After a pair of overtime games this week — a home win over the Lakers followed by a road loss to the Nuggets — the Timberwolves are now past the season’s quarter point. They have a record of 9-13, which sets a pace to win about 35 or 36 games; more than people expected before the season began, but perhaps a little bit worse than people feel the team is capable, having had the chance to see them play. Managing expectations is funny that way: exceeding them early can lead to raising them too high later on.
This is one of the most interesting Timberwolves teams in history. It has the much-talked-about combination of veteran leadership and athletic young talent. It has the franchise’s all-time great, Kevin Garnett, playing his twenty-first season. It has the franchise’s pair of great young hopes, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, playing their first and second. This Wolves team has a version of Ricky Rubio that seems both more comfortable with who he is (and isn’t) as a player, and more dissatisfied with his team losing more than it wins. This team has a lot of players — too many, really — who have a valid expectation of playing time. Managing that long and complicated rotation is Sam Mitchell, an interim head coach whose promotion from the assistant ranks came about by the worst circumstances imaginable when his boss, former coach, and friend Flip Saunders died from cancer.
Through each of the 9 wins and 13 losses have emerged themes for the season that have structured the discourse of Timberwolves pundits. Some are positive and celebratory: the awesomeness of KAT, and the team’s improved defense. Some are negative and cause knee-jerk reactions: Mitchell’s outdated offensive system, the continued deployment of Zach LaVine at point guard, and blowing big leads to lose in disappointing fashion.
Here’s a list of letter grades for each player through the season, to date. Grades take role and expectations into account, so an A doesn’t necessarily mean a better player or overall performance than a B or C. We’ll do this by position, starting with guards, then forwards, then centers.
Ricky Rubio: B+
Last year, Ricky Rubio’s season involved sitting out of games so that the team would lose enough to win the draft lottery, and working out with special shooting coach Mike Penberthy to see if he could build some confidence in his shot; a flawed part of his game that many believe to be fatal, at least insofar as Rubio could potentially be the point guard on a championship-contending team.
This year, Penberthy is gone, Ricky is shooting the worst percentages of his career (34.8% on all field goals, 20.7% on threes) and yet he continues to positively affect his team’s performance more than most point guards in the league. (And more than any of his teammates.) Rubio’s net rating of +4.9 is now second best to Tayshaun Prince, and his “off” rating (how the Wolves do when he sits) is -5.0. In other words, the Wolves are a good team when he’s on the floor, and a bad one when he is on the bench.
It’s the same story. He’s a bad shooter who happens to be a good player. Or a good player who happens to be a bad shooter. However you want to put it.
Ricky’s still good, he’s just not perfect. His per-36 assist assist-to-turnover ratio of 10.2 to 2.9 is the best of his career on both sides of it. Throughout his 4.25 NBA seasons, the Wolves have never come close to reaching the point anticipated by some where Rubio’s shooting woes limit their team’s potential. Some believe that may happen in the playoff setting, when opposing defenses have better scouting reports more specifically tailored to highlight weaknesses like Rubio’s shot.
I would love to find out if that’s the case.
Zach LaVine: B+
Depending on who you ask, Zach LaVine’s rookie season was either an abject disaster or a reason for excitement. Without repeating all of the details, LaVine the rookie made spectacular highlights and showed off all sorts of skills, but lacked awareness or discipline required to help a team win. His basic stats were sometimes good, but his advanced ones — especially those that take team performance into consideration — were awful.
He is playing much better this year. Mitchell is still playing LaVine out of position at backup point guard — and for almost 25 minutes per game — and LaVine is unable to initiate good half-court offense. But he has improved his defense, and is making fewer mistakes. In some short samples at shooting guard next to Rubio, LaVine has looked very good. Statistically, his most significant improvement is in scoring volume. Shooting roughly the same percentages as last year, he’s posting over 20 points per 36 minutes, compared to last year’s 14.7. He’s turning it over one half fewer times per 36 as well. These have his PER up from 11.3 (significantly below average) to 16.9, which is a great leap. If he ever plays shooting guard and takes advantage of his athleticism with stronger drives to the hole, he might become a pretty special player.
Based on my conversations and the commentary I observe online, I think LaVine is much less polarizing than he was a year ago. His performance has stabilized a lot in a short amount of time. The next step is trying to tap into his enormous potential as a playmaker off the dribble.
Andre Miller: A-
Miller grades high because he is almost 40 years old and still manages to help the Timberwolves second unit, in the rare instances in which he has been able to play backup point guard minutes. He is a statistical outlier for the team, in terms of the on/off rating stats. When Miller plays, the Wolves pace slows way down to 92.5 possessions per 48 minutes (second lowest to Rudez) compared to the team average pace of 98.8. When Miller plays, the offense plays incredibly well (116.5), and the defense plays incredibly poorly (113.6), but it all shakes out with the Wolves outscoring opponents in the time he mans the point.
