By: Jonah Sprinkel
The Wolves have changed dramatically over the last several seasons with the building of Mayo Clinic square and the new practice facility, the additions of Tom Thibodeau serving both as head coach and President of Basketball Operations and Scott Layden as GM, the incredible renovations to Target Center and of course the basketball additions of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford. After years of toiling away as a low tier franchise, Minnesota finally has a basketball team worth getting excited over.
Another change for the Wolves are the results on the court. With a 126-118 win over the LA Clippers on Monday, the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves tied their win total from the 2016-17 season. The Wolves currently hold the fourth seed in the West and with the All-Star game quickly approaching this season is beginning to draw to a close. As the team’s leadership and fans look to the playoffs, it’s also important to remember just how much this squad has grown.
The 2016-17 NBA season feels like a lifetime ago. During that season the lineup of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns logged the most minutes per game for the Wolves. In 880 total minutes that group posted a 107.4 offensive rating and a 109.7 defensive rating for a -2.3-net rating. If we compare that to other NBA teams league wide, this lineup ranks 22nd in offense, 17th in defense and 23rd in net rating. This led to the Wolves 31-51 record.
I’d like to take a moment to remind you that the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves have a winning record in late January and are on pace to be a top four seed in the Western Conference playoffs. When is the last time Wolves fans have been able to say that? Hint, a guy named Michael Olowokandi was on the roster. Sadly, he was not one of those All-Stars.
This season the Wolves most used lineup consists of Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns. Without seeing any statistics, you already know just based on the names here that this is a better basketball team. In 832 minutes together, this lineup has a 111.3 offensive rating, 103.4 defensive rating with a +7.9-net rating. Compared to the remainder of the league this ranks sixth in offense, second in defense (!!!), and third in net rating.
The difference in last year’s team and this year’s team is like night and day. While there were some significant growing pains early this season, the Jimmy Butler-less losses to Indiana and Detroit come to mind, this team has rounded into shape at the right time. Of course, the growth and success of this team would not have been possible without the addition of Jimmy Butler. However, give Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford their due because each of them fills a hole that has been left wide open in previous years; quality, capable role players.
Due to a very rough 20-game stretch in November and December, Wiggins’ per game numbers won’t look great in comparison to last season. His points per game are down over five points while his shooting numbers have also taken a noticeable hit. I don’t believe Wiggins has regressed. I think it’s a matter of having to defer to Butler as well as fit alongside Butler. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Wiggins, as the younger player, should defer to the older, more accomplished teammate. However,I would go so far as to say that the cause of Wiggins rough stretch is due to his and Butler’s stylistic overlaps.
Recently, Wiggins has been rounding into form as the third man on this squad. Since December 23rd, Wiggins has averaged 19.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, two assists on 46.4 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from deep. I should note that Wiggins’ struggles at the charity stripe have continued with a lousy 65.1 percent over this stretch.
With Butler sidelined since the 20th of January Wiggins has shown that he is more than capable of being the scoring leader on a nightly basis. This team will continue to be extremely dependent on Butler. But with Wiggins growing in the wings it’s hard not to get excited about the potential of this team if Wiggins begins to truly flourish in his role.
Towns’ growth as a player earned him an award this winter. For the first time since 2004, the Wolves will send two players to the All-Star game; Towns and Butler.
Towns’ points per game may seem down when placed next to his previous two seasons. But, if we dig a little deeper we’ll see that Towns’ usage percentage is the lowest of his career and is down 5.5 percent from last season. Once again, this simply having to share the ball with Butler. That being said, Towns’ rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all remained consistent while his three-point percentage has improved by nearly five percent.
But, the real growth lies in the on/off numbers. During the 2016-17 season the Wolves had a 112.8 offensive rating with Towns on the court and a 104.8 offensive rating with him off the court, +8.0. On the other end, the Wolves posted a 113.6 defensive rating when Towns was on and a 107.1 defensive rating when he was off, -6.5. The Wolves were +1.5 points per 100 possessions better with Towns on the floor. This didn’t matter though, as the Wolves were a net negative no matter where Towns was.
The 2017-18 season is a different story. When Towns is on the court the Wolves post a 117.1 offensive rating and with him off the court they log a 104.3 offensive rating. Good for a +12.8. On the defensive end the Wolves have a 109.0 rating with Towns on and a 112.0 rating when he is off, a +3.0. This season, the Wolves are +15.8 points per possession better with Towns on the floor versus off.
Fun, bonus stats
With all that said and done, I’m happy we can have the words “winning basketball” and “Minnesota Timberwolves” in the same sentence again. It’s been a long time coming. The Loss That Shall Not Be Named is still fresh in the air of Minneapolis. The winning ways of these new Wolves will not heal all wounds, but they can help to ease the pain. Now if only Jimmy Butler would come back from injury.
By: Nathan Brinkman
The Timberwolves continue their so far unbeaten road trip as they travel up the west coast to square off against the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland is a team projected to make the playoffs in the Western conference and they are led by all-star guard Damian Lillard. The Timberwolves are on a 2-game win streak despite being short-handed in those contests not having Jimmy Butler or Jamal Crawford available to play.
