How Much Are the Timberwolves Improving? The Question that Will Decide Mitchell’s Fate

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“When you look at that core [of the Timberwolves best young players], are they getting better? The numbers say they are. Are we playing better defensively? Yes. Offensively? Yes. Would we like to win more games? Absolutely. Our young core is learning how to compete and win each and every night.”

Those were the words of Timberwolves Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell in his recent interview with Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. The concept of improvement is the single most important one for this team, this season. Consider recent events, and what is going on with this team at this moment.

When Flip Saunders tragically died from complications with his cancer treatment, he was smack in the middle of one of the league’s most successful roster-rebuilding jobs in recent NBA history. Flip was in charge of acquiring players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns, and he was equally in charge of teaching them how to play NBA basketball; teaching them individually to become star players, and teaching them to play together as a successful team. We’ll never know how much and in what exact ways Flip’s death altered the trajectory of this franchise, but given how much power he had as both front office boss and head coach the alternate reality where he leads this group for the next decade is inevitably much different than whatever will actually happen.

After Flip passed away, Glen Taylor put a freeze on big-picture decision-making while he got to work on selling the team to new ownership. Milt Newton would run the front office, and he’s obviously running it very conservatively. He answers phone calls more than he initiates them. The Wolves were not active at the trade deadline. Newton and the front office have an obvious default position of, “Do nothing with the main roster pieces, and prepare for the next draft pick.”

Sam Mitchell’s job is more interesting because there is no “passive” option for the coach. The show must go on, and the Timberwolves will play 82 games this season just like every other team. The Timberwolves have a team of ridiculously talented young players, and those players need to be coached up so that they improve as individuals and as a team. The NBA season is precious time for these guys like Wiggins, LaVine and Towns to gel as a synergistic group and to learn more about what it takes to succeed at this level. And they will rely on their coach more than any other person in the world for help in those endeavors.

In short, the one big thing that the Timberwolves needed to do this season, after Flip’s untimely passing, was improve as players, and improve as a team.

Mitchell understands this, and understands that since he desperately wants to be this team’s coach for the long term, he needs to be able to demonstrate that improvement has happened. It’s why he emphasizes that point at the outset of the Wolfson interview.

But is he right?

Let’s take a look, and try to fit this year’s performance versus last year’s into appropriate context.

Individuals

The individuals to really look at are Wiggins, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, and Gorgui Dieng. Ricky Rubio was already established as a good player and he’s remained exactly that. Karl-Anthony Towns was not in the NBA last season.

Wiggins has improved somewhat as a scorer. He’s averaging 20.8 points per game, which is obviously impressive, and he scores more per minute than he did as a rookie. (21.3 points per 36 minutes this season; 16.8 per 36 as a rookie.) He’s scoring slightly more efficiently with a field goal percentage boost from 43.7 up to 44.7. His true shooting percentage, a more all-around measure of scoring efficiency, has increased from 51.7 to 52.8. What’s nice to see about Wiggins’ bump in scoring is that it has come in the context of better team offense. Last season, his “offensive rating” (team’s points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor) was 100.2. This year, it’s 103.9. More individual scoring in the context of a much better team offense == improvement as a scorer. That’s good to see, and if it continues, Wiggins will become an All Star in a year or two.

But Wiggins seems to be at the point now where internet backlash takes shape. He was hyped last year for some memorable highlights, big rookie-year performances, and a Rookie of the Year Trophy. To keep the conversation moving, fans feel smarter by emphasizing the things that Wiggins is bad at. He gives them some ammo, and has not improved much (or at all?) in non-scoring departments. He doesn’t rebound much or get many assists, and his numbers in those departments have actually worsened from Year 1 to Year 2. He continues to record more turnovers than assists. And his three-point shooting has gotten significantly worse, down to a miserable 25.6 percent accuracy.

Overall, Wiggins has improved some because of the big scoring volume bump and the way that it came with slightly improved efficiency in a better team offense. But if you’re grading Mitchell’s job of developing Wiggins, it is fair to wonder why the rest of his game’s evolution has stalled.