It’s too bad that Miller has only played 138 minutes this season.
Tyus Jones: Incomplete
Jones is playing in the D-League now, where he belongs. It will be at least a year, and probably more like two, before we know what he can and cannot do at the NBA level. Writing him off or forming any conclusions about Jones based on his lack of playing time this year would be silly. Nobody paying attention thought that he’d play this year.
Kevin Martin: D+
Martin is having his worst season since he was a rookie in 2004-05. This is for a pretty simple reason: he hasn’t made shots. His field goal percentage is at a miserable 37.3 right now, despite a big 37-point outburst against the Lakers on Wednesday night. Martin holds the ball too much on offense, and when his shots don’t fall, the team performance really suffers. I hope the Wolves trade him to a contender – not for any sort of player to jam up the rotation so much as to lighten the rotation and allow more minutes for young players like Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine.
Andrew Wiggins: B
Wiggins has had a pretty good season, so far. He’s by far and away the team’s scoring leader, averaging 21.0 points per game. His field goal percentage is still pretty low (42.8) and his three-point shooting has been mostly non-existent (0.7 makes per game) but he continues to draw tons of fouls. He’s shooting 7.6 free throws per game. If Wiggins improved his shaky foul shooting — he’s connecting on just 74 percent of them now, and has missed multiple game-deciding free throws already this year — that would boost his efficiency a bit. The biggest drawbacks to Wiggins performance right now are his lack of rebounding and his assist-to-turnover ratio which remains on the wrong side of 1.0. I think his passing game will open up over time, if the Wolves ever hire a coach who spreads the floor on offense. As for rebounding, I’m not sure. He takes his defensive assignments seriously and contests a lot of perimeter shots. That probably takes him out of rebounding position more than some players, who get beat to the basket more often, or require more help from teammates. But that seems like making excuses, too. He needs to rebound more.
The best parts of Wiggins season have been the close fourth quarters where he creates his own offense. Those go-to guy plays are the biggest signs that he will become an All-Star in the future. He has been good this season.
Tayshaun Prince: B
There seem to be two camps of people, regarding how to feel about the 443 minutes that Tayshaun Prince has already played; more than both Nemanja Bjelica and Shabazz Muhammad: (1) there is a camp who likes Prince playing because of the way his careful offense and intelligent defense help stabilize an otherwise young team. This camp points out that Prince has the best net rating (+5.0) on the team, right now. (2) There is a camp who hates the Prince minutes because he produces nothing offensively (4.5 points per 36 minutes) and is cutting into important minutes that would be better invested on Muhammad.
I understand both arguments, but so far have tended to fall in the former camp. With so many young players out there trying to learn on the job, I think it’s been helpful to have a guy who knows where he is supposed to stand on both ends of the floor, and mostly just stays out of the way. The Muhammad minutes are a cost, no doubt, and I think we’ll see this change as the season progresses toward April. But for now, I’ve been okay with how Prince has been used. I don’t think the net rating is a coincidence, either. On a team like the current Timberwolves, he helps them play better.
Shabazz Muhammad: C-
A major theme of Shabazz Muhammad’s young career has been improvement. He improved dramatically throughout his rookie season, and then took another major step forward last year, when his consistent scoring production landed him an unexpected spot in the Rookie/Sophomore Game (whatever they call it) at All-Star Weekend. Before this season, one of the NBA GM’s (in the always-interesting anonymous poll) selected Muhammad as the most likely to have a breakout 2015-16 season.
Through the season’s first quarter, that has not happened. Unfortunately, he has taken a slight step back from how he was playing last season.
First, Muhammad is only playing 17.4 minutes per game. As mentioned above, regarding Prince, there is an argument to be made that this is a problem that should be fixed. Muhammad is still producing — just less efficiently than last year — and his future in the NBA is obviously more significant than the 35-year old Prince’s. But still: if Shabazz was playing like an improved version of what he was last year, he’d be playing a lot more. He hasn’t, so he isn’t.
Second, Muhammad’s scoring is down both in terms of volume (17.2 pts/36 vs. last year’s 21.3) and efficiency (47.9 FG% vs. 48.9%; and from three, it’s 27.3% down from 38.2%).
Third, Muhammad’s assists have gone back down to “nonexistent” levels. Last year, he showed some improvement in passing, upping his assists to 1.8 per 36. Not great by any stretch, but not nothing either. This year, he’s assisting just 0.7 per 36. That happens to be the exact career average of DeAndre Jordan, to understand the company it puts Muhammad in as a non-passer.
