Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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We were hardly given a minute of time to digest The Season That Was before all discussion shifted toward the new search for both a head coach and president of basketball operations. What follows here is my final run through quarterly report cards — this one covers the final 20 games of the season — with some thoughts about each player’s season as a whole, and a final grade.

The 4th Quarter was the Timberwolves best, as they hit a .500 record (10-10). This was much like how they started the season 8-8, but only this time it was on the backs of KAT, Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and even Tyus Jones, instead of the crucial early-season contributions of Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince; elder statesmen who don’t factor into the team’s future. This stretch included road wins at Oklahoma City (!) and Golden State (!!). They also won at Portland and Washington. The Wolves closed the season the way everyone had hoped they would, with momentum heading into next year when reaching the playoffs will be a realistic goal for the first time since 2013.

Here are the final grades, and just a reminder that these are on my subjective curve that takes expectations and role into account:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+, A-)
Season Grade: A-

Rubio’s play was pretty steady all season long. In the final quarter, he shot the ball above his averages (40% from the field, 36.4% from three) but was otherwise about the same as usual, statistically. His per-game averages were 10.4 points, 8.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 2.9 turnovers in 30.5 minutes. These are pretty much right in line with his season averages. Ricky ended the year with career bests in advanced stats like PER (17.6) and win shares per 48 minutes (.119) owing to his combination of career bests in per-36 minutes assists (10.2) and turnovers (3.0, tied with one other season).

For the season, Rubio would get an A- grade. He remains very good or great at most aspects of the game, except for shooting. He might make one of the NBA All-Defense teams. And even with his shaky shot, Rubio helps lead a good team offense. His season offensive rating was 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which was the best among regular Wolves players and signifies good team offense. (Only 5 teams scored better than the Wolves did with Rubio on the floor, this season.) Rubio is a spectacular transition passer and developed chemistry with LaVine, Muhammad and Wiggins on the fast break, as the season moved along.

We often talk about plus/minus, and on/off differential with Rubio, because it so clearly captures his value to the Timberwolves. This season, in the 2,323 minutes that Rubio was on the floor, the Wolves outscored opponents by 18 points. In the 1,653 without him, the Wolves were beaten by 308 points.

He may never make an All-Star Team due to his limited scoring output, but he is clearly a helpful starting point guard, and probably one of the best dozen of them in the world.

Zach LaVine: B (Previous Grades: B+, D, B-)
Season Grade: B-

In the last 20 games of the season, LaVine played almost exclusively shooting guard. This was a welcome change for fans tired of watching Zach struggle to man the point. In the final quarter, LaVine posted great three-point shooting numbers, hitting 2.5 per game on 5.7 attempts (44.2%). His assist-to-turnover ratio was solid for an off guard (2.9 to 1.8). His worst stats, as is usually the case with LaVine, are in the team performance, on/off categories. Even in the shooting guard role, LaVine’s presence on the floor seemed to correlate with worse team performance than when he was on the bench. The numbers reveal that the performance downgrade comes on the defensive end. With Zach in the game, the Wolves had a net rating of (-1.9) in 701 minutes, and when he was on the bench they were (+5.0), which was the best of all “off” ratings during the season’s final quarter.

LaVine gets a B- for the whole season. As a rookie last year, he was not even close to ready for the NBA. This season, he improved a lot, but still has a ways to go. His jumpshot looks more and more like his most useful skill, and if he can work on his defense and court awareness, he could potentially make for an ideal backcourt pair with Rubio. His athleticism, best showcased at the Dunk Contest where he is now a two-time champion, is breathtaking and unmatched by his peers. LaVine learned this year how much easier scoring comes in transition, and he has also embraced three-point shooting. Those are two big steps. His turnovers are down from last year, probably because he isn’t playing point guard.

LaVine’s upside remains high, but this year was more about raising his “floor.” He seems destined to have a long career, which was not necessarily a given when this season began back in October.

Tyus Jones: B (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+, C)
Season Grade: C

Tyus finished the season stronger than he started it, which is a low standard to cross. He was not physically ready for the NBA game when he left Duke, I think most people realized that, and that’s okay. He was drafted with the understanding of most that it would take some time for him to adjust.

In the final quarter of the season, Jones had a nice assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.5 to 1, with those precise averages of each per game. Per 36 minutes, those adjusted to 7.1 assists to 1.9 turnovers. His net rating, which was catastrophic for much of the season, improved to a “merely bad” level of (-3.8). It was not the worst among regular Wolves players. His big struggle in the final quarter was three-point shooting: he went on a stretch of 12 games without hitting a 3. (He attempted 18 of them in that streak.) But Jones had nice games when it mattered most, like his 8 points and 6 assists in a win at Washington, and — more impressively — his 7 points and 5 assists in the shocker at Golden State.