What to watch for:
Andrew Wiggins: It's hard to call Andrew Wiggins a breakout player considering how consistent he has been throughout his career but with Butler sidelined the last couple games, Wiggins has been leading the Wolves to victory while scoring 34.5 points per game. Look for Wiggins to come out firing offensively again tonight.
Karl-Anthony Towns: For "Big KAT", the last couple games have went just the opposite as they have for Wiggins as he has averaged just 16.5 points per game in those contests. Towns has been getting himself into foul trouble early on in games and has been drawing a ton of attention from defenses. In Portland though, the Trailblazers will have no answer for KAT as he is too large and strong to be defended by Al-Faruoq Aminu and too fast to be defended by Jusuf Nurkic. Expect Towns to have a big game tonight.
Young Core: If the Wolves win tonight, they will have won three straight games without Jimmy Butler. This will say a lot about how far this core has come since last season and even since earlier this season. If the young players can keep up this level of play and Jimmy Butler is added to the mix, the Wolves will truly be a scary team to play come playoff time.
Minnesota: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Nemanja Bjelica, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
Portland: PG Damian Lillard, SG CJ McCollum, SF Evan Turner, PF Al-Farouq Aminu, C Jusuf Nurkic
102-97 Wolves, I believe in the streak we are on right now and I think the Wolves will be the better team tonight.
By: Dan Slaubaugh
After an 0-2 road trip, the Timberwolves return home to face one of the top teams in the East.. The team from down south currently sits 31-13 and 2nd place in the Eastern Conference. Coach Dwayne Casey has adjusted his offensive system to fit the modern NBA game (spacing, lots of 3's), giving Toronto a sustainable offense that can excel through 82 games and throughout the playoffs. They come into tonight's game ranked in the top-five in both offensive and defensive rating.
The Raptors will be on the end of a back-to-back after defeating San Antonio 86-83 at home last night, while Minnesota comes home after a 116-98 defeat in Houston Thursday night.
This will be another tough test for the Wolves, who's schedule doesn't get easier after tonight.
What: Wolves vs. Raptors
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
When: 8 PM CT
Where to watch: Fox Sports North
Where to listen: 830 WCCO
What to watch for:
Dynamic Duo: With two All-Stars at the guard spots in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, you can pretty much count on 45-50 points per contest coming from those two. Through 44 games, Lowry has been the steadying force that keeps Toronto's offense humming while DeRozan is averaging a team-high 25.2 points (third among East guards), a career-high 5.0 assists and is shooting a career-best .345 (48-for-139) from three-point range. They are undoubtedly in the conversation for best back-court in the league.
East woes: It's weird. The Wolves have an NBA-best 23-7 record versus Western Conference opponents but are 6-11 against Eastern Conference opponents. My guess to why that is pertains to the West being built to "run and gun". The Wolves are built to slow it down, so when they play the rest of the West they take them out of rhythm. Eastern Conference teams are built to "slow it down", so they are adjusted to it. Time will tell if the Wolves can solve their Eastern Conference issues for good tonight against one of the league's best road teams.
Tyus Jones: Coach Tom Thibodeau needs to be given a lot of credit in how Tyus has developed, especially defensively. However, he does him no favors regarding playing time. The former Dukie is averaging a little under 15 minutes since Teague's return and deserves more. I understand not starting him, Teague is the guy you brought in to do that, but Tyus should still be playing with starters at times.
-The Wolves are 18-6 at home this season and responded to their last back-to-back losses by winning the five games on the homestand by at least 10 points.
-The Wolves will wear their "statement jerseys" for the third time this season.
-Toronto has had five back-to-backs so far and are 3-2 in the second game of back-to-back this season.
Minnesota: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
Toronto: PG Kyle Lowry, SG DeMar DeRozan, SF OG Anunoby, PF Serge Ibaka, C Jonas Valunciunas
Wolves take care of business for the sixth straight time at home, defeat a Raptors team on the end of a back-to-back, 106-101.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the game. Go Wolves.
By: Nathan Brinkman
The Timberwolves once again will look to prove their legitimacy in a game against the current two seed in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets look like they could be a legitimate threat to the Golden State dynasty this season after acquiring star point guard Chris Paul in the offseason. The Wolves are coming off a bad loss to a bad Orlando Magic team, and are looking to rebound against a much better team in Houston.
What: Wolves @ Rockets
Where: Toyota Stadium
When: 8:30 PM CT
Where to watch: TNT
Where to listen: 830 WCCO
What to watch for:
Potential playoff matchup: This season, both of the aforementioned teams have played really well to start the season. The players involved fully understand what this game could mean. The Timberwolves are looking to upset the Rockets and prove they could be an elite team. The Rockets are looking to solidify themselves as a top two team in the conference. There will be a playoff type atmosphere tonight in Houston.
Harden returns: James Harden will be back in the line-up on Thursday after missing a few games with a hamstring strain. Harden is probably the best all around offensive player in the NBA and having him back in the line-up is obviously a huge addition for Houston. Jimmy Butler will likely have the assignment of trying to slow Harden down, this match-up will likely have a lot to do with who wins this game.
