After last evening’s blowout loss at Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves reached the season’s midway point. They have a 12-29 record. That they were at one time 8-8 and have not suffered any serious injuries this season (knocks on all of the wood) tells you just about everything you need to know about how their second quarter of the season — the last 20 games — went for them. They won 3 of those 20, defeating the Nets, the Kings, and the Jazz who were without most of their best players due to injuries. Many of the 17 losses, like last night’s, were lopsided.
However, since I need to write something and this represents a calendar benchmark of sorts, I’ll dig into the bloody details of the past quarter of the Wolves season. Just like last time, I’ll do letter grades, with each one representing the player’s performance in the last 20 games only. All advanced stats referenced come from nba.com if they aren’t otherwise linked, and refer to the last 20 games of the season.
As with last time, grades take role and expectations into account. An A for one player doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing better basketball than someone else with a B.
Ricky Rubio: A- (First Quarter Grade: B+)
Rubio grades out slightly better than last time (B+) for the simple reason that he played in all 20 games of the season’s second quarter. Health has been a major concern for Rubio in his career to date, and it’s nice to see him playing without any injury problems. His minutes remain a little bit low compared to how crucial he is to the team (30.4 per game) but some of that owes to the lopsided losses the Wolves have suffered in recent weeks. In those 30 minutes per game, Rubio has compiled impressive all-around stats including an assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.7 to 2.3. He averaged 2.7 steals per game in the second quarter of the season. Russell Westbrook leads the NBA with a 2.4 average overall. (Rubio trails him slightly at 2.3, playing fewer minutes.) Rubio’s net rating (+/- per 100 possessions) has been negative (-2.4 to be exact) but much better than all of his teammates who play significant minutes.
The two most interesting Rubio stats from the season’s second quarter: (1) When he sits on the bench, the Wolves are outscored by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. That is simply incredible. This team has simply been unable or unwilling to address its backup point guard problem in the last few seasons and it remains an abject disaster in the minutes Rubio doesn’t lead them; (2) Rubio is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range. His form doesn’t look any different, but hey: We’ll take it! Almost nothing would be better for this team’s progress than Rubio improving as a perimeter shooter. In the occasional possession where the Wolves properly space the floor around a double-teamed Andrew Wiggins, the ball often ends up in Ricky’s hands with a three-point shot to be had, if he’ll take it. The better he becomes at knocking those down, the better the team will be.
Rubio remains a good player and despite how disastrously his team has been playing, he continues to do everything he can to help them try to win.
Zach LaVine: D (First Quarter Grade: B+)
A primary reason for the catastrophic performance when Rubio sits is the poor play of Zach LaVine. After demonstrating wide-ranging improvement in the first quarter of this season, LaVine has regressed and has played poorly. He had the worst net rating of all regulars, at (-15.5) and the eye test confirms pretty clearly that his play is a substantial contributing factor to the team’s struggles when he’s on the floor. LaVine has been back to point guard duty, and he’s rocking an assist-to-turnover ratio that’s not much better than 1:1 (2.5 to 1.8 to be exact, unacceptable for a point guard). He’s shooting under 40 percent from the field and only 27.9 percent from three-point range.
In Sam Mitchell’s illuminating interview with Britt Robson for MinnPost, the most significant takeaway was how frustrated Mitchell has become from coaching LaVine. After describing a play where LaVine demonstrated poor fundamentals, Mitchell said, “You would think that’s just natural. But who coached him? I don’t know his high school coach. I don’t know his AAU coach. I know who his college coach was, but he didn’t start or play but 18 minutes a game in college.”
Of all the young Wolves being developed right now, LaVine remains the most interesting case. He has the eye-popping athleticism and the maddening struggles with the basics. Whether Mitchell coaches just this one season or many after it, I believe that a significant part of his ultimate legacy here will turn on how The LaVine Project turns out. Sam assures the media that Zach is going to come out these struggles a better and tougher player. Watching the last 20 games did nothing to inspire confidence in that projection. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, and try not to go crazy when the Wolves second unit is blowing game after game after game.
