The Timberwolves lost at home to the Dallas Mavericks yesterday, extending their current losing streak to 6 games. They’ve lost 10 of their last 11, and face a difficult upcoming schedule. Their next three games include an away game against James Harden’s Rockets bookended by a pair of matchups against the Thunder. The All-Star Break is 16 games and about a month away. Of those 16, the only ones that feel potentially winnable right now are the pair of games against Anthony Davis’s Pelicans, the home game against the dysfunctional Phoenix Suns, and a game at Staples Center against the Lakers. If I had to bet right now, I’d say the Wolves will win 2 of those 4, and maybe 1 random game out of the other dozen, which involve legit NBA teams that are putting away this Wolves team with ease.
Coming into the season, the Wolves were predicted by gamblers and experts to struggle. This was largely because of how young the roster is. Part of me wanted to believe that they’d exceed expectations for the simple reason that every time Ricky Rubio has been healthy, the Wolves have been competitive. Although Kevin Love was obviously a great teammate, there were times when Rubio-led Wolves teams had poor supporting casts, but he was able to set up enough dunks and open jumpers to make his teammates better and win games; sometimes against the best teams in the league. They beat the Spurs twice in Ricky’s first season with players like Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic, Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams logging significant minutes. I figured that if Ricky could win with those players, he might be able to do the same with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, too — even despite their extremely young ages and lack of experience.
That is obviously not the case; at least not yet. Rubio himself is having a very good year; the best of his career, actually. Owing to an improved assist-to-turnover ratio, Rubio is posting a PER of 18.3, which is more than 2 points higher than his previous season high. Despite the Wolves 12-26 record, Ricky still has a positive plus/minus (+40). If he played 36 minutes per game instead of 31 (he battled ankle soreness for the first month of the season) and the Wolves were still hovering around .500, Ricky’s name would be on the outer fringes of All-Star Game discussion.
But the Wolves are not winning because of almost everything other than Rubio. When Ricky and Kevin Garnett have shared the floor, they have outscored opponents by 60 points in 405 minutes of action. That amounts to a “net rating” of (+9.3), in time spent almost entirely versus opposing first units. The Wolves defensive rating when Rubio and KG play is 93.3. That is slightly better than the Spurs’ 93.6, which is being viewed as potentially one of the great defensive teams in modern history. If there was a reasonable expectation of Garnett factoring into this team’s future, then these crazy stats describing he and Rubio would be greater cause for optimism. But KG is 39, he can only play a dozen or so minutes per game (and that number might be dropping, as he is battling injuries, presumably of the chronic variety, right now) and does not play back to backs. Instead, the Rubio and KG performance is just a present-day testament to what each is capable of, and how they complement each other right now.
When Ricky has played without KG for 577 minutes of action, the Wolves have been outscored by 20 points. That isn’t so bad, considering how young and inexperienced the replacements for KG minutes are. Twenty points over almost 600 minutes is pretty close to even basketball. But when you consider that the Ricky lineups are being outscored at all, and then factor in that the Wolves are outscored by a whopping 10.9 points per 100 possessions when Ricky sits on the bench, you begin to see why they are losing almost every game that they play. However good you think Rubio is, it’s apparent that the team’s total lack of a backup power forward (or a starting 4 for that matter, if you consider how little KG plays), and total lack of backup point guard, have prevented them from having a competitive season.
So what now?
Well, a few different things:
There will be adjustments, but they will be minor adjustments. Zach LaVine has been struggling, and last night Sam Mitchell played Andre Miller in the second half. That is never going to be a consistent decision, as Mitchell and the front office are dedicated to development. But when LaVine struggles, we may see Miller occasionally play backup point guard. I’m sure they will continue to tinker with different roles for LaVine, including shooting guard. Shabazz Muhammad’s minutes are beginning to increase. His production has improved in the last 15 or so games. Maybe as he plays more with Rubio, his team-worst (among regulars) net rating (-9.1) will improve, too. Bazz does two things that the Timberwolves team at large would do well to learn from: run the floor hard in transition, and spot up, ready to shoot, in the corners for three. Mitchell has said recently that Bazz is improving as a passer, which will allow him to play more. Most would agree that his defense remains an issue and an area he needs to work on, in order to become a starter in the future.
The losing will continue. No matter what Mitchell or the players say, the team is not improving — not on a team and game results basis, anyway. With more losing will come more Twitter calls for Mitchell’s job, and more fan attention directed at next year’s draft lottery where the Wolves — assuming current trends continue — figure to be picking in the top five. Waiting for the lottery in an inherent part of Timberwolves fandom. This year will be no different.