By Seerat Sohi
Leaving aside our outsized expectations, the disappointment of the Minnesota Timberwolves defies easy explanation.
This is a team that can display occasional spurts of brilliance, executing sets, leveraging their young talent by tilting the defense and swinging the ball to open spots. Against Chicago, they amassed a comeback behind a masterclass of newly-christened head coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive principles. It was an outlier performance, though, as a season-long examination of the same lineup, in the second half, is a picture of botched execution and faltering effort.
In the first half, Minnesota outscores opponents by eight points per 100 possessions. In the second half, by the same metric, they are decimated by 13. For all the reasons they fall apart, from getting away from the rim, to grinding the pace down to a halt, each evidence-based prognostication is muddled by the befuddling, central fact: The same players play completely differently in the first half. How can a team so clearly be two things?
From there, the phenomenon starts to border on the mystic. With the hubbub permeating into the locker room, maybe the team has internalized the meltdowns, and transitioned to anticipating the inevitable. Alternatively, with a roster that averages just 3.6 years of experience, Minnesota’s failure can be chalked up to youth. Increasingly, it is.
There is simply too much talent on this team for youth alone to explain the win-loss disparity, though. Youth is a loaded term, anyway. A catch-all for overzealousness and a lack of discipline. The Wolves are prone to these mishaps. When the going gets tense, you can catch any of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns taking hero shots, or attempting steals that leave them dangerously out of position, making matters worse on the scoreboard.
But not every young player possesses these game-killing characteristics, and some veterans never grow out of them. Ironically, Ricky Rubio, at 26 years old, might be one of them.
A non-threat offensively, his attempts to suck in defenders and create for others is often just an overproduced dribbling show. A pick-and-pop with Towns often leaves the big man with the ball at the top of the arc, with as much resistance defensively as he would have dealt with at the beginning of the shot clock. There are backbreakers, too, like brash transition passes that get picked off, immediately negating a defensive stop and deflating morale.
Defensively, Rubio is one of the league’s most infamous cheaters, and in Thibodeau’s system that prefers containing the point guard systematically, with a big man helping force the ball-handler to the corner, his excellent one-on-one chops are downplayed.
Worse yet, he can’t shoot, negating the effectiveness of having three good 3-point shooters in the starting lineup. All this has culminated in Rubio possessing the worst net rating on the team’s regular rotation. The Wolves are 6.4 points per possession worse when he’s on the floor.
There’s a lot of noise there, though, so let’s get gritty: The starting lineup is outscored by 4.4 points per possession with Rubio at the helm. Insert Kris Dunn in his place, and they’re outscored by one. Replace him with the sophomore Tyus Jones, and the Wolves outscore their opponent by a whopping 19.1 points per possessions. The sample size, in Jones’ case, is small… but it is glaring, and it harkens at a somewhat radical solution: starting Jones in the place of Rubio.
Jones, at all of 20 years, is a steady hand. He plays solid defense, understands his limitations, and cedes control, which allows the stars of the team to shine offensively. Not all young players are made equal and Jones, for example, has an advanced basketball education. His parents, his older brother and his cousin played college basketball. Jones himself played varsity from the age of 13, and for two years before going to Duke, he was a scout for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. He was bound to be more battle-ready than an average second year player. He understands his role, which is to nail spot-up jumpers, and extravagantly funnel the ball off to the Wolves’ young trio, leaving shot creation duties to them.
None of this is to say Jones is better than Rubio, rather a better fit. On a team budding with potential and lacking in discipline, Rubio simply tips the scales too far in favor of the latter, often leaving the Wolves in a frenzy. Rubio is not the sole initiator of the chaos, but unlike Jones, he’s certainly not a stabilizer.
Where does that leave Dunn? Learning the position from the second unit, where he can be the star and handle the ball enough to play through his mistakes.
There is also, ironically, an added dimension to giving Jones the mantle. Despite the fact that the Wolves play better with him on the floor, starting a sophomore guard in the place of Rubio would be a symbolic admission of defeat. Jones would be the fourth addition to a starting lineup of three players under 21 years of age, rewinding the clock on their timeline for improvement, loosening the pressure valve, and hopefully, their attitude toward each game.
The long game, given the high-pressure considerations of professional sports, is a luxury afforded only to a few. But Minnesota, with a wealth of young talent, and Thibodeau inked to a five-year position as dual coach and GM, possesses the de facto organizational synergy and personnel to work on their own schedule.
On average, a team in Minnesota’s position would have already come to terms with the fact that it isn’t playoff-ready, but a combination of lofty offseason expectations, as well as the intensity of coach Thibodeau, have mucked things up. An opponent, according to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, put it this way:
“Member of team that played MIN recently: “They’re playing like kids who’ve been told they’re not going to have recess the rest of the year.”
Thibodeau’s disposition is that of intense workmanship, living and dying with every win and loss. Patience has never been his mantra. More than any coach in the league, he shirks at midseason lineup adjustments and giving rookies playing time.
Working against instinct is tough, but when the situation necessitates it, the great ones exhibit a capacity for change. In dismantling Minnesota’s self-constructed sense of urgency, Thibodeau may face the challenge of his career.