By: Dan Slaubaugh
With just 12 games left on the schedule, the regular season is coming to a close. Unfortunately, the Wolves - for the 13th straight year - will be sitting on their couches in late April when the postseason tips off.
Here at On The Prowl, we are feeling the grind of the grueling 82-game schedule. In the OTP chat room, we exchange thoughts daily on the state of the team. We're currently gassed, but still alternate thoughts on a regular basis. I thought it'd be a good idea to share them with you guys, because after all, we're here to serve you.
Topics include shortening the NBA schedule, the new logo reveal, general thoughts on Zach LaVine, the final stretch, and looking ahead to next season. Some may be in great detail. Some may not. Enjoy!
Shortening the NBA schedule
Jonah: Dan, what's your opinion on shortening the NBA schedule?
Dan: I'd be totally game for a 72 game schedule.
Jonah: Anything shorter?
Dan: No. You?
Jonah: I think my ideal number is 65 but I'm comfortable with anything over 60.
Dan: Gotcha. I think if they eliminated back-to-backs that'd fix everything.
Jonah: Yep, the back-to-backs are the biggest issue.
Zach: I'd be okay with keeping 82 or going to 74/76 but starting the season two weeks earlier (shortening preseason) so it eliminates the back-to-backs. I also like the thought that the basketball would be better because right now, there is to time to practice.
Jonah: Fewer injuries, more meaningful games, higher quality basketball. It's a win win win. The only issue, as always, is the money.
Dan: Yeah, all good points.
New logo reveal
Zach: You guys excited for the new logo reveal?
Jonah: So excited. I feel like it's a good thing to put this logo to bed.
Dan: Yeah, it should be awesome. I have a feeling it will be somewhat like the 1987 logo. Just a hunch.
Jonah: I really hope it is.
Dan: That would be best-case scenario. It worries me a little that the firm in charge of the rebrand also did the rebranding for the Pelicans. However, they were also in charge of the Hawks and Kings rebranding, so that's the positive.
General thoughts on Zach LaVine
Dan: What are your guys' thoughts on LaVine?
Zach: It would have been really nice to have him play with this team the whole year. I still think he is best suited for a bench role if he wants to be a ball dominant scorer. If he is going to be with the starters he has to be a catch-and-shoot guy to. He also needs to become a smarter basketball player, learn how to draw fouls, play team defense, and make the right pass.
Dan: Right on. I think peak value LaVine is scoring 6th man LaVine with Gorgui as a backup big. I'd like to see those two off the bench together with the chemistry they've developed. Would really strengthen the Wolves bench.
Zach: For sure. They play well together. It also gives the option of inserting them into the starting lineup when injuries take place and onto the court in late-game situations, whoever is playing better.
Dan: I think that is peak Wolves next year. Grab a vet 3 ( will look later at options) to start alongside Wiggins, also sign Taj Gibson or JaMychal Gfreen for three years to complement Towns in the frontcourt, and then bring LaVine and Dieng off the bench.
Zach: You love you some Taj Gibson. Maybe three years ago but just don't like that move anymore, especially for three years. You'd be getting 32-35 year old Gibson. It would help but think they could probably find better, maybe not though.
The final stretch
Jonah: I might be ready for the season to be over.
Zach: I am with you guys. Has that feeling like nothing else good is going to happen this year. The team looks awful again and injuries have caught up. Plus, we continue to have to watch Brandon Rush.
Dan: Yeah, it stinks. I feel like we have learned all that we've need to learn and now am eager to move on. I hate inconsequential basketball.
Zach: Dunn should see a lot of minutes...and I can't watch that.
Looking ahead to next season
Zach: Thibs will be all in on the playoffs next year. He knows it has to happen. Could see some big changes this offseason and not all might be loved.
Dan: Agreed. It's playoffs or bust.
Zach: Could give up some ceiling to not have as low of a floor.
Jonah: The thing is, this was the year to do it. All the teams the Wolves are competing with for this years 8 spot are going to continue to improve - Denver specifically.
Zach: For sure. LaVine and pick to Portland for Lillard or McCollum.