Andre Miller: Incomplete (First Quarter Grade: A-)
Miller is almost entirely out of the rotation now, only having played 73 minutes in the last 20 games. For whatever it’s worth, the Wolves were a net-zero in those minutes, far from the (-15.5) with LaVine on the floor. Their backup point guard management has eyes on the future, while looking purposefully away from the on-court wreckage in the present.
Tyus Jones: D+ (First Quarter Grade: Incomplete)
Tyus actually got to play for few games, logging a total of 84 minutes. In that time, the Wolves were outscored by 56 points. (!) He’s not ready for the NBA. His ball skills, and general point guard instincts look good enough, but his body needs a lot of work to play at NBA speed. I think most people understood this coming into the season so hopefully it doesn’t come as a surprise that he struggled. I think the Wolves were smart to get him out there a few games just to allow him a feel for where he needs to get, and have also been smart to pull him out of the lineup so they don’t break him too badly.
Kevin Martin: D (First Quarter Grade: D+)
Martin has been pulled out of the rotation for stretches of games to allow more playing time for both LaVine and Shabazz Muhammad. In the time that K-Mart has played, his struggles have continued. In the last 20 games his field goal percentage is just 36.8. In the Robson interview, Mitchell said, “K-Mart is supposed to be a shooter” when describing his team’s shooting woes. (Ouch.) His effort and ability on defense remain poor. Martin has the worst defensive rating on the team (115.3) aside from Jones and the fresh-off-Achilles-surgery Nikola Pekovic.
The Wolves have been trying to trade Martin for some time now, and probably will unload him before the deadline. Unfortunately, the return will be insignificant; probably an expiring contract and maybe a minor pick swap that might not even favor the Wolves.
Andrew Wiggins: B (First Quarter Grade: B)
Wiggins has been fairly consistent in ways both good and frustrating.
The good: Wiggins scores on a nightly basis. He attacks defenses and goes hard to the rim, either converting the shot or drawing fouls. He averaged 20.9 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting in the season’s second quarter. Wiggins is not yet a great defensive player but he’s a pretty good one and the Wolves defend better when he’s on the floor (106.7) than when he’s off it (108.1). While his assist numbers are low (1.9 per game) he has shown improving floor vision when facing double — sometimes triple — teams and the Wolves have the floor spread out. Wiggins suffers more than anyone else on the team from their cramped spacing.
The frustrating: Wiggins hasn’t developed reliable three-point shooting range, and he doesn’t rebound very much. He’s connecting on just 23.3 percent of three-point attempts, and pulling down only 3.8 rebounds per game. He can become too stationary when he isn’t directly involved in plays, trying to score himself or defending the ball. In order to become a better player, Wiggins could increase his activity level going for rebounds and seizing transition opportunities by running the floor harder.
He’s a good young player who probably has a bright future. But 1.5 seasons into his career, there are some identifiable flaws that need work if he’s to become an All-Star.
Tayshaun Prince: B- (First Quarter Grade: B)
Prince is what he is. He knows where to be on defense and has enough length to mostly offset his age-driven lack of athleticism. Prince doesn’t have a quick enough release, or enough range on his shot to be a helpful offensive player. He spots up in the short corners because for whatever reason the corner three is just outside of his comfortable shooting range. That limits the Wolves spacing and offensive productivity when he’s on the floor. Mitchell has said that he’d prefer to not play Tayshaun so much (because he’d like to develop his younger players) but he needs some stability when things get out of control. Things get out of control a lot on this team, and Prince is nothing if not stable. He can also be observed teaching on the bench during games, and outside of huddles during timeouts. I noticed him having what appeared to be a detailed conversation with Tyus Jones the other night, gesticulating about something which I found interesting mostly because Jones was in street clothes and would’ve had to seek out Prince to ask about whatever issue it was that they were discussing. It seems that Prince is taking the mentorship role seriously.
