When I began recapping the Timberwolves 2017-18 season, the idea was to cover everything in one piece. There’s plenty to discuss, but it was also a good season in the grand scheme of things.
I thought so, anyway.
The team clinched their first playoff berth in 14 years in exciting fashion, Jimmy Butler was every bit as good as advertised and Karl-Anthony Towns took more steps towards true stardom. On top of all that, they had a bigger uptick in wins than any team in the NBA.
But after I put a poll out on Twitter, I got a better sense for how Wolves fans were thinking as a whole.
Of course, I knew there were bad points of this season, but the poll really got me thinking. Yes, the majority of fans felt as though this season met their expectations in the grand scheme of things, but a third of them got less than what they wanted out of this season.
I then decided to break up the season recap into two parts. Because, as many rightfully relayed to me, the Timberwolves had as many fun moments as they did hair-pulling ones.
As good as it did get this season, the route to the 47 wins, the playoff berth, the All-Star nods and everything else wasn’t always a smooth process.
So, what went wrong this season?
(Note: Some of this was written before the Game 82 win over Denver. This has some updated numbers, figures, and mentions from the postseason.)
A Lack of Defensive Improvement
In 2016-17 — a team that still had Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine in the starting lineup — finished the season with a defensive rating of 109.1. That was good enough for 26th in the NBA.
After acquiring Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague in the offseason, there was an expected collective improvement on defense. Butler and Gibson were part of Tom Thibodeau’s famous defensive stalwarts in the early 2010’s, and while Teague was never a strong individual defender, he was part of strong collective defensive units in Atlanta.
Instead, the collective improvement was minimal. They finished with a defensive rating of 108.4, tying them with two other teams for the 24th worst defensive output in the league. At several points this season, the Wolves were in the bottom three.
How did this happen? Dane Moore covered this in detail before the regular season ended, citing everything from dumb mistakes to consistently shaky individual pieces. A number of things cause this minor shift in defensive productivity, but it can be somewhat boiled down to one-man mistakes ruining it for everyone else.
If Towns makes a bad read off a pick and roll, or if Jamal Crawford loses his man at the top of the key and gives up, everyone else has to overcompensate.
This happened a lot through the season. As much good as both Butler and Gibson did on the defensive end, they can’t fix how their teammates play defense.
They did improve in certain aspects. Early in the season, they were giving up a ridiculous number of points in transition. After addressing it, that number went down and they nearly finished in the top 20 in fast break points allowed. Even more impressive: They finished ninth in points allowed off turnovers.
These are baby steps, but a huge step in the right direction from where they started.
But as soon as the Wolves slowed down and figured this out, opposing teams picked up on their shaky halfcourt defense and exploited it. The Houston Rockets didn’t have many fast break points in their five-game set, but killed them in the pick and roll and off isolation plays.
This was a problem throughout the regular season, and it killed their chances of setting themselves apart from teams three through 10 in the West.
Bad Losses to Bad Teams
The Timberwolves went 34-18 in conference play this season. Only six teams in either conference — Utah, Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Toronto — did as well or better than them in that regard.
But against five of the bottom seven teams in the NBA, the Timberwolves acquired an additional eight losses. To make matters worse, they lost four times to the bottom two teams in the NBA record-wise — Phoenix and Memphis.
Had they won even half of those eight “bad” losses, they’d have finished with the No. 3 seed with the opportunity to make the New Orleans Pelicans look a little less dominant in the first round.
The worst part about the losses — past the losses themselves — was its impossibility to pinpoint exactly why this was happening. They lost some of these games early in the season when they were still “figuring themselves out”, some with Butler or Teague injured, but also while everyone was healthy and things were seemingly going fine.
If nothing else, the bad losses forced the Timberwolves to play for their playoff lives in Game 82, which then forced them to play the Rockets in the first round. It forced them into a no-win situation.
The Bench Never Stepped Up, But Rarely Had a Chance To
For better or worse, Jamal Crawford summed up the general them of the bench back in December.
“It’s a difficult challenge,’’ Crawford, who played just 20.9 minutes per game this season, said after a home win over Sacramento, where he played 17 minutes. “Because this is the lowest minutes I’ve played, pretty much the same minutes I played as a rookie. So you want to actually do it the right way, and play within the framework of the game. But then, if you’re not out there that much, you kind of have to make something happen. So it’s a balance I’m trying to figure out.’’
He was then asked if he sees any advantage to playing fewer minutes.
“To be honest with you, I don’t.’’
The three-time Sixth Man of the Year has the hardware to prove his value to a team, and it’s not like the starters never advocated for bench players to get more grind.
“They need more time to get a rhythm. Sometimes, they don’t really get the minutes that they deserve,” Taj Gibson said in mid-February. “Sometimes, when they mess up, they may just get snatched right out.”
Gibson wasn’t the only one.
“Guys get tired. I think they need opportunities,” Jeff Teague said in late March “…Hopefully Thibs sees that they can really help.”
That time never came. Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica both played well in their stints as fill-in starters when Teague or Butler would get hurt, and both averaged over 30 minutes per game over those stretches.
But when Teague and/or Butler would return, both would return to their bench roles with no increase or change in minutes or role. Neither averaged more than 16 minutes per game as a bench player.
This seems a bit backwards for a few reasons. Bjelica and Jones both had inconsistent seasons, but both also showed clear improvement from their first couple years in the league. With a recovering Butler or Teague, it would make sense for Thibodeau to throw extra minutes at their newly-proven backups.
That rarely happened — but in Thibodeau’s defense, there are numbers that back up this decision.
The Timberwolves starting lineup had a defensive rating of 104.2 when on the floor together this season. If that were sustainable through the rest of the game, we might have been talking about a completely different team this season.
But in the defense of Bjelica and Jones specifically, the starting groups with them (individually) in the starting group actually had better defensive ratings than the regular starting five.
When they were benched, their leashes were short. Any time Bjelica made a mistake, it was commonplace to see him look over to the bench to see if Thibodeau was making a substitution. Often times, he was onto something.
Considering his history both as a passable starter in the NBA — which was inconsistent, without question — and the general mind games that probably brings, it’s tough to imagine what it’s like to be both a bench player on the Wolves.
Especially with the minutes they go in expecting to get.
How Much Better Did Andrew Wiggins Get?
This season, Wiggins’ effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and more bare shooting numbers either regressed or stayed the same as they have his entire career. Even with Butler there to take the other team’s best defender off of him, he still struggled to find his way to the rim or the 3-point line — about 48 percent of his shots this season were non-3s/shots at the rim.
This number improved through three games in the playoffs, but again disappeared in the final two games against Houston’s daunting defense. His defensive improvement was undeniable, but even there, question marks remain.
There’s still time for Wiggins to figure it out, — lots of time; his five-year max contract begins next year — but the numbers indicate that his small individual improvements have yet to turn into tangible overall improvements.
Wiggins has all the talent in the world. He just hasn’t put it together yet.
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