Jonah: Give me McCollum
Dan: I'm scared on the effect Thibodeau's minute distribution will have for next year when we're potentially occupying a 6-8 seed heading into the playoffs or final stretch of the season. It's a real issue and one can only hope they'll have enough energy to finish off the regular season strong and ride that momentum into the playoffs with fresh legs.
Jonah: Absolutely. Thibs still doesn't seem to understand minute distribution.
Dan: I'm not at all sure why. People have to mention it to him on a regular basis. He's just too stubborn?
Jonah: It's very possible. He seems to be that way. I guess I thought him spending all this time with other organizations, Spurs specifically, would change his mind.
Dan: Exactly. He took a year off and didn't learn from his biggest mistake.
Jonah: You're right. If he didn't have the minutes issue he would probably be considered one of the very top coaches in the league.
Dan: Yeah absolutely. And with all of this said, I honestly think this team will be in the postseason next year. Thibs had a year to evaluate and now should make some changes. Plus, the players will have familiarity coming into next season.
Zach: I really do think they are going to remake the bench. KAT and Wiggins are great, but I think we have seen they can't carry the team. I know they will get better and KAT is the better player, but it's still a guard-driven league and posts need touches created for them. Wiggins hasn't shown the ability to consistently be able to be a guy who you can give the ball to and score efficiently.
By: Jonah Sprinkel
Ricky Rubio's career in Minnesota has been nothing short of tumultuous. Between injuries, head coaching changes, different "franchise players", trade rumors, and the seemingly never ending playoff drought, Rubio has seen it all here in the Twin Cities. In the midst of everything, he has been a constant leader.
Recently the Timberwolves have been attempting to claw their way back into sole possession of the coveted eighth seed in the Western Conference. Karl-Anthony Towns has been the unstoppable force in recent weeks. However, Ricky Rubio has been the orchestra director who has been playing the best basketball of his career.
Statistics aside, Rubio has been doing everything for this hungry Wolves squad. He's constantly talking and directing on both sides of the ball while thinking two steps ahead of the defense. If there's a loose ball in Rubio's vicinity it's very common to see him sprawled out on the floor in an attempt to regain possession. And haters be damned he seems to have developed the ability to score the basketball.
But statistics are fun!
In the last 13 games, the Timberwolves are 8-5 with wins over the Nuggets, Warriors, Jazz, Clippers and Wizards. In this same span Rubio is averaging 13.6 points, 11.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 3.3 turnovers on 43.9% from the field and 31.1% from beyond the arc.
March has been the most favorable to Rubio's shooting touch. In six games to start the month of March, Rubio has averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.2 turnovers while shooting 45.5% from the field and 36.4% from three point land. Even when his shot hasn't fallen Rubio has found a way to put points on the board as evidenced by his 17 points in the win over Golden State despite going three of 10 from the field.
From Rubio's first day in a Timberwolves jersey fans in Minneapolis have been divided on the Spaniard. Some will tell you that the Wolves lose simply because of Rubio's poor shooting. Others say that Rubio does everything else on the court so well that the shooting problems don't matter. The reality is that Rubio has become the leader of a team that desperately wants to be in the playoffs.
The sun seems to be setting on the Ricky Rubio era, and with 16 games left in the season, he's giving Timberwolves fans the best point guard performance they've seen since Sam Cassell. Playoffs or not, let's all sit back and enjoy Rubio and his infectious smile while we still can.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have now played 14 games without their electrifying shooting guard, Zach LaVine. At the time it seemed like an injury that would derail the Wolves season and send the team spiraling into the cellar of the Western Conference. Thankfully, this is not the case. The Wolves continue to find themselves in the hunt for the final playoff spot. Gaining that coveted eight seed would allow the team to not only host their first playoff game in what feels like an eternity, but also to be absolutely demolished by the super team that is the Golden State Warriors. I know, I know, the Timberwolves just beat them. Trust me, that team will look a whole lot different come playoff time.
But we're not here to talk about the playoffs. We're here to see what the Timberwolves look like without Zach LaVine on the floor.
