There hasn’t been a Timberwolves season like this in over a decade.
A clean 25 games into the season, the team has wins against presumed playoff big whigs, three All-Star caliber players, and a winning record. As of right now, they’re a playoff team; a claim they haven’t been able to make since Kevin Garnett – now a 41-year old TV show host – was in his twenties competing for MVP trophies.
It’s a time that Timberwolves fans should be excited about, even if there are clear and noticeable challenges that face them.
Like any season — yes, even the seasons in the early 2010s — there are good things and bad things that come from them. In losing seasons, it’s important to remember the good. In the ideal seasons, it’s important to stay humble and focus on things a team still has to improve on.
For this year’s Timberwolves team, there’s plenty of both.
The defense isn’t much better
Last year, the Timberwolves featured the second worst defensive rating in the NBA. Even with the addition of Tom Thibodeau on the sideline, the star trio of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine had no sense of how to defend.
This season, they replaced LaVine with Jimmy Butler, slotted Taj Gibson into the power forward spot, and had Wiggins and Towns through one year of Thibs Defense University. The thought — or at least the hope — was these small upgrades would revolutionize the way the Timberwolves played defense.
So far, that has not happened.
Following Monday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, they sit at 25th in defensive rating and haven’t been much higher than that at any point in the season. Towns and Wiggins have shown flashes of improvement on that end, but are far from putting it together. Butler and Gibson have done their part individually, but haven’t changed the way defense is played overnight.
What’s keeping them in the playoffs is their top-five slot in offensive rating. In order for them to be a more meaningful contender in the Western Conference, they’ll want to try to aim for the middle of the pack on defense.
That’s not much to ask, but it’s apparently going to take a while.
The starters are playing a LOT
As it stands, all five Timberwolves starters are in the top 40 in minutes per game, and four of them (all but Gibson) are in the top 30.
This suggests a couple possibilities:
1. The bench isn’t good enough to keep out on the floor for an extended period of time. Thibodeau is forced to play the starters in order to keep the team in games.
2. Despite some solid play from some bench pieces — especially Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica, and sometimes Jamal Crawford — Thibodeau simply feels more comfortable giving his starters minutes.
Certain losses — and even some “bad” wins — have been attributed to fatigue from the starters. The near-loss to the shorthanded Clippers on Sunday was one of those examples.
Butler, the team’s star from that game, didn’t seem to see it that way.
“I think everybody in this locker room wanted to be a professional basketball player and play 48 minutes if they could,” Butler said Sunday. “I don’t think minutes has anything to do with it.”
Butler has been the one taking the brunt of those minutes. He’s currently sixth in the league in minutes per game, but this isn’t new to him.
He’s played for Thibodeau before, and finished as high as first in minutes per game in season’s past. He was fourth last year under Fred Hoiberg in Chicago, in fact.
The minutes, and the subsequent fatigue, will be something to look out for going forward. If the players say it isn’t fatigue, maybe it’s not. But it’s hard to tell.
Some bad losses early on, to go along with some bad wins
They have losses to the Phoenix Suns, the Mike Conley-less Memphis Grizzlies, and the John Wall-less Washington Wizards.
If the Wolves are going to be a team that the top of the Western Conference takes seriously, these are games they need to capitalize on and win. Every time.
This goes back to the original two points, though. For this to happen, they need to play better defense. They might need some fresher legs to help them from time to time, too.
It’s unclear, we’ll see. Either way, these types of losses need to disappear for this team to be taken truly seriously.
The summer acquisitions have been almost exclusively great
It took Jimmy Butler a while to get going, but he has clearly found his place on this team as its leader.
Over the past 10 games, he’s averaging 23 points, shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point land. On defense, he’s brought it every night. He’s been Thibodeau’s sounding board for the players, and done everything they’ve asked him to do.
But he isn’t the only one.
Coming in, Taj Gibson’s 2-year $28 million deal was not a unanimously-adored deal. Most saw him as a worker, a defender, and not much else.
He’s proven to be more than just that.
As described well by Dane Moore here, Gibson has been a first quarter All-Star, a perfect complimentary piece to Towns inside, and has even added a 3-point shot to his game.
But his defense is what has really set him apart. On both ends, he knows where to be at all times, which is especially huge considering his new team’s defensive struggles this year. He and Butler alone may be the ones that have moved the Wolves from 29th last year in defensive rating to 25th this year.
Jeff Teague has looked great in spurts, and passive in others. Still, playing point guard with exclusively new teammates is not an easy task, and learning to play with ball-dominant stars like Butler, Towns and Wiggins adds to the challenge. He’ll likely get there.
Bench piece Jamal Crawford has had his ups and his downs, but can be directly linked to one of the team’s 14 wins this season.
The new guys have been big factors in a number of wins. While it’s hard to quantify exactly how much impact they’ve each had on each individual win, the improvement to the team’s record says a lot.
They have some impressive wins against good teams
They’ve shown they can beat good teams this year. While beating teams like the re-bolstered Thunder and the Kawhi-less Spurs aren’t wins that should set them up for the year, they’re huge for an unproven team early in a season.
And while they’ve experienced some bad losses and some “bad” wins, they’ve also shown they indeed can beat up on the teams they’re supposed to. They have double-digit wins against the Dallas Mavericks, the Nic Batum-less Charlotte Hornets, and the (mostly) Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans.
But in order to keep pace with the big dogs of the West, they’ll need to start beating those elite teams. As of now, they’ve only played the Warriors once, and have yet to play the Houston Rockets. They haven’t even played talent-level peers like Portland or Denver yet. But their wins against San Antonio and Oklahoma City are important, and need to become a pattern.
They’re a good sign, either way.
The team is on pace with what most people expected
The Las Vegas line to open the season was 48.5 wins for the Wolves. At 14-11, that puts them on pace to win 46 games.
For all the struggles this team has gone through early, for all the growing pains they’ve experienced as a new team, for all the vocal chords Thibodeau has severed in his occasionally-frustrating stretch.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where Towns, Butler, Wiggins and Teague don’t figure out how to fully maximize their scoring prowess. On some nights, they’ve looked like a top-tier team in the West. They’ve done this against some of the best teams in the NBA.
And they’ve done it with multiple players pitching in on different nights. Butler, Wiggins, Towns, Crawford, and Teague have all had nights where they’ve been the hero.
In the playoffs, that will be a big thing. The fact that they’re going there is big in itself, though.