Andy G: Through 30 games, the Timberwolves have already gone through a series of different chapters in their 2015-16 season. Early on, they earned impressive road victories against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and raised expectations that most had just a few weeks earlier. Then Ricky Rubio started sitting out winnable games with a confusingly-described ankle condition, they played LaVine at point guard, Wolves lost those games, and nobody was quite sure what to think of this team. After Rubio returned, and with Karl-Anthony Towns already playing like a veteran star, the Wolves faced a soft schedule phase that included seven consecutive games versus weak opposition (Lakers, Nuggets, Suns, Nuggets, Knicks, Kings, then Nets). Had they been able to string together 5 or 6 wins in that relatively easy stretch, they’d inch back towards .500 and re-enter the Western Conference Playoffs discussion. That did not happen, after they lost four straight in the middle of that stretch and only came out of it with three wins.
Most recently, the Wolves find themselves in a more difficult stretch of games that began at Boston, then came to Target Center for a Spurs matchup, and then again at home against the Pacers. The Celtics and Spurs games were one-sided losses. The Pacers game was close for three and a half quarters, and then became a 14-point loss. On Monday the Wolves play the Spurs again, this time at San Antonio. After that they play the Jazz, who as of this writing would be in the West playoffs. After that they play the Pistons, who are three games over .500. The Wolves record is now down to 11-19, and could easily drop down to 11-22 before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve after the game in Detroit.
Winning one out of three is much better than last season (when they won almost exactly one out of five games), but falls smack in the middle of lottery territory, too. In and of itself, a .333 winning percentage is bad.
There are problems on this team that have now crystallized as they approach the midpoint of the season.
First is the most obvious, the least disturbing, but also the most controllable: The Timberwolves are incredibly young. Their top three leaders in total minutes are each 20 years old. More than anything else (and despite how talented each one of those players is) this is a factor that would prevent any team from seriously contending for a playoff run. Twenty years old is the typical age of college sophomores and juniors, not good NBA basketball players. Andrew Wiggins is great for his age and experience level, but he has flaws. Zach LaVine is getting better, but he was drafted as an athletic “project” and has a long way to go. Karl-Anthony Towns is as good a one-and-done rookie as I can remember watching, but… well, he’s still a rookie and will make certain mistakes now that he won’t make when he’s a few years older. The minutes being played by 20 year olds is something that absolutely should happen, but absolutely will prevent the Wolves from winning a lot of games.
Second is the power forward position. Kevin Garnett is a good defensive player, but he’s tenth on the team in minutes, and that’s without having suffered any injuries. Nemanja Bjelica is currently ninth in total minutes, after beginning the season with solid play in a significant role. Ideally, the Wolves would play Garnett as the ostensible starting four, but Bjelica would play as a stretch and playmaking forward for 25 to 30 minutes per game. Unfortunately, Bjelly is getting worse instead of better with more NBA experience, and now Mitchell has benched him entirely from the playing rotation. (Well, that’s what happened on Saturday versus the Pacers, anyway. He was barely playing in the games leading up to that DNP-CD, and it seems that whether he plays 0 minutes or 5, he’s low on the totem pole.) This means Adreian Payne is playing more, and that’s not going to be good for the Wolves performance. He just makes too many mistakes and has too poor an understanding of basic positioning and fundamentals. As things stand, the Wolves might be best off playing their two young centers together — Towns and Gorgui Dieng — and simply utilizing a “best players on the floor” approach, without regard for positioning and spacing. (Natural segue…)
Third is the team’s offensive system, which encourages a lane jammed up with offensive and defensive players alike, so that they rarely find easy baskets, and rarely cause defenses to move enough to create open three-point shots. It seems like the objective on many Timberwolves sets is either to find an open mid-range shooter, or to feed the low post. This is in contrast to good modern NBA offenses, which generally try to create open driving lanes for layups, or drive-and-kick action where help defenders have to scramble all over the place to try to run shooters off the three-point line while not giving up a layup to a different player after the ball is moving. The Wolves shoot 16.3 threes per game, which is second only to the Brooklyn Nets for fewest in the league. The shoot 25.6 shots in the restricted area — very close to the hoop — which is tenth-fewest in the league. As you might expect, knowing that the Wolves shoot so few threes and layups, they lead the league in mid-range shots, attempting 28.4 of them per game. Mid-range shots are not necessarily bad, but they only make sense if they are wide open, and if there is a great shooter taking them. For instance, the Clippers and Spurs both shoot a lot from the mid-range but that’s because opponents forfeit wide open Blake Griffin shots from there as a way to avoid him from dunking after Chris Paul starts bending the defenses off of a ball screen. For San Antonio, they just picked up LaMarcus Aldridge, a great mid-range shooter with enough size to couple his shooting threat with playmaking for teammates. The Spurs and Clippers shoot 42 and 40 percent from mid-range, respectively, while the Wolves hit just 38 percent of them.