Let's get the basics out of the way first. Before LaVine's injury the Timberwolves had an Offensive Rating of 109.3 which ranked 11th in the league and a Defensive Rating of 110.5 which ranked 23rd in the league. Currently, the Timberwolves are 10th in the league with a 110.2 Offensive Rating and 23rd in the league with a 110.2 Defensive Rating. To break this down simply; before LaVine's injury the Timberwolves had a negative Net Rating. Over the course of five weeks without LaVine, the Net Rating has climbed to an even 0.
Breaking these numbers down further is where the fuel to the "Anti-LaVine" fire is found. Before his injury, LaVine played in two games in February, losing both. The Wolves went on to play 10 more games that month and post a 5-7 record over this span. In those 12 games the Timberwolves had an Offensive Rating of 111.8 and a Defensive Rating of 111.1, good for a +0.7 Net Rating. In the four games the team has played during the month of March they have posted a 106.0 Offensive Rating and a 95.7 Defensive rating, giving the team a +10.4 Net Rating. Keep in mind that these very impressive numbers during the month of March have come against the Jazz, Spurs, Clippers and Warriors; four of the top five teams in the Western Conference.
For those unfamiliar with the Four Factors it's a collection of four team statistics, both offensive and defensive, that are very telling in how successful, or unsuccessful, a team is. These four statistics should always be listed in order of importance; Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Offensive Rebound Percentage and Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt.
Offensive Four Factors (league rank)
Pre-LaVine Injury Post-LaVine Injury
eFG% - 50.8 (15) eFG% - 51.1 (15)
TOV% - 13.4 (22) TOV% - 13.2 (20)
ORB% - 26.9 (4) ORB% - 27.4 (3)
FT/FGA - .221(12) FT/FGA - .223 (10)
At first glance it may seem like there isn't much difference with LaVine in or out of the lineup. But wait just a moment. The Philadelphia 76ers currently have an eFG% of 50.0 which ranks 20th in the league. The Boston Celtics on the other hand rank 9th in the league with an eFG% of 52.4. The same can be said for the other statistics; though the differential in the percentages may seem minuscule, it truly separates the good teams from the bad ones.
The bottom line in all of this is that the Timberwolves are shooting better, turning the ball over less and attempting more free throws per field goal attempted since LaVine has been out with injury.
Admittedly, the sample size is small. On the other hand all of these numbers are trending in a positive direction with LaVine out of the lineup. However, offense is only half of the battle. The following numbers are the Defensive Four Factors. This set of statistics include the same categories as the Offensive Four Factors, except for Defensive Rebound Percentage, but are a reflection of how the Timberwolves defense stacks up against the rest of the league.
Defensive Four Factors (league rank)
Pre-LaVine Injury Post-LaVine Injury
eFG% - 52.7 (25) eFG% - 52.5 (25)
TOV% - 13.2 (13) TOV% - 13.3 (13)
DRB% - 76.7 (13) DRB% - 76.2 (18)
FT/FGA - .218 (19) FT/FGA - .209 (14)
This time around there are truly minuscule differences, except for the FT/FGA. My only theory for the positive change regarding the FT/FGA is simply the amount of fouls LaVine committed per game versus how many his replacement, Brandon Rush commits per game. On the season, LaVine committed 2.2 personal fouls per game. Rush, in the 13 games since LaVine's injury has only committed 1.2 per game. It could also be that the Wolves players overall are becoming more disciplined. The only statistic of the four that is not trending in the right direction is the DRB%, which, in this case, does not involve the shooting guards.
The 5-Man Lineup combinations continues to add fuel to the "Anti-LaVine" fire.
In 879 minutes together the lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns was outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions and had an eFG% of 51.7.
On the other hand Rubio, Rush, Wiggins, Dieng and Towns have played 285 minutes together and this lineup tells a much different story. They are outscoring their opponents by 7.0 points per 100 possessions and their eFG% sits at 54.4
In other words the Timberwolves Efg% rises by 2.7 percent while their Net Rating rises by 9.3 with Rush in place of LaVine.