One excuse that I have been willing to make for Muhammad is that he has had to play a lot with the Zach LaVine point guard lineups. Anyone watching this year’s team knows what I mean when I say that that unit can sometimes look really dysfunctional, as the point guard dribbles the air out of the ball from 35 feet out and the defense never has to move in order to contest what ultimately becomes a very difficult shot, late in the shot clock. Some of that dysfunction may have impacted Bazz, who moves well without the ball and is probably not being rewarded with good passes as often as he should be.
Muhammad still ranks right atop the NBA’s leaders in “points per touch,” (0.469, right behind Kevin Durant’s league-leading (among high-minute players) 0.478) but his touches per game are down to 17.6. Last year, he touched the ball 25.1 times per game, and scored a whopping 0.541 points per times touched. He’d probably benefit from getting his hands on the ball a bit more, preferably dished from a good playmaker like Rubio or Miller who might find him near the hoop with a head of steam.
Kevin Garnett: A-
KG gets the same “old age” grading curve as Miller. He’s played limited minutes despite his ostensible “starting power forward” status. In those minutes — 15.9 per game, appearing in 20 of the team’s 22 games — Garnett has been outstanding on defense (particularly defensive rebounding where his defensive rebound percentage of 31.2 would rank second in the entire league, if he qualified by playing more minutes) and has a pretty incredible assist-to-turnover on offense: per 36 minutes, he gets 4.0 assists to just 1.2 turnovers. He is almost as much of a non-scorer as Prince (7.2 points per 36) but hey, we’re talking about a 39-year old player here. Per the minutes he’s playing, KG has been great. When he’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by a couple points per 100 possessions, and that comes from great defense.
There is a lot going on with KG as a mentor that cannot be measured, but only observed during games and read about in stories. A few weeks ago, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan wrote the definitive piece about Garnett’s basketball psyche and his ways as a teammate. That is an outstanding and fascinating story that you should read (in case you missed it). I tend to believe that the KG depicted in that story — the one whose intensity bordered on abusive at times — is not the same one that is mentoring Karl-Anthony Towns right now. Garnett has conceded that his career is now in a different place, and he certainly knows that a title (this season) is unrealistic. With that in mind, I doubt he borders on insane in the ways that he did when he was focused more on short-term success, and a more active participant in the playing-games process. In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a story about Towns (because he is returning to the East Coast to play at New York and Brooklyn, this week) and I found the part about KG’s mentorship to be interesting:
His education has continued with the Timberwolves, who commissioned Kevin Garnett to act as Towns’s mentor. It was viewed as a gamble — Garnett can be abrasive — but he has embraced Towns and the team’s young core. After a recent practice, Garnett remained behind to counsel Andrew Wiggins on post moves for at least a half-hour. Towns has attached himself to Garnett as much as possible.
“Talking, watching, learning,” Towns said. “It’s an all-day thing.”
He has mimicked Garnett’s preparation, going so far as to shoot additional baskets after he lifts weights in hope of building his muscle memory. Garnett also advised Towns to keep their tutorials private. Pressed to offer a couple of morsels, Towns shook his head.
“I don’t want to say,” he said. “There are some things he does that I think we’re all accustomed to seeing, but there are some that are kind of unusual.”
Karl Towns, his father, said he could sense Garnett’s influence. He said there was no doubt that Garnett had accelerated his son’s growth.
“K. G. is an architect,” Karl Towns said.
The entire concept of Garnett taking on a true mentorship role, working hands-on with Towns and Wiggins, was met I think with some degree of skepticism among fans. Garnett has been outspoken and adamant that he will never be a coach. By saying that so loudly and definitively, it called into question how much interest he would have in acting as a quasi/player coach this year with Towns. The early evidence is that KG has not only accepted the role, but has embraced it fully with the same type of pride and intensity that he has put into playing his own career. If it continues, it will have an immeasurable, positive impact on this team and its young players.
Nemanja Bjelica: C+
This might be an unfair grade, because Bjelica is technically an NBA rookie. But he’s not really a rookie in the sense that Towns is; Bjelica is 27 years old and was the best professional player in all of Europe, last season. Also, he has demonstrated plenty of NBA-ready skills, like perimeter shooting, passing off the dribble, and surprisingly-decent rebounding. Since we know that he can do those things, it is somewhat frustrating to see him look so tentative to shoot at times (he’s hitting on 39 percent of 3s — many of them behind the line by a few feet — and still passes up a few open ones every game) and instead opt for dribbling into traffic for what usually becomes a more difficult shot for either himself or a teammate. In some of the Wolves best performances this season — wins at Chicago and Atlanta — Bjelica has logged big minutes and been a key factor. Lately, his minutes seem to be dropping. I’ve watched this guy shoot before games, and he makes at least 80 percent of his threes, most of them swishes. He’s got an effortless motion that explains how he’s able to flick it up there from about 28 feet without any trouble. The Wolves will play better if and when Bjelica gains enough confidence to become a bigtime perimeter shooter. If you imagine both he and Towns posing that type of threat as big men teamed up with Rubio, the future looks bright.
