ZONE COVERAGE ROUNDTABLE: A Look at the Timberwolves

(photo credit: Jim Faklis)

Hey friends — Brandon Warne here to moderate another Zone Coverage roundtable discussion. Last week we broke down who should be the quarterback next season for the Minnesota Vikings, and this week I’ve cobbled together our Wolves experts to answer a few questions.

We’ll do these weekly as long as they remain semi-popular, but so far, so good.

Brandon: How legitimate is Jimmy Butler’s MVP candidacy? To me as a casual observer, it’s pretty easy to see how important he’s been to turning this thing around. And beyond that, when he’s not on the court, his effect is obvious.

Tim: His candidacy is absolutely legitimate, but his odds of winning the award are slim to none at this point. When I wrote about it a couple weeks ago, it was easy to write about all the reasons why he deserved the award, but it was still hard to actually give him the award when looking at the other candidates.

As good as Butler’s, and as easy as it is to make a case for him, it’s just as easy to make a case for players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. In some cases, it’s probably easier.

Dane: I draw parallels to Isaiah Thomas’ “MVP candidacy” from last season and Butler’s this year. Meaning: He’ll get votes — the media votes for the top-five candidates — but those votes will put very little pressure on the players with legitimate candidacies (LeBron James, James Harden, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant).

Another relevant line to draw is that between Butler and Joakim Noah’s MVP candidacy under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. In 2013-14, Noah finished fourth in the vote — a nice little moral victory but Noah was no real threat to Durant (the 2014 MVP) or LeBron and Blake Griffin who finished second and third, respectively.

David: The recent fall of the Cavaliers makes LeBron’s case slightly less cut-and-dried as a top-four member of the MVP race, and while Stephen Curry and James Harden have both been unreal with Harden leading his team to new heights, both have now missed chunks of the season that appear significant to this point (Curry 15 of 49, Harden 10 of 46). These will not prevent them from probably finishing 1-2 in the race at the end of the season, but matter at least a little bit now.

Dane is probably correct that Butler’s best hope is a third- or fourth-place finish with few to any first-place votes, but the fact that the Timberwolves are on pace to improve their record from last season by nearly 20 wins, led by Butler playing critical roles on both offense and defense and leading the team in clutch moments, should not be understated.

Lucas: I think he legitimately belongs in the conversation, but I’d be shocked if ended up winning. Not many players can entirely change the culture like he — and Taj Gibson, to a lesser extent — has. His impact has been felt on both ends of the court and has played a large role in getting Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to finally buy in on defense. In my mind, it’ll be a travesty if he doesn’t finish in the top-five vote getters, especially if the Wolves win 50 games and secure home-court advantage in the first round.

Brandon: I’ve been really impressed by what I’ve seen from Wiggins of late. Who is the most surprising — in a good way — player for the Wolves this year?

Tim: When Gibson signed with Minnesota, it was pretty easy to criticize. As we saw perimeter-shooting power forwards like Patrick Patterson go for half the cost, and some like JaMychael Green not even get approached, it was hard to wrap our heads around.

The Timberwolves were in need of another shooter in the starting lineup. Gibson was known as a rebounder and a decent post presence – albeit a fifth option in a starting lineup.

But so far this year, he’s been everything we expected and much more. His footwork in the post was better than I expected, his defensive tutelage to Towns has been invaluable, and he’s even added a corner 3!

That part isn’t very good, yet.

Dane: This one is Gibson for me, too. I’ve written about how I was not pleased with the Gibson signing after following his play down the stretch in Oklahoma City last season. With his bruising and inelastic offensive game, he looked to be the player miscast in the wrong era.

It turns out the geographical location wasn’t the issue; it was his coach.

