of 96.8 ranks in the seventh percentile of all lineups and would be the worst overall offensive rating in the league by 6.2 points (the Clippers currently rank 30th with an offensive rating of 103). Minnesota’s starting group is failing in nearly every aspect of offense. Their effective field goal rate of 51 ranks in the 18th percentile; their turnover rate of 20.2% ranks in the 0th percentile; their free throw rate of 11.7% ranks in the 7th percentile. Dating back twenty seasons to the 2002-2003 season, there have only been seven teams with a worse offensive rating, and only one in the last decade. Not great Bob!
The hope is that this team is still working out how to play together because there is far too much talent for their offense to continue to look this decrepit. Last week, I wrote about how Gobert’s offense is oddly similar to that of Jarred Vanderbilt, with the big difference being Gobert’s vertical spacing and screening. One area where Vanderbilt was a more seamless fit, though, was that his ability to freelance and roam on offense has far outpaced Gobert’s ability to do the same. Unless there is a specific set being run, Gobert is often found stagnant on the block or near the lane. This lack of activity by him is a significant reason for what spurred Edwards’s comments about his lack of dunks this season. Gobert obviously is never going to be a threat from outside, but neither was Vanderbilt. Until the perimeter players start adjusting their habits to find Gobert on lobs, he also needs to adjust his habits by being more active, screening on the perimeter, and finding open pockets.
Last season, Head Coach Chris Finch ran an offense that was heavy on read-and-react situations. He trusts his players to analyze the floor and go from there. Gobert is coming from a Quin Snyder offense that regularly ran a myriad of sets and was pick-and-roll heavy. There isn’t a singular party to blame for the early season struggles, but there must be a middle ground that is found soon.
Naz Is Like
Naz Reid is making it impossible for Coach Finch to not give him more minutes. In nearly every situation he’s entered, Reid has immediately made a positive impact. He’s playing with tremendous energy, two-way versatility, and quick decision making. He’s knocking down threes, attacking the rim, and acting as a defensive playmaker. Despite his limited role, Reid is producing like a high-end starter.
According to Cleaning the Glass, who filter out garbage time minutes, Reid has only played 91 minutes and doesn’t meet their threshold of 100 minutes to qualify for percentile rankings. To fully demonstrate the absurd levels of production Reid is exhibiting, we’ll compare his numbers to those of Nikola Jokić to gauge where Reid’s percentile would be about. Obviously, their roles and opponents on the floor are different and that inherently influences these numbers. I’m aware, so no need to type out that snarky reply. Instead, let’s just try and enjoy some absurdity.
So far this season, the Timberwolves have a net rating that is 23.9 points higher when Reid is on the court than when he is off the court. Jokić has an on/off net rating differential of 29.7, ranking in the 99th percentile. Reid is currently recording 1.326 points per shot attempt, while Jokić is recording 1.43 (97th percentile). In terms of shooting accuracy, Reid has an effective field goal percentage of 65% and is shooting 83% at the rim and 40% from 3. Jokić has percentages of 64.6% (81st percentile), 84% (95th percentile), and 25% (14th percentile) respectively. On defense, Reid has a block rate of 2.8 and a steal rate of 1.8, while Jokić has a block rate of 0.7% (14th percentile) and a steal rate of 1.8% (89th percentile). These numbers are bound to come back down to earth, but Reid has certainly earned a more prominent role than the one he’s had so far.
Using D’Angelo Russell as a scapegoat has frequently been an easy out for fans when he hasn’t deserved the slander. While I’m certainly not part of the “he’s a bum” contingent, it is impossible to say that Russell has been good, or even ok, this season. To Russell’s credit, he has a really difficult job of operating an offense that has yet to present a promising way forward. He has to significantly modify his game as playing with a center like Gobert is drastically different than Towns; and playing with both on the floor is a clunky adjustment for any initiator. With that said, Russell is having the worst year of his career and is one of the most harmful players for the Timberwolves.
So far this season, Russell’s on/off net rating differential is -22.8 (5th percentile). The offense is 16.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court than on (5th percentile) and the defense is six points per 100 possessions better when his off the court than on (26th percentile). A lot of different factors can influence on/off numbers, but even Russell’s individual numbers are at an all-time low for him. Currently, he is scoring 0.95 points per shot attempt, which ranks in the 8th percentile and is the lowest of his career. His assist percentage of 26.6 (42nd percentile) is the lowest since his rookie year, and his turnover rate of 16.1 (33rd percentile) is the highest of his career. Additionally, Russell is sporting career lows in effective field goal percentage (44.1%, 14th percentile), at-rim field goal percentage (52%, 36th percentile), and 3-point percentage (28%, 16th percentile).
It would be ideal to say that Russell’s shots just aren’t falling. That would be an easy fix or a sign of a shooting slump. Unfortunately, it feels like a much bigger issue. His decision making is slow, ball security erratic, and everything he does feels forced. It is a significant departure from the player we saw last year when the Timberwolves were clicking. Whether he’s pressing due to a contract year or trying too hard to get others involved, every choice Russell has been making has unfortunately been the wrong one. Russell has far too much talent for this to continue throughout the season (hopefully), but he needs to simplify how he plays, take what the defense gives him, and make the easy read.