There are a lot of variables that go into this discussion. LaVine is still growing as a basketball player, both physically and mentally. He has also had three head coaches in three years, hardly an easy place to grow into a NBA player. Another thing to remember is that the longer Thibodeau is head coach, the more comfortable each player will become with Thibs style of basketball. What I mean by this is that since LaVine's injury, every Timberwolves player has continued to play, practice and study what Thibodeau has been teaching. The more you study a subject, the easier it is to understand.
After half of a season it would be foolish to write off LaVine's ability to fit in this system. He's 21 years old and should have a long and productive NBA career. Let's just hope that comes in the form of positive production in a Timberwolves uniform.
By: Dan Slaubaugh
Steaming hot. The Minnesota Timberwolves are steaming hot.
Friday night, the Wolves threw back the Golden State Warriors 103-102 in front of a packed Target Center crowd in what was their sixth win of the past eight games. Three of those wins have came against top five teams in the Western Conference - Golden State, Los Angeles (C), and Utah.
Tom Thibodeau has ignited a gritty flame under the Wolves' defense. Entering tonight's contest, the Wolves - who had allowed just 91.1 points per 100 possessions since the 142-130 loss at Houston - ranked 23rd in the league on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions. They had allowed less than 100 points in seven of the past nine games (6-1 record) and were looking to make it eight of the past ten tonight.
They almost accomplished that feat, but allowing 102 points to the best offense in the NBA isn't too shabby.
Minnesota's defensive rotations were crisp. They closed out with meaning. Their hands were active, deflecting a noticeable amount of Golden State passes.
They were playing good team defense.
Combine that with the elite scoring punch of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns fueled by the elite distribution of Spanish maestro Ricky Rubio and you'll find a playoff-caliber team in Minnesota.
Towns was fantastic again tonight netting 23 points and nine rebounds. He was being double-teamed by Golden State for the majority of the final three quarters, but made quick, rational decisions setting by his teammates up for easy baskets. He now has scored 20+ points in 19 straight games, matching Wiggins' franchise record set earlier this season.
After a quiet first half, his sidekick - Mr. Wiggins - was very aggressive throughout the remainder of the game. He picked it up when KAT was being bodied by Zaza Pachulia in the paint, giving Minnesota a much-needed 5-0 boost in the mid-point of the third quarter.
Wiggins finished with 24 points and four rebounds -- 20 of those points came in the second half. His biggest, of course, was nailing his final free throws after botching his first chance at the line by missing both with 29 seconds left.
Moral of the story: You can't take away both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It's just not possible.
Ricky Rubio was sensational again, notching his third straight double-double with 17 points and 13 assists. He's more or less outplayed Chris Paul and Stephen Curry in the last two games. The reigning MVP finished with 26 points but inefficiently, hoisting up 27 shots including 1/8 from three-point range. Rubio has been playing at a very, very high level lately and is a big reason the Wolves are playing their best basketball of the season.
Shabazz Muhammad and Nemanja Bjelica gave the Wolves a much-needed boost off the bench, combining for 21 points and 20 rebounds. When you play an elite-level team like Golden State, you have to receive contributions throughout the roster. Bazz and Bjelica provided that tonight. Big time performances by the bench duo.
Although the Wolves came out on top, they did not play well down the stretch. Golden State tied the game at 98 with 2:37 to go after Stephen Curry hit a trio free throws. If you hadn't watched a game since January, you'd be convinced Minnesota was about to fold and give the game away. But this is a different Wolves team. This team finds ways to win and ultimately refused to blow another 10+ point lead against the Warriors at Target Center this season.
I've followed this team extensively for eight years. With 19 games remaining and back 2.5 games of the 8-seed, this was the franchise's biggest win in that time period. And it all happened in front of the largest Wolves crowd in Target Center history (20,412). That, my friends, is what you would define as "big time". I probably sound like a homer, but the Wolves are becoming legit. I'm sure it's weird to see those word in writing, but with two dynamic scorers and a defense that's slowly molded into elite category with the cruel tutelage of head coach Tom Thibodeau, you'd better believe it's true.
Finally, we're witnessing happy times in Minnesota.