Playing to the level of your opponent: The Wolves have been guilty of this all season, hence dominating the Cleveland Cavaliers and then losing to the Orlando within a week of one another. This though, could mean good things in this contest considering the talent of this Rockets team. I see both teams coming out and playing extremely hard in this contest.
-The Rockets have won 14 of 16 games against the Timberwolves, including nine straight in Houston and three of four meetings last season.
-The Timberwolves are 18th in defensive rating, but third in their past 10 games.
-Jimmy Butler has led the Wolves in scoring in 12 of the past 16 games, averaging 25.4 points on 51 percent shooting in that stretch.
Minnesota: PG Jeff Teague, SG Jimmy Butler, SF Andrew Wiggins, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
Houston: PG Chris Paul, SG James Harden, SF Trevor Ariza, PF Ryan Anderson, C Clint Capela
115-106, Houston. As much as I hate to pick against the Wolves, the Rockets are just a better team at this point.
By: Seth Toupal
WHERE’S THE FLAG?
I remember frantically scanning the screen, searching for the latest way that the state of Minnesota was going to have its heart ripped from its collective body, in the wake of arguably the greatest moment in Minnesota sports history, the “Minneapolis Miracle” as it has been dubbed. Yet no flag (that mattered anyway) ever came, as Stefon Diggs was mobbed by his teammates and a state of fans who have seen countless examples of utter devastation began to realize that this time the football gods gave them the big break. The Vikings had shocked the New Orleans Saints, a team who 9 years earlier beat the hell out of one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game and stole the souls of Vikings fans all over the earth. A team who despite trailing by 17 points at the half staged one of the most prolific comebacks in NFL Playoff history. A team whose head coach took our rallying cry and used it against us after kicking what he believed was the game-sealing field goal.
But then something happened
With time winding down the Vikings shocked the football world with their stunning walk off win, sending the entire state into a frenzy that carried from house to house, city to city, and from sport to sport. One of the most memorable moments from the aftermath of the Vikings win was the celebration videos from Target Center and the Xcel Energy Center. Fans screaming and jumping up and down in their seats and breaking out into Skol chants throughout the games. The Skol chant has always been a “goose bump” moment for me as a fan of sports in this state, and if you haven’t seen the camera shot from Sunday of Case Keenum leading the entire stadium in the Skol chant before lining up in victory formation do yourself a favor and track it down online. This state has seen a fair share of heartache, but amidst the chaos and unfiltered joy of Sunday a question came into my mind.
Why can’t this same thing happen to the Wolves?
It’s easy to forget with what all happened at US Bank Stadium Sunday that the Timberwolves were also in action and whether they fed off of the cosmic energy beaming down on the Vikings that night (I like to think they did) the Wolves proceeded to throttle the Portland Trailblazers and seal one of the most dominant home stands in recent memory. A 5-0 home stand against the Pelicans, Cavaliers, Thunder, Knicks and Trail Blazers with their “closest” win being by 10 points is incredible. Let’s not forget that the Wolves now sit at 29-17 entering Thursday’s game against the Rockets and despite the letdown in Orlando trail only the Warroprs. Rockets, and Spurs in the Western Conference. The offense is humming behind rock-solid efforts from Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and of course Jimmy Butler. The defense has truly turned a corner.
The Timberwolves already hold a tiebreaker against the Thunder and depending on how things play out could very well hold several more against key Western Conference Opponents. Target Center has sprung back to life; fans are flocking to watch these Wolves lay the smack down on almost a nightly basis. Kind of reminds me of when another Minnesota sports franchise turned the corner. That franchise just advanced to the NFC Championship game with a chance to play in the Super Bowl in its own stadium. That franchise entrusted immense talent to a coach who sometimes rubs people the wrong way, but in the end gets exactly what he needs from his players.
There is no reason the Timberwolves can’t do what the Vikings just did
In a season of truly spectacular moments the Wolves stand near the top amidst the best teams in the NBA. Golden State continues to cruise along. Houston is trying to keep their composure. San Antonio is trying to stay healthy. The Cavaliers seem on the brink of a complete meltdown. Yet despite all of the early concerns the Timberwolves present a very real threat to what we call “business as usual” in the NBA. It was always going to be a matter of time until the Wolves finally started to click but I don’t think anyone saw things getting to quite this level. No one beats Lebron by 41 points. How could anyone expect to beat Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony? The Timberwolves have those answers people.
The Timberwolves on any given day can beat any other team in the NBA. If they play within themselves and play to the strengths that got them to this point, then there is no reason the Wolves couldn’t pull off a similarly shocking miracle come playoff time and advance to the Western Conference Finals. Can they beat Golden State 4 times in a series? Who knows, but having just seen the Vikings exercise their demons in truly unforgettable fashion I no longer feel like the Wolves should just “wait until Golden State gets old”. Go right at them as a pack, in true wolf fashion, and fight until the end. And maybe the basketball gods will throw a bounce our way here and there for fans across the state, and for Flip, who I’m sure had that exact same question in his head many years ago.
Seth is host of The Scoop on KLGR Radio out of Redwood Falls, Minnesota. Listen to episodes of The Scoop here.