Minnesotta Timberwolves 2016-2017 Autopsy - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
At the start of the 2016-2017 season, I gave a best-case scenario for the Minnesotta Timberwolves if all things went according to plan.
As the case was, things didn’t go according to plan. Injuries and inconsistent play derailed the Wolves’ season and here we are again at a place Wolves fans are all too familiar with by now – outside the Playoffs looking in. It’s been 13 seasons since the Wolves made the Playoffs – the longest current drought in the NBA.
Still, not everything was bad for Minnesotta last season (I tell myself this every year). KAT had a historic season. Rubio’s late-season play was inspiring. There are a lot of things there to work on for future success. Let’s take a look at the specifics.
KAT was a MONSTER
There’s now no doubt that KAT has emerged as the alpha of this pack of Wolves and he had himself a historic season to show for it. KAT followed up his ROY season with a sophomore campaign averaging 25.1pts, 12.3rebs, 2.7asts with a .582/.367/.832 shooting line. The last player to average 25 and 12 was Kevin Love in 2013-14. If you include 3pt shooting, KAT and Love are the only players in NBA history to average 25pts and 12rebs while shooting at least .360 from three.
When you consider that KAT is just 21 years old and only in his second year, you appreciate his season more. The last sophomore player to average 25pts-12rebs-2asts was Shaq in 1993-1994. In fact, KAT and Shaq are the only players 21-years or younger to average 25-12-2.
KAT also made history by becoming the first player to score 2000 points, grab 1000 rebounds, and make 100 3-pointers in a single season.
With how much KAT has improved in his second year, it’s scary to think what he’ll do next season. Defense should certainly be one of his focus this summer. KAT finished his second season with less defensive stats and a worse Defensive Rating (an estimate of the number of points allowed by the player per 100 possessions) than his rookie season.
The Wolves’ future is bright as long as they have and keep KAT (please don’t let him end up like KG or Kevin Love).
Rubio’s 2017 and post-ASG play
Rubio’s start to the season was far from perfect. He missed time and played well below his career averages. He was also hounded by trade rumors throughout the season and when you consider that Minnesotta has 2 young PGs in Kris Dunn (#5 pick, 2016) and Tyus Jones (#24 pick, 2015), it becomes a bit understandable why some sectors were calling for Rubio to be traded.
However, something clicked for Ricky once 2017 came around. In the 47 games he played in 2017, he averaged 13.4pts, 4.0rebs, and 10.2 assists on .414/.323/.901 shooting. In fact, March 2017 is probably the best month of Rubio’s career. In 14 games last March, he averaged 17.8pts, 4.5rebs, 10.4asts while shooting a scorching hot (by Ricky’s standard) 0.472/0.439/0.929 from the floor. Even if it was just for a month, Ricky played like MVP Steve Nash (2005-2006).
Rubio has always produced more or played better post-All-Star Game and it was the same as this year.
Now if Rubio can consistently play on the same level as he did in 2017 and post-ASG then I don’t see any reason for Thibs to trade him or not to play him during games next season.
The drop in Rubio’s steal numbers (he’s still in the top 10 in the league) and defensive metrics is a little concerning but I attribute it to Ricky and Thibs not being familiar with each other yet. The same goes for the entire roster (see The Ugly).
Also, for the 1st time in his career, Rubio finally shot more than 40% from the field for an entire season capping off the best shooting season of his career. It took six years but if this continues, things will really start looking up for Minny next season.
Flirting with the 8th seed for Most of the Season
I’m not sure what happened to the Wolves for the last 16 games of the season where they went 3-13. Were they tanking? Were they really that bad? Hopefully it’s the former because prior to those last 16 games, the Wolves were constantly within striking distance (2-3 games behind) of the 8th seed in the West and if the Wolves make the Playoffs next season then I’ll really consider this season to not be a disappointment.
Minnesotta had a Top-10 Offense last season based on Offensive Rating (An estimate of the points scored by a Team per 100 possessions). The only other non-Playoff team in that list were the Denver Nuggets who were the ranked 9th in the West, just 1 game outside the Playoffs.
Offense will not be a problem for Minnesotta as they have talented scorers (see KAT, Wiggins, Zach, Shabazz) and creative playmakers (see Rubio, Dunn) on the team. It’s on the other side of the court that they really have to improve.
Wiggins’ lack of peripheral stats
I over-reached for Wiggins in my fantasy leagues in hopes that he’ll average more peripheral stats this season. He didn’t.
If KAT is the Wolves’ #1, then Wiggins’ role as the team’s #2 should be made clear. The Wolves need more from Wiggins than just scoring in order to succeed. I always compare him to DeMar DeRozan because the way he plays right now mirrors that of a young Derozan – athletic scorers, great at going to the line, sub-par peripheral stats. Look at their numbers during their first 3 years to see what I mean.
