Minnesota Timberwolves 2018-19 Season in Review: The Wings(ish)

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

It was a season of sideshows for the Minnesota Timberwolves — organizational warfare dampened expectations before a coaching change and bouts of the injury bug made mediocrity the backdrop of Karl-Anthony Towns’ second-half surge.

But 82 games were played nonetheless; Towns gave his team a chance every night, Josh Okogie emerged as a piece for the future, Dario Saric and Robert Covington quickly proved their worth and a trio of former-Bulls exceeded expectations. Plenty can be gleaned from the campaign that was, so let’s begin this offseason by evaluating — with a statistical lens — the performance of 15 Wolves from last year’s roster.

To follow up last week’s deep dive into the bigs(ish), we’ll look at the wings(ish) today:

Andrew Wiggins

After a 2017-18 season during which Wiggins’ offensive production was schematically marginalized and his subdued disposition was increasingly scrutinized, the $25 million man was expected to bounce back. But he did not; Wiggins struggled for much of his team’s disappointing campaign to display the attacking nature he embraced in the past — it wasn’t until the final 11 games of the year that he ultimately gathered some sort of groove.

To onlookers, his inefficiency as a high-volume scorer is what stood out as most problematic:

This past season, Wiggins was the first NBA player since 2015-16 to attempt more than 16 field goals per game and finish with a true-shooting percentage lower than 50 percent.

And inefficiency is only the most obvious way in which Wiggins is struggling to be a positive player.

Outside of an improved inclination to pass to the perimeter when a defense collapses on his drive, Wiggins hasn’t progressed as a playmaker. He rarely keeps his handle below his belt-line, allowing defenders to generate a disproportionate amount of live ball turnovers. What’s more, the 0.74 points per possession (31st percentile) he produced as a pick-and-roll ball handler was a career-low.

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy (USA Today Sports)

By regressing as a scorer and — generously — idling as a distributor, the offensive half of Wiggins’ game has gone from promising to paralyzing. He posted a career-low by ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus (ORPM) and, for the first time, produced negative Offensive Win Shares.

Throughout NBA history, only four players have ever produced fewer than one total win share in more than 2,500 minutes of action:

Antoine Walker (2004-05)
Desmond Mason (2006-07)
Collin Sexton (2018-19)
Andrew Wiggins (2018-19)

This fact represents a major problem for the Wolves.

Not just because Wiggins was expected to morph into an all-star caliber player when he inked a max-contract extension in 2017; not just because he’ll be paid between $27 million and $34 million annually until 2022-23; as much as anything else, it’s a problem because of the opportunity cost proposition it represents on the floor every night. After all, Wiggins has played more minutes than anyone except for James Harden, last year’s MVP, since the Canadian was drafted in 2014.

The easiest way for the Wolves to take a meaningful step forward would be for Wiggins to morph into a productive player. But the data set that surrounds his career has grown more and more robust — with each additional stagnant season, superstar expectations feel increasingly farcical and the prospect of moving on from Wiggins grows in sensibility.

Robert Covington

The former Philadelphia 76er only played 22 games with the Wolves before being sidelined with a bone bruise on his right knee, but it was more than enough for Covington to prove his fit.

Though he’ll always need to be flanked by at least one capable ball-handler, Covington is solid as a peripheral offensive threat. He’s attempted at least six 3-pointers per game during each of the past five seasons, making greater than 37 percent of those heaves during each of the most recent two.

And, as Wolves fans quickly found out, Covington is a defensive star. He isn’t the league’s most ferocious man-to-man option, though he more than holds his own. Instead, his intangibles are what make him an award-winning player on that side of the ball. His strong, 6-foot-9 build and 7-foot-2 wingspan are the ideal marks of a ‘switchable’ player in today’s NBA, capable of containing point guards and power forwards alike. Covington is also a willing communicator and, most notably, an intuitive help defender.

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Here, Covington blows up a patented Mike Conley/Marc Gasol pick-and-roll by helping, with impeccable timing, from the weak side. It’s the kind of play he makes every night and the kind of awareness the Wolves have generally lacked over the last several seasons.

Robert Covington has ranked first among small forwards by ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) each of the last three seasons.

