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Is it time to start worrying about the Timberwolves?

Tom Thibodeau's Bulls had a horror run with injury, but that excuse wasn't enough to save him. ( Keith Allison / Flickr)
Expert
21st December, 2016
7

Much like love, NBA success isn’t always on time.

Entering this season, the Timberwolves, looked as well placed for the future as any young team in the NBA.

Minnesota held transcendent young stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, a potential All-Star piece in Zach LaVine, a high pedigree point guard of the future in Kris Dunn, and the supporting still-in-their-primes veteran talents of Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio.

But the future was supposed to be closer – it was supposed to be now.

The Tom Thibodeau coaching bump – from incompetence to excellence – combined with second and third year improvements for Towns, Wiggins and LaVine, and the list of capable veterans filling in the gaps signalled that the Wolves were ready to play meaningful basketball late into the season.

It was Kevin Durant’s third year and Russell Westbrook’s second when the Thunder made the leap from 23 wins to 50. This year, Wiggins’ third and Towns’ second, was supposed to be when Minnesota made its own leap.

At present, the Wolves are on pace for 24 wins, a five-win decline from last season, when most were predicting a double-digit improvement. At 8-19, closer to the worst record in the league than the eighth seed, their season is effectively over before Christmas.

There’s a lot of noise in that record, though. Firstly, the T’Wolves aren’t that bad. They’ve had a shocking record in close games, and by point differential they should have three more wins. Net-Rating pegs them as the 21st best team in the league, just behind the Knicks and ahead of the Blazers.

But even though they’re not that bad, they’re still not anything approaching good. Their defence, a 28th-ranked catastrophe last season, has got even worse in the raw numbers, and sits at 27th in the league. For Tom Thibodeau, defensive revolutionary, this season is for him what the Carly Rae Jepsen music video was for Tom Hanks.

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The offence, however, has improved, and stands as a top ten unit. And the team is still, of course, young. The combination of offensive output and overwhelming youth is the recipe for a Minnesota fan’s defiant, and reasonable, rationalisation – the talent is there, it just needs to grow.

But, for the first time in this Wiggins/Towns era, serious, worrying questions are also posing themselves. Why isn’t Wiggins, now in year three, a better defender with all that athleticism? He still makes basic mistakes, like laying off Carmelo Anthony in isolation at the end of a loss to the Knicks, and giving him the shot he was most comfortable with instead of forcing him to drive to the rim.

The uptick in three point percentage is encouraging, as is the smooth, sumptuously slithery dynamism as a scorer and the ability to get to the line, but Wiggins doesn’t pass and he averages just 0.6 steals per game and four rebounds, a disappointingly low amount for someone with all that length, speed and power.

Andrew Wiggins dunk

Someone who looked like he could be the next Kawhi Leonard or Paul George is looking more like the electric guitar version of Rudy Gay. It’s still early, of course, and Wiggins will get better, but the clock is starting to tick on him becoming a plus defender.

The season’s two brightest lights have been Towns and LaVine. LaVine, a question mark the past two years, mainly because he was being played hopelessly out of position, has solidified himself as the undisputed two-guard of the future – a player who can run the floor with anyone and knock down threes. He’s still clueless on defence, but like Wiggins he has all the physical tools to improve.

Towns is the future, and the primary reason why assessments of what’s to come to Minnesota have to skew towards the positive.

Karl-Anthony Towns is an unreality – an impossible combination of quickness, strength, savvy and selflessness. He’s already winning games by himself, and what will make him transcendent is the ability to win them on either end. But even so, we were a touch quick to anoint Towns – in the discussion of talented young big men in the NBA, it’s still Anthony Davis number one, and Towns two, something we may have lost sight of preseason.

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He’ll get there eventually, but right now his defence is inconsistent, and Minnesota’s overall defence is a disaster with Towns on the floor.

Minnesota has other significant questions to answer, like whether or not Ricky Rubio is the future at point guard or whether the reigns should be passed to the presently woeful Kris Dunn.

Rubio, much maligned for his lack of a jump shot, and a selflessness that is part magical, part, perhaps, a cloak for passivity, is still an excellent defender and an otherworldly passer, and at just 26, he shouldn’t be written off yet.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Twin Cities twin towers act of Towns and Dieng is an awkward fit, two players who are both ostensibly centers in today’s NBA. But an unshakeable doctrine of Thibodeau’s basketball religion has always been to play two big men, even though the evidence suggests it’s an approach incompatible with the modern game. The commitment to playing two traditional bigs alongside each other veers dangerously towards Byron Scott territory, the land of antiquated ideals.

Which brings us to the biggest question about the Wolves: is Thibodeau the right coach for this team?

His hiring was almost universally lauded – that’s the type of respect a man gets for winning a playoff series with Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli as the hubs of an offence. But Thibs is a technocrat, a vicious taskmaster, someone whose husky yelling for an entire game is hard enough for the viewer to listen to on a League Pass feed – you shudder to think what it’s like for his players.

Whether such a coach is the best fit for a young team that may need a prescription of love instead of push-ups is unclear.

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And whether such a style, Tom’s Torture Chamber of Grinding It Out, is compatible with the nuclear speed and athleticism of LaVine, Wiggins and Towns, also remains to be seen. LaVine has averaged the most minutes of any player in the NBA recently.

Rubio, clearly, is suffering, looking depressingly like Jose Calderon without a three point shot in Thibodeau’s system of slow, meticulous pace, leaving one to wonder whether he will ever be truly unleashed as the Steve Nash-lite you suspect he could be in a run-and-gun system surrounded by athletes and shooters.

In Chicago, Thibodeau had a young superstar in Derrick Rose who he helped turn into an MVP, but that team was filled with proven veterans when he arrived, players like Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. The Thibs life may not be as bearable for a team as young as Minnesota, who don’t look like they’re having fun on the court, at all.

For now, though, so early in the process, for team and coach, all parties get the benefit of the doubt – the benefit that comes with Thibodeau’s proven past, and Towns’s immeasurable future. But worries are creeping in, and the NBA’s next lock for a young dynasty isn’t looking nearly as solid as it did two months ago.

The Wolves are right to hold the line, for now, but the clock on success has begun to subtly tick.

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