In DeRozan’s 4th-8th season in the league, he has upped his peripheral stats and last season he had per-36 averages of 27.8pts-5.3rebs-4.0asts. Together with DeRozan’s increase in production came his success as a player (3x All-Star) and the success of his team (Raptors have made the Playoffs the last 4 years).
Wiggins needs to do the same. Adding more assists or becoming a better facilitator will broaden his dimensions as a player and make him more dangerous. Right now, teams don’t mind putting heavy pressure on him when he has the ball because he hasn’t shown the ability to find the open man or make the best pass when pressured. Also, for someone as athletic as he is, he should be able to grab at least 5-6 rebounds per game. The Wolves don’t need Wiggins to carry the scoring load too much since they already have KAT and Zach but they do need him to be a more consistent presence on offense and most especially on defense. Andrew’s athlecticism and ability to create his own shot makes him the best option on broken possessions. He can be that guy you can rely on to create scoring opportunities when the shot-clock is winding down or during lose balls. His athleticism and length gives him the potential to be a better defender if he wants to be.
Wiggins’ lack of peripheral stats is concerning given the number of minutes he plays. Since the shot clock was introduced, only 6 players who played at least 35 minutes per game have averaged at least 23 points while getting 4.5 rebounds or less and 3 assists or less – Wiggins, Kevin Martin, Michael Redd, Glen Rice, Dale Ellis, and Kiki Vandeweghe. No offense to the five other guys but I don’t think they were who the Wolves’ front office had in mind for Wiggins when they agreed to trade for him.
He may not be the Wolves’ alpha but the team needs him to be its best two-way player. The Pip to KAT’s MJ. The Kobe to KAT’s Shaq (2000-2002 Lakers). Heck, even the Kobester averaged 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and more than 2 combined steals and blocks when he played with Shaq. That’s the kind of production the Wolves need from Wiggs. 23p-7r-5a-1.5s-1b, if Wiggins comes close to averaging those numbers then the league better be ready for the Wolves.
Zach was having the best season of his young career when he went down with a season-ending injury. He was a reliable scoring option for the team and he was arguably the 2nd most consistent scorer in the Timberwolves behind KAT. He was also the Wolves’ best 3-point shooter and was on his way to becoming the first Wolves player to make more than 200 3-pointers in a single season when the injury occured.
Zach may not be a great defender. He may not even be a good defender but he brings explosiveness and 3-point shooting to the Wolves which the team missed when he went down.
The Wolves had a Pythagorean record (a team’s expected record based on points scored and allowed) of 38-44 last season. Their actual record was 31-41, 7 wins behind their expected record – the worst discrepancy between a team’s actual and pythagorean record last season. In other words, Minnesotta underperformed and were unable to translate their team performance to wins. They still wouldn’t have made the playoffs if they went 38-44 but it’s worth noting that the team wasn’t as bad as their record might suggest.
Three-Pointers (or the lack thereof)
Dead last at 3-pointers made per game (7.3), 3-pointers attempted per game (21.0), and 3PAr (% of FG attempts that are 3-pointers, .249). They also shot below league average (.347 vs .358). For comparison’s sake, the Rockets were the inverse of the Wolves. They led the league in 3-pointers made per game (14.4), 3-pointers attempted per game (40.3), and 3PAr (.462) while shooting at around league average (.357).
Of course Houston has a very different system than the Wolves and unlike D’Antoni, Thibs has never been known to love the 3-point shot but in an era where so much focus and attention has been given to the 3-pointer as one of the most efficient shot in basketball (along with shots 0-3 ft from the basket), the Wolves should try to take advantage of it. They don’t need to be like the Rockets or Warriors and attempt 30+ 3-pointers a game, they can try to follow the Spurs’ formula and focus on accuracy and efficiency. San Antonio attempts just 25.1 3-pointers a game but they make up for it by shooting .391 from three. 26.9% of the Spurs’ 3-point attempts are “Pop-special” corner 3-pointers which they make 43.2% of the time.
Was this team really coached by Tom Thibodeau? The defensive-master Tom Thibodeau? The same one who helmed Chicago’s Top-5 defense from 2010-2014? I’m not putting all the blame on Thibs as the carpenter is only as good as his tools and there were times last season that the players seemed lost on defense. If the team wants to succeed, the players and the front office has to come together to improve the team’s defense by improving their individual and team defense (for the players) or bringing in players who can help (for the front-office).
The team was 19th in the league in points allowed (106.7) and were 27th in Defensive Rating (112.0). They were 28th in opponents’ FG%, 21st in opponents’ 3P%, 27th in percentage of opponents’ FG taken 3 feet from the basket, 26th in opponent’s FG% within 3 feet from the basket, 29th in dunks allowed, and 25th in layups allowed. From a Defensive Rating perspective, everyone played like the Raptors or Clippers offensively when they were against the Wolves.