Shabazz Muhammad: B+ (First Quarter Grade: C-)
Hey, a player who is doing significantly better now than at he was at the beginning of the season. Shabazz has gotten his shooting going. In the second quarter of the season, he shot 49.3 percent from the floor and a whopping 43.8 percent from downtown. Muhammad does two things that his young teammates would be wise to imitate: He spots up in the corners, ready to shoot, and he runs as hard as he can up the sideline when he sees that there might be a transition opportunity. For whatever reason, he is the only Timberwolves player who completely plays a “pace and space” style, which seeks out the most efficient shots possible. The results are pretty clear in those shooting percentages. Bazz gets dunks and corner threes. He’s a smart player. Mitchell has been playing Bazz more, citing his responsiveness to coaching and his improvement in sharing the ball with teammates instead of shooting every time he touches it. Muhammad’s plus/minus stats are not good, but for this season’s second quarter anyway, I’ll willing to shift most of that blame elsewhere (read: LaVine) because Bazz has been playing pretty good all-around basketball of late.
Kevin Garnett: A (First Quarter Grade: A-)
The context of Garnett’s grade is more important than the grade itself: His knees are shot, and despite world-class preparation he can barely get himself ready to play the 13.1 minutes per game (and 0 minutes on back-to-backs) that he logged in the season’s second quarter.
But when he’s on the floor, KG is simply a master on defense. In the 210 minutes he played — certainly against opposing first units — KG’s lineups have posted a defensive rating of 94.4. Leaguewide, only the Spurs (93.6) defend better than that, and they’re putting together one of the best defensive seasons in modern history. For more context, when KG sits on the bench the defensive rating rises up to 110.5. That’s 3 full points worse than the Lakers defend, and they are dead last in the league. In other words, whether Garnett is on the floor determines whether the worst play elite-level defense or shockingly-bad level defense.
In some ways, it’s too bad that KG isn’t playing for a contender because in limited minutes, he could definitely help win a championship right now. Hopefully, here in Minnesota, these young players are learning from him while they can.
Nemanja Bjelica: D+ (First Quarter Grade: C+)
Bjelica seemed to lose whatever confidence he had, to the point that Sam Mitchell was instead opting to play the erratic Adreian Payne over Bjelly at times. In the season’s second quarter, Bjelica shot a miserable 32.6 percent from the field.
This has been one of the big reasons for the Wolves struggles after the promising start to the season where they had a .500 record after 16 games. When KG sits, they don’t have a reliable power forward to replace him. Bjelica has played better in the past handful of games, which will hopefully signal a big turnaround for his rookie season and his NBA career. He has intriguing skills — particularly as a passer when he dribbles into the lane and fires bullets to open corner shooters — but will need to show consistency and energy before anyone feels too optimistic about his NBA future.
Damjan Rudez: Incomplete (First Quarter Grade: B)
Rudez played fewer minutes than any other Timberwolf. He’s not in the rotation right now.
Adreian Payne: F (First Quarter Grade: B)
Payne shot 27 percent from the field in the season’s second quarter. After it looked like he might be improving a little bit at the start of the season, he’s now got negative win shares and a PER of 6.4, lower than his rookie season’s 7.7.
Uh… moving on.
Gorgui Dieng: B (First Quarter Grade: B+)
Sam Mitchell loves Gorgui Dieng. We know this much, by now. He’s played him over Karl-Anthony Towns in a lot of key situations, and has almost always emphasized that those decisions were made because of “G,” and not because of anything KAT did wrong. In the last 20 games, Gorgui is 4th on the team in minutes played, trailing only Wiggins, Rubio and Towns. Gorgui’s overall production has remained pretty stable. Per 36 minutes, he gets about a double-double (10.5 points, 9.3 rebounds in last 20) with both more assists (2.5) and turnovers (2.8) than you’d expect from a backup center.
In the Robson interview (Wolves bloggers will inevitably citing this all season) Mitchell said he was “ecstatic” about Dieng, because he has improved. He continued, “He has taken what we have asked him to do, and have coached him hard to do, and he has started implementing it. And now he understands.”
