Since we last posted, the Wolves have played three times. They won at Miami in another impressive road performance. By this early stage of the season, these young Timberwolves have now defeated the best Eastern Conference teams outside of Cleveland: the Bulls, Hawks, and Heat. The next night, in an always difficult second end of a back to back, they narrowly lost to the Orlando Magic.
In both games, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns gave Wolves fans more to be excited about. Wiggins continues to produce points with aggressive drives to the basket that often end in thunderous dunks or free throw attempts. Towns is playing at a higher level than any NBA rookie in recent memory. The future here is obviously bright, if for no other reason than the Wolves have Wiggins and Towns.
Last night, the Wolves lost another home game – they remain winless at home – this time to Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons. Detroit did not play particularly well on offense in the first half, but seemed to have the Wolves’ strategy mapped out well and exploited its limitations, such as the inability of Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett to threaten defenses. Probably more than any other time this season, the limitations of those two cagey veterans has people wondering if Sam Mitchell should consider a lineup change. Beyond that issue, the Wolves got bad performances from the second-unit front line. With Nemanja Bjelica out nursing a knee contusion, the combination of Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng struggled. Each player has a good motor and athleticism that suggests an upside might be in there somewhere, but each also tries to do too much, too often. Instead of making simple rotation passes to more competent playmakers, Dieng and Payne like to hold the ball for a moment or two, and try to initiate a play of their own. The results are usually not good.
In any event, the Wolves are now at 5-8, and host the winless Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night at Target Center. It’s a game they will be predicted to win; probably by double figures.
As a way to keep the conversation moving, and without any new hot takes or conspiracy theories about Wiggins struggling to score or Rubio sitting out with injuries, I thought I’d just run through the roster of players and identify something good, and something bad, in the stats about their play, to date.
We’ll do this by position, beginning in the backcourt:
As always seems to be the case, the Timberwolves play much better with Rubio on the floor than they play when he is on the bench or sidelined in street clothes. So far this year, Rubio has played 277 minutes. In that time they outscore opponents by 7.0 points per 100. He has been off the floor for an unfortunately-large 357 minutes. In that time they were outscored by 6.1 per 100. Whether Rubio plays determines if the Wolves are a good team or a bad one.
Rubio’s shot is not going in, and — notwithstanding that first game against the Lakers — does not look different in any significant way than it did in years past, before his well-documented work with Mike Penberthy last year. Sometimes when Rubio catches a pass with an open, seemingly good shot for the taking, there is a palpable hesitation in his slow setup, as if (R. Kelly voice) ‘his mind is telling him no’ the whole time before he finally, slowly releases an errant shot. That is no way to play and he’ll never be any good at shooting if he doesn’t want to take shots.
GOOD: All-Around Production, Per-36 Minutes: 20.8 pts, 4.8 rebs, 5.5 ast.
LaVine has been producing in the box score much the same way that he finished last season. If he played more minutes and retained these rates — he’s currently logging 24.1 minutes per game, mostly as a backup point guard — he’d be drawing buzz as a bigtime fantasy player and maybe even a future All-Star. (Eds note: maybe the latter should be discussed more seriously, regardless?) For a bonus LaVine stat that will appease his critics, his season-long plus/minus is in the black, at +10 after 313 minutes. Last season, LaVine was -540 (!) in 1,902 minutes. So yeah, that’s a nice change.
BAD: Turnovers: 3.6 per 36 minutes.
The big discussion of this season has been how to best use LaVine, and whether it is a good or bad idea to play him so much at point guard. His high turnover rate is one of the reasons that many feel he is better suited to play off guard, tasked with secondary playmaking duties instead of the initial plays to enter the Wolves into their offense.
GOOD: In his last 8 games (after his back spasms/pain resolved) Wiggins is averaging 25.4 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting.
Early in the season’s first few games, Andrew Wiggins did not look much like the player who ended last year’s Rookie of the Year campaign. He was not attacking defenses, and continued to settle for difficult, step-back jumpers out of the post. It was reported that he was battling through some back pain, and we all hoped that both: 1) it was not a serious medical issue; and 2) this explained his poor play. Given how tremendously he’s played since his back issue resolved, it seems that both questions have been answered the way Wolves fans hoped. He’s back to his old tricks of crushing dunks over anyone in his way, and getting the the line at a very high rate. In the last 8 games he’s averaged 8.4 free throw attempts per game. If the Wolves can hover around .500 for a few months and Wiggins continues to score so much, in such entertaining ways, he’ll have an outside shot at making the All-Star Game.
BAD: He should fill out the box score more than 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 0.6 steals per game.
At this point, Wiggins is best at scoring and defending. Those are two pretty important parts of basketball playing. Over time, it would be nice to see him get a little bit more involved in rebounding, and especially to see him round out his offensive game to include more playmaking for his teammates. In the future, he should be looking to average 4 or more assists per game. Defenses will certainly throw extra attention his way — they already are — so the Wolves will want to capitalize on that by having Wiggins feed open shooters – maybe even three-point shooters! – in a team-based attack.
GOOD: Net Rating of +5.1
For a variety of reasons, there is discussion happening about Prince, and whether he should start and play so many minutes on this team. But the clear-cut counter to any criticism of a big Prince role is the team performance when he plays, versus when he sits. He is second to Rubio in on/off differential with an “on” rating of +5.1 and an off rating of -4.6. Why might the Wolves play better with Prince than without him? He understands positioning – particularly on defense – and he does not make any mistakes or do anything to disrupt chemistry on offense. He is a veteran, and a smart one at that.