But when Bjelica goes to the free-throw line and shoots an airball — this same guy who was canning three after three in pregame shootaround — you wonder what’s going on inside his head. We saw Alexey Shved struggle with confidence in NBA games after starring in Europe, and hopefully there is a good system of support here for Bjelica to prevent that from happening. He’s a talented player.
Damjan Rudez: B
Rudez doesn’t get to play. He’s out of the rotation, barring foul trouble or an injury — such as the games when Bjelica was out with a knee contusion. When he’s played, he’s been solid. He makes threes and makes quick decisions with the ball. He’s the type of role player that you want on the end of your bench, sort of like what Robbie Hummel used to be, only with more shooting range. I wouldn’t mind seeing him play more to help boost the team’s three-point shooting, and its overall understanding of floor spacing and ball movement.
Adreian Payne: B
Payne benefits from low expectations after his poor rookie season. He has played better this year, but his playing time is very low (for good reasons, I think). Giving him credit where it’s due, Payne has upped his field goal percentage from 41 to 47, and upped his per-36 rebounding from 7.9 to 9.1. He’s improved from last year, but probably won’t factor into the Wolves rotation much, unless they shut down KG at some point and have more power forward minutes to go around.
Gorgui Dieng: B+
There’s a bizarre thing where Sam Mitchell seems to believe that Gorgui Dieng is a better defensive player and more reliable crunchtime option than Towns. It’s led to maddening substitutions and 4th Quarter rotations, and has probably led to Dieng being subject to unfair criticisms. Because he’s actually having a pretty good season. He’s just not (nearly) as talented as KAT is.
Dieng is shooting career-high percentages of 52.0 from the field and a crazy/unsustainable 90.9 from the free-throw line. His PER and win shares per 48 are both above league average (16.8, 0.139). His net rating is positive (+0.3) whereas both KAT and Wiggins are negative. And, despite us fans bitching about it, he has gained a lot of trust from his coach who obviously sees certain things that we don’t. Whatever the players are being told to do, he must be doing it, because he’s earning more minutes that most anticipated; 22.2 per game, despite sharing the center position with Towns.
My gripe with Gorgui is that he tries to do too much with the ball. He head fakes and pivots a lot, often resulting in turnovers. His 2.7 turnovers per 36 minutes is too high; his career-high, actually. He’s not a good enough offensive player to take on so much risk with the ball. Where he’s been solid is in mid-range shooting, where he’s got a nice touch and saves a lot of Wolves possessions by being a last-resort scoring option. He’s also been better than I remember him looking at defending heavy centers. His defense on Nikola Vucevic of the Magic was outstanding and almost helped them steal a win after the first unit played terribly.
Dieng’s playing pretty well right now.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A+
There isn’t much to say here that hasn’t already been said, and won’t continue to be said as Towns turns in one of the best rookie-season performances of the “One and Done” Era of NBA Drafts. Towns just turned 20 years old, but frequently looks like the best player on the floor. Despite what Kristaps Porzingis has been doing in New York, I think most people anticipate Towns to win Rookie of the Year despite playing on a team that doesn’t feature him like most top picks get featured (ala Wiggins last year) and despite the rookie class itself appearing very strong.
The only thing I’d like to see of Towns is more minutes for Towns. I know that 28.3 minutes per game is pretty high for a rookie, but most rookies don’t play like superstar veterans. Towns is ready for a 33 or 34 minutes per game role, splitting time at the 4 and 5. If Dieng continues to play well, KAT can play the perimeter role on offense as they share the floor, at times. He’s just so good, so immediately, that I don’t see any reason for the team to hold him out of games; particularly games when he’s not in foul trouble and the team is not on a back-to-back. That’s happened many times already this year, and it doesn’t make much sense.
I’m digressing here: KAT has been absolutely outstanding, the best Timberwolves rookie in history, it seems. More than anything else, he is reason for fans to get excited about this team’s future.
The Wolves are about to tip off at Phoenix in a Sunday matinee, so the numbers listed here will probably be a game outdated by the time you read this. Chime in, in the comments section and let me know where I screwed up in handing out these grades.