Lavine has improved more than Wiggins has, but he also started from a much lower point. Compared to his rookie season, LaVine is scoring more, and more efficiently (like Wiggins), posting per-36 points of 19.1 versus 14.7 in his rookie year, with a field goal percentage of 43.9 up from 42.2. LaVine averages almost a full turnover fewer per 36 minutes this year. Those improvements are reflected in his bump in PER from a bad 11.3 to a league average-ish 14.8. LaVine has improved as a defensive player, but still has a ways to go. His presence on the court — particularly when he’s defending point guards — continues to correlate with poor team play. However, while last year that team performance was catastrophic (-14.5 net rating) this year it is just really bad (-6.8). Some of that huge difference (7.7 points) is attributable to LaVine’s own improvement, while some of it is attributable to his improved supporting cast, including the 344 minutes he’s been able to play next to Rubio. In that time the Wolves outscored opponents slightly (+10). In the 1,029 minutes LaVine played without Ricky, they were outscored by 204 points.

Mitchell has clearly had his patience tested by LaVine’s lack of basic fundamentals. His memorable rants about bad AAU coaching were interpreted, I think, to be in regards to LaVine. There is still a long way to go before LaVine becomes a consistently-helpful NBA guard, but there is some evidence that he’s improved from Year 1 to Year 2. How much of that is attributed to Mitchell is anyone’s guess. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe it’s the result of the day-to-day coaching he’s receiving.

Shabazz is an interesting case because Mitchell seems to be impressed by strides that Bazz has made. He mentions that a lot – that Bazz has improved as a more willing passer and a more conscientious defender. Yet the numbers don’t really back up those assertions; at least not the ones about passing and offense. From last season — Bazz’s second as a pro — to this season, he’s posting worse numbers in the following areas:

  • Minutes per game
  • Field Goal Percentage
  • 3-Point Percentage
  • Rebounding per minute (both offensive and defensive)
  • Assists
  • Steals
  • Blocks

It should go without saying that his aggregate advanced stats like PER and win shares per 48 minutes have seen significant drops. (19.9 to 14.3, and 0.110 to 0.074, respectively.) Among regular rotation players, Muhammad has the worst plus-minus stats on the team, slightly edging out LaVine in that department.

Maybe Mitchell sees things that we don’t, but it sure seems like Muhammad has regressed in his third NBA season.

Gorgui Dieng is clearly one of Mitchell’s favorite players, if you’ve ever heard the coach talk about the player. Though Gorgui is averaging slightly fewer minutes per game this year (25.9 versus 30.0) that is just because they drafted a big man with the first overall pick, and last year they were tanking with a bunch of questionable injuries to the veteran players who might otherwise play over Gorgui.

In his time on the floor, Dieng is posting pretty similar numbers. His PER is a little bit worse but his win shares are a little bit better. The most significant change with Dieng is on defense. While the Wolves are close to an abject disaster on defense when KG is not on the floor (read: most of the time) they are less bad with “G” out there. Gorgui’s defensive rating is 106.4. The team’s is 108.8 without KG on the court, which would qualify as worst in the NBA. Last year, Gorgui’s defensive rating was 108.6. So however you want to interpret this, it basically amounts to the following:

The Wolves are still bad on defense this year. Even when Gorgui plays. But they’re less bad on D when he plays than when he sits out (unless KG plays) and they’re less bad on D when he plays than they were last year when he played.

Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing. Gorgui’s improved some on D, but is mostly the same player.

So, for the individuals, in summary:

  • Wiggins slightly better because of scoring
  • LaVine better because of scoring, turnovers, and defense, but still has long way to go
  • Muhammad worse all around
  • Gorgui slightly better because of defense

For a talented quartet of second and third year players, is that an impressive job of player development? (I really don’t know.)