I don’t think Dieng’s improvement is as easily observed to outsiders as it apparently is to Mitchell. He still turns the ball over too much. We’re not privy to what is being asked of the big men. But it is helpful to know that Dieng is doing what coaches ask because that’s a translatable skill in and of itself. Whether Mitchell is this team’s coach going forward or not, Dieng will do what’s asked.
A final detail about Gorgui’s second-quarter performance: His net rating of (-6.9) was better (less bad?) than most of his teammates, including Karl-Anthony Towns. When Dieng sat on the bench, the Wolves were outscored by 9.9 points; a 3-point swing for the worse, which is kind of interesting.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A- (First Quarter Grade: A+)
Towns is still playing very good basketball, and outstanding basketball by “one-and-done rookie” standards. In the second quarter he averaged 15.9 points a game on 51.2 percent shooting. He averaged 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, in barely over 30 minutes. His jumpshooting has cooled off slightly in recent games, and the Wolves would be smart to run more plays to directly set up shots for KAT. In the flow, he isn’t always sure whether to shoot, and he always seems to miss when he has initial hesitation.
During preseason and the early part of the regular season, when the Wolves were winning, KAT talked about reaching the playoffs this year. That is obviously not going to happen, and hopefully the team’s 17 losses in the past 20 games are not killing his spirit. He still plays hard and shows emotion on the floor during games. He still says all of the right things about KG and Mitchell as mentors and there is no indication whatsoever that he has any sort of problem with what’s going on, beyond the losing of games. But Towns seems more competitive than most rookies, and I don’t think he’ll tolerate the type of re-re-re-building, and the mountains of losses, that other Wolves draft picks have had to experience. The organization needs to do something so that the team stops embarrassing itself so much.
Towns is probably the best rookie in what seems to be a great class. Kristaps Porzingis is his only competition, so far. The Wolves will have a strong shot of holding the past two Rookies of the Year, with another high draft pick on the way.
A parting shot about the coaching situation, and what’s happening with this team
It is clear to anyone paying attention that the Timberwolves, right now, are playing worse than they should be. They have a talented, if flawed, roster and there is absolutely no reason that they should be playing such consistently-bad basketball. The primary criticism of Sam Mitchell’s coaching — the high volume of long, two-point jumpshots compared to low volume of threes — is entirely legitimate and is a cause of the team’s poor offensive performance.
Let me offer another potential reason for the bad play in games, of late:
The Wolves are, quite literally, practicing and teaching during NBA games. You can see this every time Mitchell calls a timeout, or when a player comes off the floor and he grabs him to discuss a concept. This is true for Zach LaVine more than anyone else, and he is the player who is struggling more than anyone else right now.
One of my favorite sports-psychology tips I’ve ever read comes from the golf world, and Harvey Penick’s famous “Little Red Book.” When describing how to best prepare for a big match, Penick emphasized that the driving range shortly before the round starts is no time to make a change to your swing or grip, and instead “You must ‘dance with what brung you.'” In other words, to compete at your best you have to just play that day, and worry about practice and technique later. Right now, the Timberwolves have players — players logging serious playing time — who are being corrected on technique, and inevitably then THINKING ABOUT technique, right in the middle of the damn game.
Think about the Spurs or the Thunder or the Warriors or the Cavs. Do you think that their best players are giving any thought to basketball fundamentals when they go out to play a game? Not a chance. Their focus is levels above the basics. They’re picking up subtleties in the opposing defense, finding its weak spots to create open shots for themselves or their teammates. When they are doing this, Zach LaVine is thinking about how his legs should be set up when he catches a pass, or how he should misdirect his defender just to get open to catch a pass.
This is not an excuse. The Wolves would not have to do things this way and there is no certainty that this will work as well, or better than coaching to try to win every game instead of teach so much. But I do think that this is a big reason why the Wolves sometimes play worse than they would if they had no coach at all, but just rolled the ball out and played. There is a lot of thinking going on that is counterproductive to competition, and they’re hoping that there will be a long-term payoff.
For now, the only tangible benefit that we can be sure of is another high draft pick.