Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden were all smiles at Monday’s end-of-year press conference.
Yes, Thibodeau smiled — and laughed! — as they recapped their second season at the helm.
Why? Because despite the poor defense, the bad losses to bad teams and lack of progression from key youngsters, the Timberwolves had objectively their best season in over a decade. They ended their 14-year playoff drought, had two All-Stars for the first time in as many years and had a month of undeniably elite basketball.
For the first time in forever, it truly felt like every game was a winnable one for the Timberwolves. With the possible exception of Houston and Golden State — both of whom they eventually got wins against, if you’re counting the postseason — the Wolves had the personnel to feel confident against every team in the NBA.
Even when considering the baggage, that’s something.
“It’s the next step,” Thibodeau said. “I mean, when you haven’t done something for 14 years, it’s a major step for our organization. And it’s not easy to do. Winning in this league is very difficult, and we should understand that.”
Thibodeau is right. The Timberwolves had their shortcomings, but looking back at this season without remembering all of the good stuff is important.
And there was plenty of it.
Jimmy Butler was as good as advertised
Thibodeau loved talking about it, but he had good reason to.
“I hope everyone is recognizing how special he is,” Thibodeau said in December. “He’s changed everything for us. Big play after big play. He guards everyone. Hustle plays. Big rebounds in traffic. Passes. Shots. Free throws. Everything.”
Even in the locker room, Butler is often the one picking the music, initiating the conversations and generally setting the mood. It’s Butler’s team in every way. And acquiring him seemed like highway robbery at the time.
They got him from Chicago for a 22-year-old freak athlete with insane offensive potential and next to no defensive potential in Zach LaVine, the inverse of that in Kris Dunn and a potential two-way stud in Lauri Markkanen.
But everything the Bulls acquired was just that: potential. Butler was the real deal and proved it almost immediately. Early in the season, his numbers weren’t what fans expected — he averaged 14.7 points through nearly the first month (nine games) of the season, but they were winning. And even while the bare numbers weren’t stellar, the on/off court numbers were completely in his favor.
With him off the floor, the team’s defensive rating sunk from a respectable 106.6 to (what would be) a league-worst 112.4. He allowed Wiggins and Towns to find themselves offensively while he worked on the defensive end.
In terms of impact, it worked.
But after a while, it was clear that Butler would need to assert himself offensively as well. That’s what grabbed a 20 point-per-game average through the season — more importantly, his net rating began to rise as he asserted himself offensively, finishing the year at a plus-8.3 overall.
A torn meniscus would halt the chances for Butler to help seal up a playoff berth early, but it made his return — and their eventual clinching of a postseason spot — that much sweeter. Butler sealed himself as the team’s alpha early, and that likely will be the case for a while.
Certain components of the defense were good
As I wrote on Monday, the Timberwolves have had a bad defense throughout the Thibodeau era, and it didn’t get much better this year — even with the additions of Butler and Gibson.
But I also mentioned how good the Timberwolves starters were defensively. All Wolves starting fives — which include Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica as injury replacements — had five-man defensive ratings of 104.2 or lower — that would have tied them for the eighth-best defensive rating in the league.
To add more fuel to the “the starters are good” engine, the Wolves were ninth this season in first quarter defensive rating. It’s the only quarter where they avoided the bottom 10.
That tells me that not only did the Timberwolves starting lineup bring it defensively — and continue to bring it even amidst injuries — but also that the bench group as a whole didn’t. And while Jones and Bjeli finished with a positive net rating on the season — likely propelled, in part, by their time as starters – Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng were at the bottom.
The eye test was kinder to Dieng, but both struggled mightily staying in front of their guys and (mainly Crawford) occasionally gave up on defensive plays after a screen.
With Dieng off the floor, the Timberwolves were at the level of a top-20 defense. With Crawford off the floor, the level of a top-15. Meanwhile, everyone else not named Jeff Teague improved the defense statistically when they were on the floor.
With that in mind, could a small bench reshuffling “fix” the defense going into next year? Is it really as simple as two guys not doing their jobs on the defensive end? It’s tough to say, but if every number indicates the starters are bringing it — and hiding its one weak spot (Teague) along the way — maybe things could actually change.
They had an elite stretch of basketball
Between Dec. 18 and Jan. 14, the Timberwolves were arguably the best team in the NBA.
They had the league’s best offense and — despite everything I just typed above! — a top-five defense, and held a 12-3 record along the way. This featured blowout wins against Cleveland and New Orleans, impressively tight wins against Portland and Oklahoma City and some goofy losses that could have made the run even more impressive. They blew a double-digit lead to Milwaukee and lost by one to Brooklyn in this stretch.
At this point, it was hard not to watch the Wolves. They held teams to a league-best 89.7 defensive rating in first quarters, which often allowed them to build massive leads early. And on the nights they built those leads — with the exception of the loss to Milwaukee — they locked down defensively and didn’t let them go.
This was the high point of Towns’ season as a defender, too. After a brutal two months of criticism, an Instagram exchange from Joel Embiid created a narrative for what happened next. He simplified his approach and did a much better job at making the correct reads. Through this stretch, Towns was the defender the Wolves needed.
It was inconsistent after that stretch — as were the Wolves in general — but that month was fun for Towns and his team. It should be what they strive to do for the entire season in 2018-19.
They had a top-five offense
It was not always pretty, but it worked.
The Timberwolves were known for playing a “grind it out” style of basketball with very few 3s taken. In fact, they set their franchise record for 3s made and attempted this season, but still finished dead last in the NBA in both categories.
But they still finished with a top-five mark. How?
To start, they have five starters that can score — even Taj Gibson showed surprisingly nimble feet in the post and an ability to get points in the first quarter. Past Gibson, the other four have all averaged at or over 20 points per game and all can do it off the dribble.
The Wolves finished in the top-five in the following categories: field goals made, free throw attempts and turnovers committed. They were also seventh in offensive rebounds, which has its obvious offensive merits.
It’s often how they managed a 19-8 record against teams three through 10 in the West. It was the key ingredient to beating Denver in Game 82. It was the key catalyst to their run to the playoffs.
Ugly as it was, it was the main source of the fun.
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