The big question — kind of huge, actually — is whether the Wolves will sign a reliable veteran point guard as Rubio’s backup this summer, or whether they will make a leap of faith on Jones’s offseason development. The player that we saw this past season was not good enough to be in a winning rotation. I think he’ll eventually become good enough to at least be a solid backup, but that may not be for another 2 years. Everybody will get frustrated if the Rubio on/off differential remains the limiting factor in the team’s ascent. That’s not fair to anyone, including Jones.

It’s something that will be discussed plenty over the summer.

Andrew Wiggins: A- (Previous Grades: B, B, B+)
Season Grade: B+

Wiggins found his shooting touch in the season’s final quarter. His 21.3 points per game were the most efficient of his career as he shot over 50 percent from the field and — more importantly — over 40 percent from three-point range. In the first three quarters of the season, Wiggins shot a miserable 26.1% from downtown, so the improvement was great to see. Hopefully it continues into next season and beyond. In the final quarter, Wiggins had the second-best on/off differential to Gorgui Dieng. The Wolves were (+4.7) when he played and (-14.0) when he sat; a whopping 18.7-point difference. His 32-point, 6-steal performance in the surprising win at Golden State was among the greatest of his short career.

For the season Wiggins gets a B+ grade. He improved significantly as a scorer, increasing his per-36 minutes scoring from 16.8 to 21.2 points. He did this while connecting on more field goals (45.9% up from 43.7%) and drawing more fouls. He shots 7.0 free throws per game, up from 5.7 as a rookie. Perhaps most importantly, Wiggins scored more in the context of a much-improved, much-more-functional team offense. In his rookie season, Wiggins offensive rating (the points the Wolves scored per 100 possessions while he was on the floor) was 100.2. That’s really bad. You probably remember the “force feed Wiggins on the block” offense that Flip Saunders used as a development and tanking tool. This year, that figure bumped way up to 105.7, which is pretty good. In many games, Wiggins managed to get his 20 points without hijacking the offense; playing “second banana” next to Towns or even LaVine, occasionally. That’s a big step in his development, and this team’s development.

In the future, Wiggins needs to round out his game with better rebounding, playmaking, three-point shooting, and defensive consistency. But for a high-upside player who just recently turned 21 years old, his career is off to a very good start.

Shabazz Muhammad: B (Previous Grades: C-, B+, D+)
Season Grade: C

After struggling for much of the season to adjust to his role with the Wolves second unit, Shabazz finished the year okay. Over the last 20 games he averaged 11.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 19.0 minutes per game. (Per 36, these amount to averages of 21.1, 5.7, and 1.9.) His net rating remained bad, at (-4.1) but this can be partially attributed to how much he played with Jones at point guard (287 minutes), rather than Rubio (88 minutes). One disappointing part of Bazz’s last quarter was his three-point shooting, which was under 23 percent.

Shabazz came into this season as a really intriguing young player. He had been establishing himself as a consistent scorer off the bench, providing all sorts of energy combined with a knack for finding shots at the most efficient places on the floor. The question was whether or not he could round out his game by improving his defense and passing.

Unfortunately, not only did he not improve as a defender or passer, but he also struggled to score with as much efficiency and consistency as last season. He had some moments, like the huge 35-point bomb he dropped on Golden State recently, but they were fewer and farther between than they were last season. His future doesn’t seem as bright as many of us had hoped, and I have doubts that he will be back with the Wolves next season. Between Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine, they already have 3 young scorers who will each want their shots. If Bazz cannot become more of a team player, he probably doesn’t fit in here and both he and the team would benefit from sending him out for a fresh start.

Before wrapping up on Bazz, it’s worth revisiting the point about not playing much with Rubio, because it really might have explained some of his struggles and poor on/off stats.

Shabazz’s minutes with various point guards broke down as follows, with corresponding +/- totals:

  • with Rubio: 412 minutes (+22)
  • with Miller: 201 minutes (-16)
  • with LaVine: 581 minutes (-132)
  • with Jones: 491 minutes (-148)

(Eds note: These numbers are not 100 percent perfect, as nba.com doesn’t list 3-man lineups under 20 minutes total, and it seems there might’ve been 5 to 10 minutes of strange combinations that possibly included both Rubio and Miller, or Rubio and Jones, with Bazz. But these are about 99% correct.)

What’s clear is that Bazz lineups did fine as long as they were led by Rubio. When LaVine was the point guard or Tyus was the point guard, they were awful. How much of those struggles was Bazz’s fault? I suppose that’s anyone’s guess. But it’s worth acknowledging that he spent a great deal of this past season — about 2/3 of it — playing with overmatched or unqualified point guards. His lineups did fine with a good point guard running the show.