BAD: Prince is providing zero scoring, with a minuscule 5.1 points per 36 minutes.
Tayshaun isn’t looking to score, which is fine in a lot of ways — there’s only one ball, and Wiggins and Towns need it more than he does — but it hinders their floor spacing when a starting wing player refuses to shoot jumpers. Prince is shooting only 0.5 threes per 36 minutes, and this is obviously not lost on his defenders who know that they can help off of him without fear of punishment. It clogs up traffic in the lane for Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns, and is a contributing cause for some of the Wolves struggles on the offensive side of the floor.
GOOD: 8.0 free throw attempts per 36 minutes.
Martin’s game is not pretty, it is sometimes not effective, but it is undeniable that he knows how to manufacture points for himself; particularly against young and anxious defenders that he often faces in a bench role. He’s getting to the line at a crazy rate so far this year. The 8.0 attempts per 36 minutes is his highest rate since the 2010-11 season, before the NBA changed its “rip through” rule to not reward players like Martin who used the tactic to generate free throws out of disingenuous “shot attempts.”
BAD: 36.5% field goal shooting
This number is bound to increase and progress up toward his career mean of 43.9% shooting. Martin has been cold, but it’s doubtful he forgot how to shoot. A better question is whether that improvement will come on the Wolves or another NBA team. His role is blocking minutes for Zach LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad, and he does not factor into the Wolves’ long-term plans. Furthermore, he presumably doesn’t enjoy coming off the bench of a developing team, as he pronounced on Media Day that there was “no argument” that he should come off the bench as a 6th Man. Stay tuned on this one.
GOOD: 50% field goal shooting
Shabazz continues to make field goals at a high rate. Connecting on half of field goal attempts is impressive for a wing player.
BAD: 0.8 assists per 36 minutes
Last season after the injuries to most Wolves regulars, Shabazz took on a larger role than anyone anticipated. He ended up averaging about 23 minutes per game and posted some impressive numbers. According to NBA.com’s player tracking stats, Shabazz averaged 25.1 “touches” per game, in those 23 minutes. He scored more than anyone in the league per times touched the ball, but also increased his per-36 assist average up to 1.8, after assisting just 0.7 times per 36 as a rookie in limited. (And at UCLA, where he scored a lot in his lone season, he averaged an abysmal 0.8 assists per game.) This year, with a more crowded wing position, Shabazz’s minutes are down to 17.7 per game. In that time he is touching the ball just 16.7 times per game. (For a comparison, Kevin Martin – who shares the floor with Shabazz in 2nd Quarters – is averaging 34.4 touches per game.) Watching the games, it seems clear that the Wolves second unit has a bit of a selfishness problem, and when each guy gets the ball he figures he should probably get a shot then because he may not get another chance for a while. Bazz falls victim to this, and his floor vision is suffering from his anxiousness to score. He needs to do a better job of passing.
GOOD: Defensive Rebounding Percentage of 31.9%
As he approaches his 40th birthday next May, KG is not the player that we remember in his first Timberwolves tenure. He can’t run, jump, pass or score like he used to. One part of his game that remains elite is defensive rebounding. He pulls down 10.7 defensive boards per 36 minutes, and his defensive rebounding percentage of 31.9 would rank third in the NBA if he played enough minutes to qualify on Basketball Reference’s page. For a bonus KG “good” stat, he’s averaging 3.1 assists to just 0.8 turnovers per 36 minutes. For an athletically limited big man, that’s pretty great.
BAD: 5.9 points per 36 minutes.
It’s pretty much the same discussion as with Prince. Garnett provides next to nothing for scoring and, over time, opposing defenses take notice. If the Wolves continue to trot out both Prince and KG with the starters, the floor spacing will be far from ideal for Rubio, Wiggins and Towns to make plays.
GOOD: 2.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per 36
BAD: Defensive Rating of 104.6, worst among Wolves regulars (tied with Shabazz).
It’s been more of a struggle for Gorgui than he or his fans had hoped after the promising start of his career in the second half of the 2013-14 season. He has skills — bank shots, jump hooks, some clever passes, and active defensive plays — but he makes too many mistakes for a player who will turn 26 years old in January. On defense, he is somewhat undersized but generally looks good physically against second units. But he is too aggressive at times and ends up out of position. On offense, he is posting 2.8 turnovers per 36 minutes which is about double what most would feel is acceptable for a player of his type.
His struggles can be overstated — he always plays hard, and generally fills the stat sheet with various types of production — but it does not seem like he is improving, or that he is necessarily helpful to winning, even in a reserve role.
Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but KAT’s first few weeks as an NBA player have been outstanding. He’s averaging a double double (16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds) in just 29.5 minutes. Towns is blocking 2.4 shots per game, and shooting 52.2 percent from the floor and 90.7 percent from the foul line (!). Mitchell should get Towns out there for a few more minutes per night — 32 to 34 would seem ideal? — which would put KAT in the rare situation of All-Star candidacy as a rook. His one bad stat would be assist-to-turnover ratio, where he’s currently at 1.1 to 2.3. He makes some risky passes to baseline cutters that have ended in turnovers. I don’t anticipate his passing being an ongoing problem, but more likely another weapon in his expansive arsenal.
Towns is already playing like a star, which is pretty incredible.