-- Klay Thompson led Golden State with a team-high 30 points and grabbing six rebounds.
-- Draymond Green is an excellent player and great leader to have on your team, but man is he hateable.
-- Gorgui Dieng finished with 12 points and four rebounds. Seven of his 12 points came in the first quarter.
-- Most people figure Rubio will be traded this offseason. With the way he's been playing as of late, I'm not so sure that'd be a good thing. He IS needed on this team.
-- One could suggest Lance Stephenson's defense would have been useful tonight. Perhaps Thibs didn't want to play him on a back-to-back with that ankle?
-- The Wolves are now 5-2 since the All-Star break.
-- This was Minnesota's first win over Golden State at Target Center since February 27, 2011.
-- Unfortunately, both the Nuggets and Mavericks came away victorious at home tonight.
-- Up next: Milwaukee (A), Washington (H), Boston (A), Miami (A).
By: Dan Slaubaugh
Well, here we are. Three games back of the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 games to play.
The Wolves might be just two games separating the Wolves and the Nuggets if head coach Tom Thibodeau opted to have the offense run through Karl-Anthony Towns in crunch time Saturday night in San Antonio, but he didn't. Instead, he chose Andrew Wiggins to lead the team with the best defender in the league, Kawhi Leonard, draped all over him.
I don't understand the rational here. You have to play by the matchup and understand the situation. Let Wiggins close against the 28 other teams, just not against Leonard. That's why you have two dynamic scorers, so you can go to either one. KAT was the better, more efficient option Saturday night. These fans are desperate and want the playoffs now, not to just keep developing Wiggins by making him attack a brick wall time after time with minimal success. Thibs blew it.
Hate it or love it, those are my thoughts on what transpired in San Antonio and I felt compelled to share them.
The Wolves (25-37, 12th in West) open a three-game home stand tonight versus the Portland Trail Blazers (26-35, 9th in West). It's essential to knock off teams that are above you in the standings -- especially this late in the season. Therefore, this is a must-win game for Minnesota if they want to remain in the playoff hunt.
The Blazers are a very interesting team. After locking themselves in for roughly 350 million dollars worth of contracts this past offseason, they've found themselves in the middle of the pack. However, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are almost as good a backcourt you will find offensively, so they're going to compete. The defense is where the problem lies, ranking 26th in opponents points per game (110.2) and 27th in defensive efficiency (109.5). They head into tonight's game off of two straight wins over Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, respectively.
Come Wednesday, the Clippers will roll into town. The return of Chris Paul from a left thumb injury has put everyone back into their original roles, but it also has left the reserves struggling to adjust. In last Friday's loss at Milwaukee, the Clippers +/- numbers were as follows: Austin Rivers was a minus-28, Jamal Crawford was a minus-25, Mareese Speights was a minus-15 and Raymond Felton was a minus-14. If the Wolves bench can have a big game Wednesday, they'll have a real chance at a win.
To finish off the home stand Friday, the Wolves will play host to the Golden State Warriors, otherwise known as the "super team". Personally, I think they have a fairly decent shot Friday night simply because the Warriors defense is going to take a significant hit with Kevin Durant out. They've lost two of their past three (road losses at Washington and Chicago), but obviously still have elite firepower on both ends. If the Wolves can replicate their performance from the Saturday night's loss, they have a shot. Regardless, this is going to take a total team effort and 48 minutes of focus for the Wolves to walk away victorious in this game.
The Wolves playoff chances took a hit after the loss in San Antonio, but both the numbers and the eye test suggest they seem to be figuring it out. Their defense has been elite over the past few weeks, holding five of their last six opponents under 45% from the floor. Holding the Spurs (#6 in offensive efficiency) to just 97 points through overtime cemented their progression.
The upcoming week of basketball is perhaps the franchise's most important in the past decade. Although that is more of a testament of their yearly putridness, it's still a sign that things are moving in a positive direction. With just eight more home games on the schedule, Wolves fans will want to pile into Target Center for what will be meaningful basketball in March for the first time since the Kevin Love era.
Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful week. Go Wolves.