The team’s bad defense is compounded by its slow pace (a staple of Thibs’ system). You’d think the Wolves would play at a high pace because of their youth and athleticism but they don’t. They actually play at the 6th slowest pace in the league just behind the “Old-man” Spurs and, their fellow youngsters, the Bucks. A slow pace means you have fewer possessions to work with in a game and when you have bad defense or allow your opponents to score a lot in their possessions, it puts that much more pressure on you to score on your possessions in order to win the game.
Remember when I said the Wolves were unlucky? One of the reasons why their actual record is so far from their pythagorean record is because of their inability to hold a halftime lead. The Wolves played 49 games where they were leading or tied at the half. They lost more than 50% of those games – 25 to be exact. If an NBA game was made of just the first half, the Wolves could have had a 49-33 record. Compounding this problem is the fact that the Wolves were only able to win 7 out of the 33 games where they trailed at halftime. To put it simply: when the Wolves lead at the half, they find a way to blow that lead and lose 50% of the time, and when they trail at the half, they find it difficult to come back and win. Their youth and inexperience are factors but shouldn’t be used to justify their performance. They have to learn from this season in order to improve. I like to think of this as growing pains that they need to overcome.
One more thing, in those 25 games which they lost when they were leading at the half, they got outscored by an average of 7.6 points in the 3rd quarter, sometimes by as much as 19 points. I don’t know what the Wolves did during halftime last season but they probably need to change it next season.
Looking towards the Future
The Wolves are young. They were the youngest team in the league last season with an average age of 24.0 so there’s no need to panic and hit the reset button. Next season, Rubio will just be 27 while KAT, Wiggs, and Zach will all just be 22. They still have a few more seasons left before they need to break up their core.
2017 NBA Draft
Barring any draft-day trades, the worst that the Wolves could get in the Draft is the 6th pick which isn’t at all bad for this relatively deep draft class.
At that pick, the question is whether the Wolves will pick for need or based on the best talent available because the best talent available at that pick could very well be another point-guard (David Kahn would probably salivate over how deep this draft class is in the PG position). Malik Monk (SG in a PG body), Dennis Smith, Frank Ntilikina, or D’Aaron Fox (if he falls) could all be available at #6. If they decide to get a PG (KAAAAHHHHHN!), they could send out one of their current PGs in a trade for assets (a 3-and-D wing). Rubio would fetch the most return of course but I don’t think they’ll trade him this offseason. If the Wolves pick for need, they should get someone who can defend or shoot the three or, if they’re lucky, both. Players like Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen, and Justin Jackson come to mind. If Minnesotta feels like there’s no one in the draft that fills their need, they can always trade their pick. I’m sure there are teams out there who’d gladly trade for the #6 pick in the draft.
The situation at the wing
Last offseason, the Wolves apparently had a conundrum at PG with Rubio, Jones, and Dunn. Thankfully, Rubio’s play in the regular season should’ve put to rest the debate on who the Wolves’ primary point guard should be (It’s Ricky.). The problem now is in the other guard position. LaVine’s injury exposed the Wolves’ lack of depth at shooting guard and the wing position. The team settled for Brandon Rush as a starter but he just wasn’t as consistent or explosive as Zach. Born Ready was brought in as a stop-gap solution but it didn’t pan out. In the end the team even signed Omri Casspi (good signing).
To be successful, Minny needs good defenders at the wing position and the current members of the roster just don’t fill that need. Their primary wings all fulfill the same role for the team – scorers with little defense. A comparison of their per 36 numbers shows just how similar they are:
I’ve discussed above what Wiggins needs to do next season. For Zach and Shabazz, their numbers are eerily similar. Of course, Zach (37.2 min/game) averages almost twice the number of minutes than Shabazz (19.4 min/game) and Shabazz’s efficiency could take a hit if given more minutes but, because of LaVine’s season ending injury, they actually played almost the same number of minutes last season (1749 minutes and 1516 minutes respectively). Can the Wolves succeed having these 2 guys back each other up? Probably not unless they get an elite perimeter defender to play alongside them. Wiggins is far from being at that level so Minnesotta needs to look outside for help in that department.
New Era (hopefully not Same Old Sh*t)
The Timberwolves unveiled their new logos recently with the branding of New Era, New Look. I don’t have any problems with the new logo. The previous one was bound for an overhaul as it was probably one of the few remaining cartoony logos in the NBA. I just want to see their new unis because their black alternates were a personal favorite and it’s kinda sad that I won’t see that again.
A new logo and rebranding also means that the Wolves can finally leave behind the KG and Love era and officially enter the era of KAT, Wiggins, LaVine, et al. There were a lot of memories attached to the previous logo and the team had its most successes (KG’s MVP seaason, 2004 Playoff run, Love’s 30-30, etc.) and failures (13-year playoff drought) with that logo. This new look should allow the Wolves to create a new identity for themselves and find better success.