Predicting the NBA awards during the offseason is always tough to get right, but everyone loves whacking together a few bold predictions to see how wrong they are this time next year.
The best teams play as one; the Minnesota Timberwolves play very much as five.
They are not greater than the sum of their parts; their parts are just so great that more often than not they will manhandle the equation into working.
They do not make each other better; they stand to the side and allow each teammate to take turns at being the best he can be in his own universe.
This is not a recipe for disaster: when you have Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, disaster recedes, with only stilted disappointment in its place.
The Wolves are struggling, but they are not selfish. Not yet, anyway. They are just confused.
When the Spurs score, everything is logic and rhythmical. The ball going through the hoop is just the inevitable final cadence of their music.
There is no music in Minnesota. There are just occasional loud sounds – Jimmy Butler driving into a heap of bodies and finishing from an absurd angle, plus the foul. Karl-Anthony Towns skying above the lesser humans for a put-back both delicate and powerful. Andrew Wiggins hopping through traffic with his sweet, lateral loping strides, and hammering the ball down.
The Wolves are being kept afloat by shining moments of individual brilliance. This will sustain them – towards a life of a low-to-mid 40s win total. If they want to be anything more – and with their talent, that desire is surely an imperative – they will need to get connected. For starters, they will need to play defence.
Through six games, the Wolves have the worst defence in the NBA. The gap between them and the next worst team is as large as the one separating 29th and 20th. They had the 27th ranked defence last season and nothing has changed.
The problems on that end start with Wiggins and Towns. Wiggins is completely disinterested, twiddling his thumbs until he gets to walk the red carpet of offence again, lights flashing. In the darkness of defensive rotations and ‘effort’, he is a nobody.
The fact that Wiggins, 6’8 and one of the lengthiest, most explosive athletes we’ve seen, has never averaged more than one steal, 0.6 blocks or 4.6 rebounds in a full season is one of the NBA’s quieter calamities.
Wiggins’ shortcomings on defence, though, are at least publicised. The severe inadequacies of Karl Towns on that end don’t get the same attention. The Wolves were six points worse per 100 possessions on defence last season with Towns on the floor – the difference between the NBA’s fifth ranked defence and 30th ranked defence.
This season, already, among centres only Kelly Olynyk had a worse defensive rating than Towns heading into the weekend.
KAT, one of the game’s greatest young offensive talents, knows as much about defence as LaVar Ball knows about humility. He is eternally out of position, his weight constantly leaning the wrong way, allowing opponents to beat him to the goal. He never boxes out, allowing anyone and everyone chances at easy offensive rebounds and second chance buckets.
In the post he’s fine, and may occasionally fool you into believing he’s a ‘good’ defender with his size, length and ability to block shots. But get him out in space – the land of nuance, vision and timing – and it’s a catastrophe.
Oklahoma City’s early fourth quarter offence against the Wolves on Friday night was to generate switches so that Raymond Felton could go one-on-one against Towns on the perimeter – and Felton won, time and time again.
Jimmy Butler, though, is a genius on defence. He sees plays before they happen, jumps passing lanes, and always keeps his man in front of him. His ‘stickiness’ on defence – the ability to remain locked in step with his opponent – is majestic.
The Wolves, one suspects, will live or die based on how quickly teammates learn to emulate Butler’s genius on defence, or more feasibly, his commitment on that end. They will get by on their talent alone to a top-ten offence, but if they want to do anything in the West – if they want to mean anything – they’ll need to start caring about what happens when the lights aren’t as bright.