It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas -- by that I mean the wooded lot near my house has been cleared of homeless people to make room for a Christmas Tree farm.
But it also means that we are a full month into the NBA season and the weaknesses and strengths of teams are becoming more clear. The Minnesota Timberwolves are a team with quite a few glaring weaknesses. At 6-15, they are second to last in the Western conference, due to inconsistent offensive showings, and down right pathetic defensive efforts.
So, as it is the season of giving, I’m putting on my Santa hat, snacking on some milk and cookies, and handing down some early Christmas gifts to a few select members of the Timberwolves.
Full disclosure: My gifts aren’t real. I am not magic. Don’t tweet me if the Timberwolves’ misfortunes continue.
Karl-Anthony Towns: It seems fitting to start with Towns as he is clearly the cornerstone player of this franchise. With all the hype surrounding him coming into this season, it seemed as though Towns was destined for an All-Star selection and possibly first or second team All-NBA. Through the first month of this season, though, Towns, while impressive, hasn’t taken nearly the leap we all expected. I’d just like to take a quick second to apologize to all Pelicans fans for having to live through the 2016 offseason where nearly everyone (NBA GMs included) where putting Towns over Anthony Davis. It’s quite clear he’s not there...yet.
For Christmas this year, Towns will receive a reliable shot away from the basket. Towns this year is shooting only 28% from 16ft < 3pt. It’s astounding that I even have to call a big man out on a stat like this but in today’s NBA game, and with Towns trending towards being one of the elite inside-outside big men, inconsistency like this is unforgivable. To put this in perspective, Towns shot 50% from this space last season. Hopefully, moving forward, we see him pouring it in at a better rate from this range.
Andrew Wiggins: Wiggins should be next in line of great offensive wing players like Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. But there’s one thing that clearly separates Andrew from these players. It’s not his offensive or defensive liabilities that worry me about him -- those things will sort themselves out. It’s the lack of fire, intensity, and ability to take over and win games that is the most obvious flaw of Andrew.
This season I’m gifting Wiggins a killer instinct. I’m not sure if it’s because the current era of all players being connected through social media so they aren’t as competitive or maybe it’s the benevolent generosity of being Canadian rubbed off on him just a bit too much. But Wiggins has rarely, if ever, shown the ability that he can take over a game and rip a team’s heart out. I mean, yeah he’s given nightmares to a few guys with his ability to finish dunks on contact and the 47 point game against the Lakers was impressive, but what do you expect when he got to the line 22 times?
This season, in the fourth quarter Wiggins is shooting over 50% but his attempts drop off dramatically when compared to the 1st and 3rd quarter where he’s getting similar minutes. He’s had a very impressive year so far and has put his name in the all-star conversation. But If he can up his aggressiveness while remaining consistent, that’s going to show up in the win column for the Wolves.
Zach LaVine: Zach LaVine has been so impressive this season that it’s honestly really difficult to pick something that he could realistically improve on. He’s been by far the most consistent Wolves player on the offensive end and he’s been exceeding expectations night after night. I guested on our Hashtag Basketball podcast NBA Deep Dives very early on in the season and Nick Agar-Johnson and I discussed LaVine a bit and he asked if I thought this would be the year that LaVine could average 20 a game. In a roundabout way, I answered that Zach might reach that plateau this season. But even then you could hear in my voice, the uncertainty. Mostly due to my own nerves but I’ll be glad to admit, I wasn’t overly confident we would see Zach do so well this early. LaVine has been playing like pre-injury Derrick Rose with a better shot. It only makes sense that Thibs knows exactly how to get the best out of him.
This season Zach deserves the gift of defense. With such a long body, great footwork, and athleticism, there’s no reason why he can’t be a better defender but he posses a lot of the same habits that I see in Andrew Wiggins. He’s not in position, or he’s just flat out not paying attention. It’s great that he’s honed in on his offensive abilities, it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s here for anyway. But it would be great to see him take the next step defensively and be a solid perimeter defender.
Gorgui Dieng: Dieng has been buoy of hope for this team on the boards. He’s second on the team in rebounding and he’s also pouring in 10 points a game. The biggest flaw I see with Gorgui and where he could be helped the most is on defense. So I’m giving Gorgui Dieng the gift of new legs.
He’s just so slow defensively, he can’t jump, and it’s become quite painful to watch. Especially with the bulk of his minutes coming next to Towns, who also has defensive problems. It’s inefficient and a huge part of the third quarter breakdowns we’re seeing from this team start and end with playing Towns and Dieng together.
Ricky Rubio: It’s becoming harder and harder for me to defend Ricky Rubio. It’s gotten to the point where I’m arguing “You can’t trade a good hair guy! Where do you think the 05 Spurs would be with Ginobili’s flowing locks? You think Dennis Rodman dyed his hair that much because he liked it?”. He’s giving us career low numbers on both ends of the floor and I’m afraid it’s to the point that even if the Wolves wanted to trade him, the return wouldn’t be worth it. Of course, I say all this but he hit a clutch 3 just the other night against the Hornets and, once again, I’m Michael Corleone and he’s the rest of the mafia.
I’m going to be gifting Rubio the gift of patience. From his statements this season, to even his body language on the court, it’s clear that he’s frustrated. This team is young and doesn’t know how to win games. And at 26 years old and the veteran leader of this team, it’s becoming harder for Ricky to tough it out as he watches the best (sadly) years of his career being lost to this young team. I appreciate his desire to win, and it must be frustrating for someone like Rubio who just doesn’t have the skills to be the deciding factor for wins on this team. He has to take what he’s been given here and hopefully through patience, he finds success in Minnesota.
Kris Dunn: I’ve seen a clear regression from Dunn offensively this year. I know that the only thing I have to reference is his college tape and small Summer League sample but it’s obvious he just doesn’t feel comfortable yet. He’s not quite the scorer or playmaker he was touted as. A lot of times he settles for the easy and obvious pass rather than setting up teammates. He’s not yet ready to take those risk. Thankfully he’s been solid on defense so he deserves some praise there.
For his first Christmas in the NBA, Kris Dunn will be getting a certificate to the Thibs school of basketball. He needs more time to adjust to the pace and style of not just his own team’s offense, but other offenses around the NBA. Dunn is the perfect metaphor for this entire team: he’s not nearly as good as we thought he would be, but the signs are there and he just needs time.
Tom Thibodeau: This is more Thibs the GM than Thibs the coach. No doubt it’s been a frustrating time for him. He signed on to what was considered the hottest coaching job of the offseason with a young, promising squad and now almost a quarter through the season, things aren’t lining up exactly how they were planned.
So for Thibs the GM I grant him, the ability to make at least one roster move. I feel like teams and even fans are sometimes apprehensive to make trades so early on in the season. And considering history “trade” might be a bad word to some Timberwolves fans. But this year’s Timberwolves are a special case. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’m not advising that they shop any of the starting 5 or Dunn, but maybe look to the bench for a player that could be shipped for another bench player that can come in and score 10-12 points a night. Make a trade, Thibs, it can’t get any worse than it already is.
I will now remove my Santa hat, absolving myself of any of these gifts not living up to their full potential. In all seriousness, the Timberwolves are still an incredibly interesting team, albeit for entirely different reasons than they started out as. They aren’t fighting for the 8th seed right now. Towns isn’t putting up 40 point triple doubles on a weekly basis, and Dunn isn’t in the running for ROY.
But the thing that keeps me watching every night is seeing the intricate improvements that this team has made so far. It’s interesting now to watch all this individual talent grow and develop as they learn how to play and win together.