Gibson might only be good under Tom Thibodeau, but he is very good in this system. Alongside Towns, in the starting lineup, he has proven to be a far superior option to Gorgui Dieng — Towns’ frontcourt partner last year. The Wolves have cratered when Dieng replaces Gibson and plays with the starters. Gibson fit, awareness, and defense is nearly perfect given the skillsets of the other four starters he has shared the floor with for 832 minutes.

That’s a lot.

If Gibson were 22 years old instead of 32 we would be talking about a player who could be a star if he was able to incorporate a jumper into his repertoire; the defense is already top-notch.


David: Taj is the obvious answer. When Gibson was signed, the expectations were that he would show up and play great defense and provide a good frontcourt partner for Towns, but could be a spacing problem on offense. I don’t think anyone expected Gibson would have career highs in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds per game and steals per game, with points per game just a touch under 2013-14.

However, I don’t think that Nemanja Bjelica’s contributions should go unnoticed. Bjelica started the year shooting the lights out of the ball, and while an injury derailed his season and took some time to recover from, his 44.4 percent 3-point shooting is well above the struggles of his first two NBA seasons. While the sample size remains small, he looks as confident as he has ever looked in Minnesota, and has been able to stay on the floor not only at power forward, but in recent minutes and starts at small forward, which is a pleasant and important surprise.

Lucas: I’m going to go with Marcus Georges-Hunt, just to be different. He hasn’t played a whole lot, but when he has, his defensive impact has generally been felt. He plays to his strengths and doesn’t try to do too much when he’s out there. I expected him to be cut coming out of the preseason or early on, but the fact that he’s not only still around, but is an overall net positive is fantastic. Kudos to him and Thibs for developing MGH into a genuine role player.

Brandon: OK, how about in a negative sense? I mean, Shabazz Muhammad has been awful — but he’s hardly played. Is there someone else?

Tim: The second Gibson signed here, I had a feeling Dieng would be affected in a pretty strong way. Going from starting power forward to backup center is a bigger jump than it sounds, and it goes past the minutes.

Playing center – especially without Towns – means he’s taking on more offensive responsibility with the reserves, as well as often serving as the main rim protector off the bench. He’s a smart player and has managed to minimize the damage, but the transition has hurt him, there’s no doubt.

Dane: Dieng is becoming a concern for me. He is fine as a backup big but he is not paid as such. This season marked the beginning of Dieng’s four-year, $64 million contract. Paying a player that plays 18 minutes per game that much is tough to swallow. From a roster construction standpoint, it requires other players to be on bargain deals. With Towns, Wiggins and Tyus Jones’ rookie contracts quickly coming to a close, the Wolves will not have bargain deals.

Another issue/question with Dieng is a broader look at the value of big men in today’s NBA. If Dieng magically disappeared — the trade deadline is coming up… — the Wolves would not be much worse for the wear. Bjelica would fill in fine and Butler could play more at the 4. Dieng is a fine NBA player; his contract is not.

David: I’ll give some Wolves fans the cannon fodder they want here and talk about Jeff Teague. Teague’s numbers across the board match up well with his career numbers, but there are moments where it doesn’t seem like the balance between Teague’s time on the ball and that of other starters, Towns in particular, is what it should be. Teague is by no means the only Timberwolf guilty of dribbling the ball for 20 of the 24 seconds of a possession, but his instances of this seem to be the most frequent and most obvious, given his role as point guard.

The other factor is in Teague’s on/off court numbers. By and large, the Timberwolves are better with each of their starters on the court, as you would expect: the Wolves are 15.9 points better per 100 possessions with Butler on the floor, 12.7 points better with Towns, 10.6 points better with Gibson, and 8.0 points better with Wiggins. They are 2.5 points worse with Teague on the floor, which is the best of the non-starters bar the player whose name now follows Teague’s in every Timberwolves discussion: Jones (plus-10.7 points).

Lucas: As Dane and David pointed out, Dieng and Teague are probably the answers, but they’ve mostly been slightly underwhelming rather than flat out bad, in my opinion.

