Future Western Conference power, dark horse playoff contender, the most exciting team in the NBA (minus the Dubs), these are just a few of the phrases that were tossed around in various season previews for the Minnesota Timberwolves to hype the team of tomorrow. There was promise everywhere as the team had an embarrassment of young talent to show off. The list included: Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Ricky Rubio, and Kris Dunn. None of these players were over 26 and only Rubio had been in The Association for more than 3 years. This was going to be the year the rebuilding Wolves finally had the depth and chemistry to make a legit run at the playoffs and beyond. Add to the mix the hottest free agent coach, Tom Thibodeau, joining the mix with his defensive genius and all of the pieces were there. It really is no surprise that several experts had the Wolves ending the season in the top 5 in the Western Conference.
Well, we’re currently 43 games into the regular season and that same Minnesota squad littered with talent is sitting in 12th in the Western Conference with a 15-28 record. So where did all that hype go? Well it still appears to be there, it’s just going to take a little longer than the fans in Minny would have hoped. Let’s begin with the positives, there still appears to be A LOT of talent on the Wolves. They have three players averaging near or more than 20 points per game: Karl Anthony-Towns (22.3), Andrew Wiggins (21.7), and Zach LaVine (19.8). And the best part? They are all 21 years old. That’s insane that their three top scorers are all so young and inexperienced and they still have that much room for growth.
To go off of that, Karl Anthony-Towns has established himself already as one of the premier big men in the league. The University of Kentucky product is following up his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign with an even bigger year. He is averaging a slash line of 22/12/3. Those are eye popping numbers for a second year player, especially those three assists per game which shows he’s seeing the court well and understanding the game at a much easier pace. Along with Joel Embiid, Towns has one of the brightest futures for any big guy in the leagues and will surely be in the MVP conversation down the road.
Now let’s take a look at why we’re all pumping the breaks on those preseason expectations and why they sit in 12th in the Western Conference standings. When Thibodeau took over, experts were expecting the defense to improve immediately making them into this young contending squad. However, that has not come to fruition at this point in year one of Thibs behind the bench for the Wolves. They are giving up 104.3 PPG, slightly better than the league average but nothing to write home about. Additionally, they are fourth worst in the league in opponents field goal percentage at 46.9%. This means that they are allowing their opponents easy looks at an alarming rate, which should not be the case under defensive guru Thibs. So what’s the issue? Is it youth, chemistry, effort? Probably a combination of all three but I think there is another issue in play here, tiredness.
Thibs is back to his old ways, running his best players into the ground. This was always a huge criticism of his time during the Bulls would be burning the tires on his most valuable players even when his team was up by a lot. That has not changed with his move to Minnesota as his three best players this year (Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine) are all in the top nine in the NBA in minutes played per game with LaVine leading the way at 37.3 MPG. These guys aren’t used to playing this many minutes and can easily lead to defensive lapses throughout the course of a 48 minute game. Additionally, it’s also not a great plan to run these young athletic players into the ground within their first few years in the league, especially for a team that isn’t going anywhere fast this season.
All in all, this is still a team to fear going forward. At some point, all of this young talent is going to mature and they will get their defensive feet under them with an expert in the subject at the helm. I think experts and fans alike just jumped the gun at how good these guys could be this early. However, if at this point next year the Wolves are still on the outside looking in at the playoff race, then maybe we have to look at the team chemistry and coaching as not a fit for these incredible youngsters. Here’s to hoping they figure it out and can survive the dreaded Thibs minutes.