COLUMN: Midseason takeaways from the Timberwolves

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John Miller

millerjoh@mnstate.edu

What I’m about to say might sound odd due to its rarity.

As the NBA is currently at the All-Star break, the Minnesota Timberwolves safely hold a playoff spot.

The Wolves (36-25) currently have the fourth seed in the Western Conference, and are tied with San Antonio for the third spot. Barring a major disaster such as an injury or terrible free agent signing (Derrick Rose), the Wolves are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since going to the Western Conference Finals in 2004.

The Positives 

For starters, Minnesota will finally be back in the postseason for the first time in 14 years.

The Wolves’ playoff hopes are largely due to the play of All-Star shooting guard/small forward, Jimmy Butler.

Butler was acquired by the Wolves this offseason in a trade that sent Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to the Chicago Bulls. Although it was hard seeing LaVine, my favorite Wolves player at the time, leave, it was a trade I would do 12 times out of 12 if I’m Minnesota.

On the season, Butler leads the team in points (22.4) and steals (2) per game, is second in assists (5) and third in rebounds (5.5).

Butler, aka Jimmy G. Buckets (the “G” stand for “gets”), has been phenomenal to watch and rightfully holds a spot in the MVP race.

Another positive is the team seems to like each other. As with any team that adds a perennial All-Star, the new-look Wolves didn’t quite click right away. Their record has been good since the beginning of the season, but they didn’t look like they quite figured it out until the third week. Since Butler has taken over as the team’s alpha, the Wolves have meshed better and seemingly found its identity.

As the season has progressed, the defense overall has been mediocre, but some individuals have improved defensively. We already knew that the former Bulls (Butler and Taj Gibson) would be great, but Andrew Wiggins and All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns have shown flashes of their high defensive-upside.

Wiggins (107.4) and Towns (108) are fourth and fifth on the team in defensive rating, respectively. This is a vast improvement for Wiggins, who was named the worst defensive player in the league by FiveThirtyEight in 2017.

And finally, my favorite plus of the season thus far is Tyus Jones.

The Apple Valley, Minnesota native has been a great point guard in limited minutes.

He doesn’t stuff the stat sheet by any means, averaging about five points, two rebounds, three assists and just over one steal across 18 minutes. Per 36 minutes, however, Jones’ averages rise to 9.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.3 steals.

Advanced stats support my, “Tyus is actually really good,” take. He leads the team in defensive rating (103.8) and is 11th in the entire NBA in real plus-minus (4.68).

Stats aside, Jones always passes the eye test. When he’s on the floor with the starters, the team just plays better. Starting point guard Jeff Teague is a nice individual offensive player and solid playmaker, but the offense flows much better with Jones in the mix. With the current state of the NBA, playing fast-paced and getting transition opportunities is extremely important, and the team does this better with Jones on the floor.

The lineup of Jones, Wiggins, Butler, Gibson and Towns ranks first in the NBA among all five-man lineups in plus-minus. If head coach Tom Thibodeau insists on giving him less minutes than Teague, at least play Jones with the other starters.

I will die on Tyus Jones Island.

The Negatives

The defense still sucks. Minnesota ranks 26th in the NBA in defensive rating at 108.6, only two points better than the league-worst Phoenix Suns.

Additionally, fifth-year pro Shabazz Muhammad has fallen off the face of the earth. I was excited when the Wolves brought him back on a minimum contract, thinking he could provide instant offense off the bench. I was wrong.

Muhammad has only appeared in about half of the Timberwolves games so far, and even when he has played it’s been hard to watch. He’s averaging less than four points and two rebounds per game on 38.5 percent from the field, about 8 percent below the league average.

The Timberwolves’ offense is 11.3 points better when he’s off the floor, and the defense is 6.3 points better when he’s on the bench. He’s really bad.

Beyond the abysmal play of Muhammad and Jones’ lack of minutes, my biggest issue is that Thibodeau runs his star players into the ground. Wiggins and Towns rank first and second in the NBA in total minutes played, while Butler, despite missing six games, ranks 10th and Gibson ranks 11th.

An additional, solid bench player could ease some pressure off the starting unit and provide the Wolves with much-needed depth. The team needs an additional “three and D” wing player who can provide scoring and adequate defense off the bench.

Thibs, former head coach of the Chicago Bulls, has expressed interest in adding his former MVP point guard Derrick Rose. Since his stellar MVP season in 2011, Rose has torn his left ACL, left meniscus and right meniscus.

Rose, who was recently waived by the Utah Jazz after being traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers, contemplated retirement earlier in the season. He was likely thinking of hanging it up because he had a couple nagging injuries, and was detrimental to the Cavaliers when he was healthy.

Yeah, I really hope Thibs doesn’t sign Derrick Rose.

Adding Rose won’t help the Wolves’ poor road record. Minnesota is a powerhouse at home (24-7), but not so great on the road (12-18). The Wolves also seem to struggle against mediocre teams; posting losses to Phoenix, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Memphis, Orlando, Atlanta and Chicago, all of which loom near the bottom of their respective conference.

I don’t know if it’s an effort issue or a preparation issue, but it seems more often than not that the Wolves have a hard time putting away bad teams.

The good news is that the Wolves are 9-2 against division opponents (Denver, Oklahoma City, Portland, Utah), three of four which are playoff teams.

My final concern is that the Wolves are not built for the modern NBA. Thibs has built a roster that would dominate in 2010, but doesn’t have the perimeter firepower or versatility to quite keep up with the Rockets and Warriors of today’s game.

And Shabazz Muhammad is really bad.

The Outlook

Overall, it has been a fun season to be a Wolves fan. There is finally hope in a franchise that has spent the last 14 years trying, and mostly failing (shout out to David Kahn) to rebuild.

It will be great to watch my favorite team in the playoffs again. Assuming they will enter the playoffs as a three or four seed, they will have hefty competition waiting in the later rounds of the playoffs if they make it out of the first round.

We’re barely past the halfway point and the postseason is still many games away, so I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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