Teague tends to slow down the offense and dribble the air out of the ball, but he’s always played that way. The trouble with Teague is that he can’t do that if Butler and Wiggins are out there at the same time because that’s what they do. Isoball isn’t Jones strong suite, so the ball naturally moves and stays in Butler and Wiggins hands more.

As for Dieng, he’s had to learn a new role and how to not play alongside Towns. His contract is too expensive, but he’s still a fine player. Had he not been owed so much money, I wonder if he’d be seen as a disappointment.

Brandon: Jones has been terrific this season. Could he handle a full-time role as a point guard in the league? If so, would he have been ready at the start of this season? My theory is that he’s basically what Ricky Rubio brought to the team all along — plus some shooting. That’s no joke, right?

Tim: He still needs to prove to me that he can handle playing against some of the bigger point guards in the league. Jones is very similar to Rubio in that he’s a good ball hawk on defense and initiates the offense quickly. And yes, Jones is unquestionably a better shooter.

But Rubio is one of the three or four best passers in the entire league, and is an underrated on-ball defender on top of that. His size made it possible for him to at least stick with some of the bigger, better point guards in the league. 

Jones, luckily, could still get much better than he is right now. Eventually, he might learn how to hack it with the best point guards in the league and become a full-time starter. He’s already exceeded my expectations.

Dane: The Rubio debate is the Settlers of Catan of Wolves conversations. Everyone gets frustrated and no one really wins.

Sure, Jones can shoot but that isn’t his biggest asset, in my opinion. I would argue his age brings the most promise. At 21 years old, he is the youngest and most inexperienced player on the roster — he has played 2,280 total minutes in his career. Wiggins has played 1,842 this season alone.

In theory, Jones has the biggest opportunity for growth. From that, I think he could develop into a starting point guard. I would say he wasn’t there entering this season. Teague is signed for two more years. If he stays in Minnesota for the duration of that contract, Jones may never see a starter-type role.


David: Dane’s answer brings us to the current crux of the Jones/Teague debate: not whether or not Jones should start, but if Jones should be playing more minutes per night, and if he should be receiving minutes with the starting lineup — as a reminder, the Jones-plus-starters lineup is the single best lineup in the NBA by net rating with a minimum of 200 minutes played.

Not only does it seem that Jones should be receiving more minutes both in general and on nights when Teague’s offensive game isn’t working for the good of the team, but Jones’ development and the answer to Brandon’s question hinges on Jones actually getting minutes against starting lineups across the rest of the league. Jones’ minutes there should not be viewed as a referendum of his future fitness as starter, but as a chance for him to develop in the most difficult circumstances possible and grow into that role. As Dane said, Jones is still 21. He still has room to develop, and seems to have earned the opportunity to do so in the setting he could find himself in within the next couple of years.

LucasI think Jones could be a starter in the NBA, but it would have to be on the right team. It would have to be for a team where he isn’t the focal point on offense and can be hidden on defense, which he can then use to his advantage to play to his off-ball defensive strengths. In that sense, this iteration of the Wolves are the perfect team for him to start for, but with Teague’s paycheck and overall skill set, it won’t be happening here anytime soon. Both the “start Tyus” and “start Teague” crowds have valid points and data to back up their opinions, but as long as Thibs is in charge Teague will get the nod as long as he’s healthy.

I’ve always been a believer in Teague, but coming into the season I had him pegged as a viable career back up. I’m now convinced he could be a good starter, and someday soon.

You Should Listen to Wolves Wired!

Who Should Replace Pat Bev In the Starting Lineup?
By Hunter Phillips - May 13, 2022
How Do the Wolves Improve On the Margins?
By Jonah Maves - May 12, 2022

Minnesota Could Use A (E.J.) Liddell Help At The 4

(photo credit: Jim Faklis)

With the 2022 NBA Draft just over a month away, fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves will have their attention focused on interim president of basketball operations Sachin […]

Continue Reading