The Team

Even though the Wolves have already surpassed last year’s win total (16) and they seem to be improving, this isn’t necessarily true. At least not as much as they should be. The improvement question is more problematic for Mitchell when discussing the team’s performance, and that is due to a pair of huge contextual factors:

  • Ricky Rubio played only 22 games and 692 minutes last year. His ankle soreness persisted, and sitting him out was a nuclear tanking weapon for the next draft position. This year? He’s played 50 of 56 games, and 1,523 minutes.
  • The Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns this year and they did not have Karl-Anthony Towns last year. Towns is a rookie and makes some rookie mistakes, but overall he’s already playing like an All-Star big man. Consider what Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN tweeted today about where KAT already ranks among NBA centers:

That’d be a minority opinion, but not a crazy one. That’s how good KAT is.

So when you consider that the Wolves have KAT, and you consider that they have had Rubio when they had neither of those players for much or all of last year, you’d want to see some significant improvement in team performance.

After last night’s lopsided loss to the mediocre Knicks, on the Wolves home floor, their record fell to 17-39. That projects out to about a 25-win pace. Last year, the Wolves were 7-15 when Rubio played, which is a 26-win pace.

However, look into the numbers a little bit deeper and 25 wins starts to feel optimistic. The Wolves opened the season with an 8-8 record by playing veterans Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett in starting roles. (Garnett, to be fair, played limited minutes even when starting, but he was a regular rotation player.) Since that time, the Wolves’ record is 9-31, which is a pace of 18.5 wins. That’s horrible and almost the exact same as last season’s league-worst 16.

A more depressing dissection of the Wolves team performance comes when you look at how they defend — ahem, “defend” — when Garnett is not on the floor, which is most of the time, and represents the performance of the players they are trying to develop.

KG’s “off” defensive rating — the Timberwolves points allowed per 100 possessions when Garnett is on the bench — is 108.8. The Los Angeles Lakers, on Kobe’s Farewell Tour, allow 108.5 points per 100 possessions, which is the worst defense in the NBA. For some context of how bad the Lakers defense is, the 29th ranked defense, the Suns, allow 1.3 fewer points per 100.

Put simply, the Wolves defense is horrendous unless Garnett plays, and Garnett is not a part of the future. If improvement is happening on a team-wide level, it is minimal.

In the next few months, Wolves-fan attention will be redirected from the games and toward the draft. That’s almost an annual tradition here, and the Wolves will once again be picking high.

But on the floor in the last 26 games, something big will be happening. Sam Mitchell will be trying to prove that he is the right coach for this team going forward and that “interim” should be removed from his job title. In order to do that he will need his team to play improved basketball, and not only in the surface-level measure of wins and losses versus last year’s wins and losses that insults our intelligence. The young Timberwolves need to defend better than worst in the NBA, and it would help if we saw Wiggins used more creatively and in ways that use his immense talents other than just scoring.

If they just ride things out on the current pace, with a competitive loss here followed by a blowout loss there, I don’t think there’s much question that there will be a coaching change this summer. The only thing that Flip’s unexpected passing allowed them to do this year was develop the young roster he assembled. At this point, it isn’t clear whether that is happening very much.

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1 Comment

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One response to “How Much Are the Timberwolves Improving? The Question that Will Decide Mitchell’s Fate

  1. jmndodge

    I like Mitchel – I see improvement. KAT/Dieng/Wiggins/LaVine/Rubio – are having a good run. I also see some need for major change – Fast start (emotional victory’s early) perhaps largely based on the personal athleticism and desire to make Flip proud, then losses as other teams games came together and we continued to rely on simple athleticism. Payne has shown little progress – Jones has played very little – Bjelica started farily well and showed signs of being our PF – but we haven’t run and offense to take advantage of his skills. Rudez also seems to be simply thrust into situations without taking advantage of his game. The panic switch from LaVine as SG – to PG once again, the slow development of Jones, and sparing use of Miller all raise questions. KG/Prince/Martin starting – playing until their legs gave out KG – Prince? while not developing Bjelica is a major red flag. In all fairness – PEK continues injured and unable to play, many games were so close – it’s difficult to bring in bench players – and as skilled as Jones is with the basketball – his defense along with his size likely simply kept him on the bench. Still my key – is seeing Bjelica come back from injury and finding out if Sam can run plays, build his confidence and get him going. He has the skills we need – Coaching has to put them into play.