Fourth and lastly, is the team’s backup point guard situation. As mentioned previously, Rubio missed some games earlier in the season with ankle soreness. It was 6 games total and the Wolves lost 5 of those. Their 10-14 record with Rubio in the lineup would give them a winning percentage right between the Jazz and Kings; the current 8 and 9 seeds in the West. When Ricky’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, and when he sits they are outscored by 7.8 points per 100. That 11.1-point swing is enormous, and it comes largely by the choice of the organization; the choice of not playing Andre Miller as the regular backup point guard. On the entire roster, only Miller has a better net rating (+5.2) than Rubio. For much of the season, the backup point guard was LaVine, who most by now believe is better suited to play off guard. Very recently, Mitchell has indeed moved LaVine to off guard, but not next to Miller. Instead, the team called back Tyus Jones, the rookie doing D-League service for six games, and has slotted him into the rotation as the backup point guard.
The turn toward Tyus is a fairly unmistakable sign that the team is done trying to flirt with a competitive season. Jones might have a future (I tend to believe he does, others worry about his lack of size and explosiveness) but nobody reasonably believes he is presently able to play NBA point guard at a competitive level. These minutes that he receives — 20 versus the Spurs in (-11) action, and 11 more consequential ones versus the Pacers in (-13) action — will be the same type of on-the-job training that LaVine experienced last year. They might pique the interest of Minnesota sports fans, and will probably help accustom Jones to NBA game speed. But they will also frustrate the diehard Wolves fans watching most or all games, and possibly frustrate some of Tyus’s teammates — through no fault of his own — if he is incapable of hanging in there against top competition.
I just wrote a lot of words about a lot of Wolves stuff.
Patrick J, what are your thoughts on any or all of it? Do you like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard?
Patrick J: Do I like the move toward Jones as the backup point guard? Yes, but with caveats.
Tyus is (right now) viewed by many as The Point Guard of the Future. The question is, What does that mean?
In my opinion, not much.
For practical and expedient purposes, Ricky Rubio is The Point Guard of the Future. And Ricky Rubio is a damn good Point Guard of the Future–even though he’s been The Point Guard of the Future for a long time. The thing is, even if Rubio’s stats this season betray it, the eye test–yes, the vaunted eye test!–says he’s the point guard of the future. He’s extremely good as a point guard even if he does it by looking different from the conventional stock of point guards of the future around the league.
Rubio isn’t old, even by today’s look toward tomorrow’s standards. He’s currently 25.067 years old, per Basketball Reference–as of this writing. Rubio is a winner. The Wolves play better and win at a significantly better clip when he plays a lot. They play worse and lose at a significantly worse clip when he doesn’t play. Andy G has dug into this at length, and his research is well worth a read (or another read, icymi).
Rubio is that oddball point guard whose je ne sais quoi can’t accurately be gauged by today’s hyper-sophisticated metrics. He’s pretty much the worst pg ever at shooting. Kirk Goldsberry showed this in detail, on the now-defunct Grantland. Ricky Rubio has also had trouble staying healthy. Just check out his games played.
Tyus Jones, through his brief career thus far (SAMPLE SIZE!), also shows signs of being both a winner and being able to stay healthy. And, given both a few more years and a few more pounds on his lean frame, Jones shows more signs than any other comer (outside of Rubio) of being a capable point guard for the Wolves.
Should Jones be the backup point guard now? The answer is, it depends on what the Wolves are trying to do. And this is the most vexing part of the entire issue we set out to analyze.
So what are the Wolves trying to do? Interim head coach Sam Mitchell says the Wolves are trying to develop players. We have to take him at his word right now. There isn’t that much evidence to the contrary.
The young players are getting a lot of minutes, though Karl Towns (and, arguably, Shabazz Muhammad) should be getting more minutes. But if Smitch’s word is his bond, then Tyus should be the backup point guard to Ricky. And this should be the case for years to come–probably through the entirety of Tyus’ rookie contract. Rubio is is and almost assuredly will be the better point guard. If you want both development and wins – who doesn’t? – then you play Rubio a lot. It isn’t rolling the dice. He’s that good.
That said, under this plan, you also develop Tyus Jones. This isn’t that easy for me to write in what is essentially an opinion piece.
For me personally, I’ve always been a big fan of Andre Miller. He’s older than me, but I’ve been watching him since his Utah teams were in the Final Four. And I’ve always been impressed with him. And the Wolves are pretty good when Andre Miller is on the floor.
But in the spirit of rebuilding, I prefer Tyus Jones getting some reps BEHIND Rubio as opposed to Andre Miller getting those reps. Here’s a situation where Miller can live up to his branding as “Professor” Miller. I have a Ph.D. myself, and one thing I learned in the process is that your adviser is incredibly important, and is often more important when he works in the background and teaches you how to shine.
I think the same is true today of Tyus and Andre, with Ricky in the middle. Ricky IS the future. Tyus is an important part of it. And Miller is here to make both better. And I think that’s what’s happening. I hope Tyus gets a small number of consistent minutes behind Rubio for the rest of the season, even if Miller is still the better player. His role, like Kevin Garnett’s, is to make young guys better. And I think Miller gets that. And I think Tyus Jones and Ricky Rubio get that. It’s about time that Tyus Jones is given the leash as the BACKUP point guard.
We’ll see whether Sam Mitchell has the patience for it over the next several months.
Until next time.
Season Record: 11-19