The Wolves were 8-3 during Covington’s first 11 games in the starting lineup, before he first injured his knee. That period of time should inspire hope for the next season — not because the 28-year-old fixed something on his own, but because he seemed show his teammates that there was a problem. In the clip above, Covington isn’t the only defender that makes a proper rotation; before he can step in, Towns helps off Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies No. 13) and clogs the paint while Wiggins shifts to cover Towns’ man.

Over that three-week stretch, the Wolves’ defensive rating when Towns played without Covington (100) was nearly as stout as it was when the duo shared the court (98.8). If they stay healthy, those two should provide the Wolves a capable two-way baseline for the foreseeable future.

Keita Bates-Diop

it’s important to note that Bates-Diop was the 48th pick in last year’s draft.

Bates-Diop played 503 minutes as a rookie — more than any player selected behind him in last year’s draft. In fact, picks 49-60 played a combined total of just 694 minutes.

In most circumstances, a second round selection only sees the floor as a rookie for one of two reasons: he’s better than expected or his team has under performed — Bates-Diop’s situation was more of the latter. He didn’t crack the rotation until the second half of February, as the Wolves’ lottery fate became increasingly clear. When the Ohio State product did find the floor, flashes of promise shown through longer stretches of rookie struggles.

Whether Bates-Diop is quick enough to defend the perimeter or big enough to protect the paint was a prevalent two-pronged question leading into last year’s draft; through 30 NBA appearances, his lank and frailty became increasingly evident. He seems to possess good instincts, but he’ll need to get stronger to compete against NBA front courts.

On the offensive end, he projects as a spot-up shooter. Unfortunately, his 25 percent from deep ranked 315th of 321 players to attempt more than 50 3-pointers last season. To make matters worse, he only doled out 17 assists in 503 minutes for a measly 4.6 assist rate.

Despite all of that, Bates-Diop left many wanting to see more; not many rookies exhibit the poise and comfort that he did right off the bat.  It will be interesting — and quite possibly important as it relates to the Wolves’ success next season — to see how he can improve after a healthy summer. If he’s able to develop a couple of skill-sets, he could be the kind of cost-controlled role player his team so desperately needs.

Luol Deng

When Thibodeau signed Deng — the now-34-year-old — following his buyout with the Los Angeles Lakers, it represented a continuation of the head coach’s tendency to pursue players he’s worked with in the past.

Thibodeau took heat from the public for making that decision; the irony, then, is that Deng played just 32 (mostly garbage time) minutes while Thibobdeau was still at the helm. Once Ryan Saunders took over, though, Deng quickly made a positive impression.

From Jan. 12 through Feb. 27, Deng played 20 minutes on average in 18 of a possible 19 matchups. His individual net rating during that time (plus-10.8) was by far the team’s best — Towns’ plus-2.8 ranked second.

Eighty-eight two-man lineups played more than 100 minutes for the Wolves last season — Dieng appeared in five of the best six pairings by net rating.

But then, as suddenly as the long-time Chicago Bull breached the Wolves’ rotation, he was sidelined for the remainder of the season with an injured Achilles.

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

On the offensive end, Deng’s willingness to cut with purpose and spot-up to spread the floor make him a useful actor, particularly in a lineup centered around Towns; on the defensive end, his understanding of scheme and role breads reliability.

Assuming that his market value doesn’t earn him more than a veteran minimum contract next season and his injury won’t keep him sidelined for long, the Wolves would do well to bring Deng back.

Cam Reynolds

Reynolds, like Bates-Diop, is the kind of silver lining an NBA franchise hopes will become visible when a season of mediocrity becomes their reality.

Entering the 2018-19 campaign, Towns and Butler were expected to carry the Wolves to a second consecutive playoff appearance. But that aspiration was all but lost when Reynolds entered the rotation in the beginning of March. At that time, the Wolves (29-35) were six games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

There was little assumption around how Reynolds, who was initially signed to a 10-day contract, would perform. But rather quickly, the 24-year-old Tulane alumni made his mark — he played in each of the season’s final 18 games.

Thirty-eight rookies attempted at least 50 3-pointers last season — among them, Reynolds (41.2 percent) ranked second behind Landry Shamet by three point-percentage.

Outside of the fact he showed NBA-level upside, it’s difficult to evaluate Reynolds as a prospect — he simply didn’t play enough minutes. As things stand, the relatively promising wing is on a non-guaranteed contract with the Wolves that gives the team optionality on the fringes of their roster heading into next season.

Read last week’s Part 1 (The Bigs) of our Season in Review series.

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