The NBA landscape has been turned on its head during the first three weeks of the season. The Warriors and Cavs are struggling; the Rockets are without CP3, the Thunder are trying to stay afloat while figuring out how to play together, the Spurs started strong but are currently slipping up without Kawhi or Tony Parker. Meanwhile, teams like the Magic, Pacers, Grizzlies, and Pistons are showing great improvement.
Between the commotion of the season, the Timberwolves starting off above .500 for the first time since 2015, at 5-3; the five wins coming against Utah, Miami, New Orleans, and OKC twice, while the losses are at the hands of the Spurs, who started hot, and the Pistons and Pacers, who, as I mentioned, are playing way above expectations.
Although three weeks is a bit early to dive into a team and discover what’s working and what isn’t, the Timberwolves have given us a lot to look at over the last three weeks. Different line-ups, missing Butler for a short period and struggles on both ends of the floor. While everyone is waiting for the bottom to fall out on some of these over-performing teams, we’ve already seen different peaks and valleys for what the Timberwolves will be this season.
Taking a look at some of the improvements, right off the bat, you’ll notice the Timberwolves offense is already executing much faster and more reliable than last year. Last year, they finished 25th in pace and already this year, they are at 16th. A much-needed improvement for this squad. You have young guys like Towns and Wiggins who are best at scoring -- let them score. And not just those two, Teague has given the team a scoring spark at the point guard spot, and Bjelica and Crawford have been able to come off the bench and pour it in as well in certain games.
Right away, there isn’t a dominant scorer on this team yet. Technically, that title could be given to KAT but it’ll take some time before he embodies that role, and in the meantime, we still have yet to see Butler get the looks that he was known for in Chicago as well as getting to the line more frequently.
The team is also up to 110 ppg as opposed to last year when they were 13th overall with 105 ppg. Although the margin seems very slim, this is huge for the Timberwolves this season. Almost all of their wins this season have been by 3 points, the only outlier being the game against the Pelicans where they won by 6. The biggest notable difference for the Timberwolves is their composure down the stretch and ability to close out games. Both Thunder games and the game against Miami are very good examples of this.
Even though Towns is leading the team on the offensive end on paper, the main standout so far is Andrew Wiggins. His 19 points aren’t all that impressive for him, and you might even suspect they’re a drop off from last year’s 23 points. And even though his percentages don’t look great (42% from the field, 31% from three), he’s shooting the ball a little bit less than last year, due to all the options he has now. Not to mention these are very small sample sizes. He looks like he’s become even more confident attacking the rim and he’s put in a lot of effort on the defensive end some nights.
Which leads into the next takeaway. The Timberwolves are still bad on defense. For all the talk of Thibs being the perfect coach to mold these great young players into defensive monsters, it has yet to be seen aside from a few flashes here and there. Nobody outside of Butler is consistent or puts enough effort into that side of the floor, and as we saw last weekend when Butler is out, the team regresses to the tangled mess they were on defense last year.
They are currently 28th in opponents points per game and 29th in defensive rating. The lack of effort they put in on transition is laughable and doesn’t stop being funny until you realize that teams that don’t know how to play defense and let up 130 and 122 points on consecutive nights aren’t going to make the playoffs in the west. Whether it’s a Teague turnover or Towns over-committing on defense and giving his man a good look at the rebound and putback, these are all things that the Timberwolves need to clean up and quick.
Even in their wins, the defense doesn’t look all that good. They’re still giving up a ton of points it’s just that this year, they have the weapons to attack the offensive end and keep the game close.
The next two weeks has the Timberwolves facing off against the Hornets, Warriors, refreshed Suns, the Jazz, who will make them pay for every mistake on offense, and the Spurs who might be looking to get back Kawhi and possibly Tony Parker before that game.
The key to staying alive in the West is not to get behind early. So far, the Wolves have been able to stick with the thick of the teams in the West, but we still have yet to see this team get rolling. When Towns isn’t a liability on defense when Wiggins can make free throws (seriously, how is he worse than last year?), when Butler starts getting the looks he’s comfortable with, and when Belly, the most consistent bench player, starts to get more minutes.
It’s great to see them sticking out the tough games and win some very hard fought matches. But until this team is past getting blown out without Butler and continuously lapsing on defense, there’s still a lot more work to put in.