The Minnesota Timberwolves Have Had Tangible, but Sporadic, Improvement This Year

All three games on the road were winnable. Five minutes to go in each one of those games, we had a chance to win them.

— Tom Thibodeau after a loss to San Antonio, referring to road games against Boston, Miami and New Orleans

The Minnesota Timberwolves went 29-53 last year, so as of this writing, as soon as the Wolves win their next game, they will have matched their win total from last year. They have 10 games left this year, beginning with tonight’s game against the Indiana Pacers. Two of them come against the Portland Trail Blazers, who beat them 112-100 in a game that wasn’t even that close on Saturday. One of them comes against Golden State, who they beat 103-102 earlier this month. Five of the last six come on the road, where they are 10-25 this season.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how this team will finish, but there’s a win somewhere in there — and likely a few more. But even if they finish with, say, 33 wins this year, it’s hard to call this season a success. Sure, they surpassed their win total from last year. Sure, they were in the playoff hunt until Nemanja Bjelica suffered a season-ending left foot injury in Boston and the team proceeded to lose six straight games — a season high. Sure, Karl-Anthony Towns passed his double-double total from last season and Andrew Wiggins scores 20-plus points almost every night and Ricky Rubio has started to score, period. But the Wolves will miss the postseason for the 13th straight season, the longest such drought in the NBA, and if they had been better late in games this season, that might not have been the case.

At the beginning of the year, Vegas set Minnesota’s over-under at 41.5 wins. Britt Robson, who has covered the Wolves since their inception, had them at 47. Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post had them at 50. And they weren’t the only ones that were bullish on this team. In truth, however, projections for the Wolves were all over the place. But Minnesota didn’t drastically improve this season, and therefore there have been some rumblings that this team would have done just as well under last year’s coach, Sam Mitchell.

Mitchell, in case you need a reminder, was put in a tough position after the death of his friend and former coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders. He was openly hostile, or at least McDonald’s level salty, with the media after taking over as interim coach and widely disliked by the fanbase, judging from my Twitter feed and other fans I know. He also went 15-17 from February through the end of the season and was unfairly fired by the organization at the end of the season.

The notion that this team is better off with him, however, rather than Thibodeau, is absurd. In order to understand this team’s improvement, let’s start by looking at a few players.

As mentioned before, Rubio has suddenly rounded out his game. He’s not an elite scorer now, by any means, but he is missing fewer layups near the basket and shooting better from the floor. He’s been willing, and allowed to, take long twos — an inefficient shot, but one he’s more likely to make. This has also opened up passing lanes for him, which allows him to do what he does best: Put the ball in the hands of the team’s best scorers in a way that is unparalleled in the rest of the league.

It’s not just Rubio that has improved, however. Towns recorded his 53rd double-double in the 100-93 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, surpassing his rookie total of 52. Wiggins not only has established himself as a reliable scorer, but is willing to drive to the lane and either juke around opponents or dunk right over them, depending on how he is being defended.

Before he got hurt, Zach LaVine was the Wolves’ most reliable three-point shooter and a dynamic slasher who brought out the best in Gorgui Dieng as a pick-and-roll partner. Like LaVine, Bjelica was becoming the player he was supposed to be — a three-point threat with some defensive upside — before he had his season-ending injury.

So, before getting to the whole Thibodeau-Mitchell dynamic, it’s wise to acknowledge that a fully healthy Wolves team could have made the playoffs this year. In fact, the team was rolling before Bjelica went down — they had held the Utah Jazz to 80 points, nearly beat San Antonio, and then beat the playoff-bound Los Angeles Clippers and the red-hot Washington Wizards.

Was it all Bjelica? It’s unlikely. But with LaVine out, the team’s depth was severely compromised, and Bjelica is a factor on defense as long as he’s assigned to the right player. On the other hand, defense is Thibodeau’s strong suit, and as Robson pointed out in his latest column, this team went from playing solid defense to their old habits after the Boston game. This is hardly lost on Thibodeau either, who was irate after the San Antonio loss when, once again, had to repeat the whole “they went rogue” bit in another bitter defeat.

“We have to be able to count on each other,” he said. “When the pressure is greatest, you have to be at your best. You have to be able to execute when the pressure is turned up. And those are the habits that you build day after day.”

So if Thibodeau’s message isn’t getting through, or at least is slow to, and the team is going to barely win more games than it did last year, why is he a better option than Mitchell? Because of the potential Thibodeau possesses as a coach. He reached 100 wins faster than any coach in NBA history when he was with the Chicago Bulls. He is a maniac on the sidelines, but is able to compartmentalize — going from drill sergeant to college professor as soon as he has a clipboard in his hand. After the games he occasionally takes blame and doesn’t throw his own players under the bus. He has a clear vision and articulates it to the people covering him rather than lashing out at the media. And, frankly, he’s an alpha personality that knows how to avoid creating drama with his players.

Reverting to poor defense and making the same late-game errors is frustrating for everyone involved, and missing the playoffs again, especially with a wide-open 8-seed, is hardly a positive development. But at the end of the day, this is a team full of individual players that have potential that need to play better as a team. That “connectedness” is something that Thibodeau has stressed since the beginning of the season, and one day it will sink in. But until it does, this team will continue to miss the playoffs and wonder how good it could be if it performed as a unit rather than as a set of talented individuals.

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