The Timberwolves have an identity crisis.
It’s gotten so noticeable that Kenny Smith didn’t really have an answer for Charles Barkley when he was asked about the team’s direction going forward during the Wolves-Lakers Christmas night game on TNT.
Here’s the kicker, though: They’ve lost their starting point guard since then. And with Jeff Teague out, the Timberwolves need to find and hone in on their strengths now more than ever.
It’s not a five-alarm fire just yet, as the Wolves would be the No. 4 seed at 22-14 if the playoffs started today. But don’t forget, Minnesota is trying to shake the longest playoff drought in the NBA (2004), and the third-longest active drought in American professional sports (behind the Buffalo Bills at 17 years and the Seattle Mariners at 16 years). When a team has been dealt that particular hand, things like this have to be treated with a certain sense of urgency.
Let’s look at the pieces of this puzzle:
First and foremost we have Karl-Anthony Towns. Now, Towns can do everything on the court, including shoot 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip on the season as a 7-footer. He does everything well, and he will be a super-elite player within the next 3-5 years in the NBA, the only problem is, he cannot do everything alone. Towns needs whatever holes he brought with him to the arena on a given night to be stopped up by role-players, which is a small nit to pick, but not out of bounds considering the nature of this exercise.
Andrew Wiggins is wildly athletic, and can slash to the basket as well as anybody in the NBA. But the jump-shooting woes will inevitably start conversations about whether or not he was worth the $150 million price tag. If he is only going to shoot 43.2 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from distance (as this season’s numbers show), then he needs to be collecting more than 3.9 rebounds and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His strength is his quickness, and he needs to be using it to find lanes to the basket with more frequency if he wants to catch defenses off-guard when he does shoot a jump shot.
Jimmy Butler is a premier player in the NBA. His spot-up shooting ability, defensive prowess and on-court presence is something all 30 teams would like to say they have in one package. Alas, Jimmy can only play for one team, and it’s the one coached by his former Bulls skipper, Tom Thibodeau. He has had to serve as more of the defensive anchor on a young team (because he knows Thibodeau’s system), but if the load on that end of the floor can be lifted in the future, watch out, because Jimmy loves to fill it up.
Jeff Teague is another slasher with streaky shooting ability. The difference between he and Wiggins, however, is that Teague is always simultaneously looking for his shot and looking to distribute the ball. 7.3 assists per game this season is not super flashy, but factor in the 13.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and you have yourself a piece that is going to be sorely missed. All initial reports on his sprained MCL suggest he’ll be sidelined 2-4 weeks, so the question is: Will Tyus Jones mimic Teague’s trademark aggressiveness, or take a back seat to Butler and Towns? Either scenario could help and hurt the Wolves in different ways.
Taj Gibson, another of Thibodeau’s old Bulls, has finally found his stride. Every one of his important statistics are up this year: Points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and he’s been working on his 3-point game as well. An odd story for a 32-year-old defensive-minded power forward, but a welcome presence in the starting five.
Minnesota’s bench plays less minutes than any other bench in the entire league, at only 13 minutes per game. They are 27th in PPG, 26th in APG and dead last in RPG. These numbers sound bad because they are bad, but what they are not is unsalvageable.
Thibodeau is a player’s coach, and has never been shy about putting in the players he think will him the game. The problem is, that this translates into leaning too heavily on his starters, when his bench is full of decent role-players.
Aaron Brooks is a pure shooter who will give you points if you give him minutes and an open spot. Jamaal Crawford is one of the most historic sixth men of all time, and can still bury his shot with a hand in his face. Nemanja Bjelica is your prototypical European big man with decent feet and a better long-range game. Gorgui Dieng is a fine true center with length and mobility to clean up the glass and give the team some putbacks. He also has championship experience from his days at Louisville, which is always something to take into account when determining a player’s value.
THE PICTURE ON THE BOX
Now that we have all of our pieces together in front of us, let’s try and solve the puzzle.
It’s no coincidence that the Wolves have been marred by fourth quarter collapses so far during the season. The latest of these coming at the hands of the Bucks on December 28. Antetokounmpo and his squad erased a 20 point third quarter deficit on their way to a win in Milwaukee. So, let’s not overthink this one.
Fixing the fourth quarter yips is as simple as getting the starters off the floor. If Thibodeau starts believing in his bench more, instead of making his starters play 35 minutes per game, then they can be rested for the home stretch. A tired KAT is better than no KAT, but a rested KAT beats both of them. Case closed.
This does not fix the identity crisis, however. Should the Wolves adopt the run-and-gun style of the Houston Rockets? Probably not, they don’t have the shooters that Houston does. Should they thrive on quick offense and turnover defense like the Warriors do? No, the quickness is lacking and the Warriors feast on opponents who try to play their game.
The team they should emulate is none other than the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs play to their strengths, and shake up lineups constantly to cover up their weaknesses. They ask each player to do the thing at which they are best, and play within the system otherwise. True, NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike have called their style “boring” since 1999, but all their “boring” style has done is win them six conference titles and five championships.
Kawhi Leonard is a terrific talent, and they still have pieces to make a playoff run. But even with the best coach in the NBA, their glory days are behind them. Whether they rebuild or reload is irrelevant to the Wolves, however. The Timberwolves have the pieces now. And now is the time to emulate and tweak the Spurs’ style, and ride it to a potential championship.
Laid out above are the strengths of the key players on the team. Instead of throwing the starters at the wall to see what sticks, Thibodeau should mask the weaknesses by highlighting these strengths. Imagine Teague (when he returns) and Crawford at the guard spots chucking it down to Dieng and Towns when the opposition is playing small. When they figure that out, throw in Butler, Brooks and Bjelica and pull the rip-cord on the 3-point game. When those stop falling, substitute for Wiggins and let him provide a one-man slashing exhibition.
The point is, Minnesota finally has the talent, the coach, and the superstar to break the drought. That will be good enough for now. But no team’s goal is to fold in the first or second rounds. That is why the Wolves need to start implementing a system that will pay dividends down the road. Implement it now, and in earnest to see what the shopping list will be before the All-Star break or next summer.
Besides, it’s about time we see some lime green jerseys in the finals.
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