There is no such thing as a great story, sequel or otherwise, without conflict. This conflict often reveals itself to be a fatal flaw within our lead character(s), and the story will leave you guessing until the very end to know if your protagonist will overcome (the story is a comedy!) or succumb (sorry, you’ve been watching a tragedy all along).
We are thirty-two games into the season, and this team’s fatal flaw is beginning to reveal itself: The 24-8 Minnesota Timberwolves are hemorrhaging points due to their carelessness with the basketball.
11 games into the vaunted “hell” stretch of their schedule has revealed this flaw. Since December 11th, the team has:
- The worst turnover percentage (TO’s per 100 possessions) in the league by a comfortable margin at 16.8%
- The worst assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.57
- The 29th rank in the league in points allowed off of turnovers at 19.6. The only team worse than them was the Detroit Pistons, who ended a historic 28 game losing streak a couple games back.
Now, it is fair to say that with a stretch against playoff-likely teams, a drop in these numbers is only natural. But there are two responses to that:
- Through these 11 games, they have played the Tyrese Haliburton-less Indiana Pacers, the Kyrie Irving-less (x2) and Luka Dončić-less Dallas Mavericks, and the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve had their fair share of rest advantage.
- Last I checked, there are a lot of “playoff-likely” teams in the playoffs, and if you are being careless with the ball against the better competition, you are flirting with a first-round playoff exit disaster.
The Timberwolves are still first place in the West at 24-8, so this is by no means a five-alarm fire, but it is something.
This team is so good defensively that they can have an off shooting stretch and still win on any given night, as long as they don’t go on to shoot themselves in the foot. The problem is, there’s been a lot of foot shooting lately. Will they mature as their head coach urges? Time will tell.
Let’s get to the grades.
A few brief reminders about the grading system:
- Small sample size alert! A check-in is, by nature, a much smaller sample size. These are not final grades but just a chance to see where a player is tracking halfway through a quarter.
- These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
- Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed.
- The below stats are from the 11 games between 12-11-23 and 1-1-24, the 112-106 loss to the New York Knicks.
Mike Conley: 94% (A)
who doesn't love Mike Conley? pic.twitter.com/77p6xrch7E— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 12, 2023
Look, I’ll admit to it right here. I understand why Conley’s teammates think that he’s Finch’s favorite. If Conley was actually a student of mine, he’d be my favorite.
Clutch shooting, ball security, and good defense. You can make a case that he’s been the best Wolves player not-named-Anthony-Edwards for the entirety of the season (and the estimated plus/minus would agree).
Protect him at all costs through the rest of the regular season! This version of Mike Conley can be the floor general for a team that makes a deep postseason run.
Anthony Edwards: 84% (B)
When Finch talks about the team maturing offensively, you don’t have to read between the lines much to understand that he’s talking to the two most important offensive weapons: Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Even when you factor in Anthony Edwards higher usage and improved passing, he’s still ninth-worst in the league in TO ratio for players with 25% usage and at least twenty minutes per game.
His shooting and defensive field goal metrics are actually slightly better over these eleven games than the first twenty-one. He’d be in the “A” range of his true shooting percentage, but with the team’s offensive achilles heel beginning to reveal itself, this stretch of games is about a lot more than just scoring.
A high propensity for buckets doesn’t always equal a mature offensive game. He is the leader of an offense that is the 24th-rated during this stretch of basketball. As Edwards matures, so does the ceiling of this team.
Jaden McDaniels: 81% (B-)
Fouling issues (including untimely technicals) with above-average shooting and very good (bordering on elite) defense. This has been the book on McDaniels since the preseason preview and neither his strengths or his flaws have developed that much.
For the first quarter of the season, it was hard to make too strong of a statement seeing that he only played in twelve of the games (one of them a very quick ejection). According to estimated plus/minus, he’s in the 96th percentile on defense (that’s top-15) and 45th percentile on offense. He doesn’t have the turnover bug quite the same way that his higher usage teammates do, but a big reason for that is because when he catches the ball, he’s mostly creating for himself as he’s dead last on the team in assist percentage.
Everyone that watches this team knows that there is more to Jaden McDaniels’ offensive game than we’ve seen - finding ways to unlock him within offensive flow is going to be key to the team beginning to find its groove offensively. But for an offense that is supposed to be based on “flow”, McDaniels is just as guilty as anyone when it comes to ball stopping.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 65% (D)
This team’s fatal flaw is revealing itself, and Karl-Anthony Towns is the worst perpetrator of carelessness with the ball. He has the worst turnover ratio in the league during this 11-game stretch when you factor in usage (25%+) and minutes (20+).
I could almost just copy and paste the Anthony Edwards write-up above with a few key caveats: KAT’s shot less efficiently than his standard, turned the ball over at a higher percentage, and dropped off in terms of his defensive numbers*.
One poor stretch of basketball does not define a season, but this check-in finds Towns in the midst of some of his worst basketball after a really strong start. The game against the Knicks was a step in the right direction from a scoring standpoint, but just like Edwards, this offense is only going to go as far as Towns can help take it.
The good news is that we have every reason to think that this stretch is more of the aberration and the first quarter was more of the norm. The bad news is, the floor spacing issues aren’t going to get easier anytime soon as defenses continue to pack the paint.
If only there was some kind of elite skill that Towns had that could open up the floor for everyone… he’s at a five year low in 3-point attempts this season.
*More on that in the Gobert section and why I’m not going to overreact to it
Rudy Gobert: 69% D+
Both Towns and Rudy Gobert’s defensive field goal statistics are down through these eleven games, but they get some grace for that. They have played: Joel Embiid, a healthy and motivated Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis (x2), Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adabeyo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the midrange, and a locked-in Julius Randle.
One of the imperfections of the defensive field goal stat is that it goes to the player that is defending the shooter. Our defense is designed to prefer midrange opportunities over other spots on the court. This means that the bigs pay the price both when guarding their own elite scorers 1-on-1 (Embiid, Sabonis, Davis, Adebayo) and when they end up contesting on other player’s man after a screen (SGA).
The defense as a whole being rated fifth during this 11-game stretch is actually an encouraging sign to me considering some of the efforts we’ve seen from star players.
Both of Gobert’s blocks and offensive rebounds are substantially down since the first quarter of the season. Is this because of the competition? Is this because of tired legs? Is this random small sample size statistical variance? The answer is yes. The percentage that goes to each is what I’m less sure about, but it is something to monitor for Gobert going forward.
I’ll be back later in the week with a bench breakdown and some final big picture thoughts. In the meantime, if you are looking for some more Timberwolves content, check out the Dunks After Dusk podcast on both Apple and Spotify. We hop on the mics immediately after each game and offer a post game breakdown full of game awards.
As a bonus stat, each game we hand out an MVP award (what we refer to as the “Big Ticket” award) and here is what that list looks like through thirty-two games:
Anthony Edwards: 8
Mike Conley: 6
Karl-Anthony Towns: 6
Rudy Gobert: 5
Jaden McDaniels: 2
Nickeil Alexander-Walker: 2
Naz Reid: 2
Jordan McLaughlin: 1
Check back later in the week for a full bench breakdown, an estimated plus/minus team chart, and a final team grade.