Nemanja Bjelica: B- (Previous Grades: C+, D+, D+)
Season Grade: C-

Bjelica shot the ball better in the final quarter of the season. He also earned back some playing time that he had lost after his extended midseason slump and weird foot injury over the All-Star break. In the final 20 games he shot an impressive 56.9 percent from the field and 48.3 percent from downtown. His plus-minus numbers were bad; a net rating of -6.8, which was worst among all Wolves aside from soon-to-be-out-of-the-NBA Greg Smith and Adreian Payne. In checking out his “with and without Rubio” breakdown, he was (-25) with Tyus Jones in 187 minutes, and (-14) with Rubio in 54 minutes.

This season was a disappointment for last year’s Euro League MVP. There is no other way to put it. If you want to be a Bjelica Apologist (and I get the sense there are more than a few of them) you say things like, “He’s being used incorrectly,” and “Imagine if he played for the Spurs.”

Thing is, he didn’t really show much this year to deserve those excuses. For potential strengths, he showed that he could hit three pointers, but he would usually pass them up and unsuccessfully dribble into traffic instead. If the lane was WIDE open, he would drive in and fire nice passes to the corner. But how many NBA rotation players CAN’T make a decent play with a wide open lane to drive around in?

He had a few moments, and maybe he’ll come back with greater confidence next season. But as of now, the Bjelica Project has been a flop.

Gorgui Dieng: A- (Previous Grades: B+, B, B+)
Season Grade: B+

In the final quarter of the season, Gorgui had the best offensive rating on the Wolves (aside from little-used Damjan Rudez) (111.6) and the best defensive rating on the Wolves (102.5). To put those numbers in perspective, the 111.6 is almost as good of offense as the Warriors (112.5) and almost as good of defense as, well, the Warriors (100.9). That net rating of (+9.1) means that in the 28.5 minutes per game that Dieng played in, the Timberwolves were kicking ass. When he was off the floor, their net rating changed from (+9.1) to (-13.0). The dropoff was from “awesome” to “unbelievably shitty.”

Now, anyone watching the games knows that Dieng wasn’t a “dominant” player; not even during the season’s final quarter. He averaged 11 and 7 during this stretch. But those on/off splits are not entirely — or even mostly — a coincidence, either. Dieng continued to develop chemistry in the same frontcourt as Towns, always played hard on defense and on the glass, and knocked down shots when he was left open.

Overall, Gorgui had a really solid season. I continue to believe that his ideal role would be a high-minutes (25 per game) backup center who can fill in as needed at the 4, but for the Wolves as presently constructed he is unquestionably one of the team’s five best players, and one of the team’s two best big men. Mitchell was right to have Gorgui starting next to KAT under the circumstances. He has a reliable mid-range jumper and teased a new corner three in the last couple months of the season. (He practices that as part of his pregame routine, so this is more of a project than a fluke.) Gorgui plays at full intensity, which can only be a problem on the tail end of back-to-backs; sometimes Mitchell would play him 40+ minutes on the front end, and Gorgui clearly had no gas in the tank the next night.

Before next season starts, the Wolves will have the opportunity to sign Gorgui to a contract extension. (If they don’t reach an extension, it doesn’t mean the Wolves lose him, but just that he will enter restricted free agency in 2017.) It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, as his future market value is subject to some debate. He probably isn’t a starter if you’re trying to contend for a championship, but he is certainly a regular rotation player on any team, and front court depth always has value. I have no idea how that will play out.

Karl-Anthony Towns: A+ (Previous Grades: A+, A-, A+)
Season Grade: A+

In the final quarter of the season, Towns averaged 21.3 points on 55.1 percent shooting, 10.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game.

There isn’t much to say about KAT that has not already been said. He put together the best rookie season in Timberwolves history by a big margin. (An interesting debate among Wolves historians would be who is second? Top contenders would probably include Christian Laettner, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Love, and Andrew Wiggins?) There’s an outside chance that Towns will make Third Team All-NBA, which is a rare honor for any rookie. If Bill Simmons still wrote his famous “trade value” column, KAT would possibly rank first in the entire league. People are having the argument of “KAT or Anthony Davis, if you’re starting a franchise today?”

Flip hit a homerun with KAT. He might have hit another with Wiggins or even LaVine, but it isn’t clear yet; it is hardly ever this clear when you’re talking about a player just a few years removed from high school. Towns’s unfulfilled potential probably includes more prolific three-point shooting, and building more muscle to allow him to be a full-fledged “stretch 5,” who miraculously provides all of perimeter shooting, slashing off the dribble, posting up, defending the interior, defending the perimeter, and creating plays for his teammates. Oh, and being an exemplar teammate and almost unrealistically coachable.

Did I leave anything out?

Probably.

Point is, Towns is the reason that people like Tom Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy want to coach this team. He’s destined for All-Star Games, All-NBA Teams, eventually the Hall of Fame, and, hopefully, a championship in Minnesota.

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  1. Pingback: Tyus Jones: The 1 & Done Who Wasn’t? | Punch-Drunk Wolves