By: Louie Vicchiollo - 7 minute read
The Timberwolves didn’t make the playoffs last year.
Or the year before that.
Or for the last 13 years.
With the addition of Jimmy Butler, many Wolves fans, and NBA fans alike, agree that this might be the year the thirteen-season drought is finally broken, and the Minnesota Timberwolves return to the NBA Playoffs. The addition of one player, even if it is someone as high-impact as Jimmy Butler, won’t get a team to the playoffs; it takes a lot of moving parts, and a little bit of luck to finish in the top 16.
What do the Wolves have to do this year to make that monumental leap? The way I see it, we need to improve in three main categories: defense, rebounding, and three point shooting. Let’s dive in.
The Wolves suck on defense. Bad. Last year, teams playing against the Wolves shot 47.5% which was the third worst opponent FG% in the league, just ahead of the Nuggets and Lakers. To give that some context, the average playoff team’s opponent shot 45.2% and the champion Golden State Warriors only allowed their opponents to shoot 43.5% from the field. The Wolves need to drastically improve their defense. Andrew Wiggins was recently on the hot seat for his defense when FiveThirtyEight released its NBA Haters’ Ball – showcasing the fact that opponents only shoot 0.3% worse when being guarded by Wiggins than when they are left alone. It isn’t just Maple Jordan’s fault though; of the 16 players who logged time for the Timberwolves last season, only seven of them had a positive defensive box plus/minus, and of those seven players, only three are still on the roster: Cole Aldrich, Gorgui Dieng, and Karl-Anthony Towns. The best way to wrap up the defensive struggles of the 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves is this: every single playoff team had a better defensive rating than the Timberwolves last season.
The next thing that has to be addressed is rebounding. Now of course, when you allow opponents to make almost half their shots, there aren’t going to be as many rebound opportunities, so the Wolves are already at a disadvantage there. This can be shown in the numbers as well, the Wolves ranked a very respectable 7th in offensive rebounds per game last year, but a lowly 29th in defensive rebounds. Even when there were shots coming off the rim on the defensive end, the Wolves weren’t grabbing boards nearly at the same rate they do on offense; their defensive rebound percentage was 75.9%, ranked 20th, compared to their offensive rebound percentage which was 27.2%, third best in the NBA. Not to pick on Wiggins again, but it should be noted his rebounding isn’t… well… great. In 2016-17, there were eight players who played more than 35 minutes a game and averaged less than five rebound per game; Wiggins was one of two non-point guards in that category. Oh, the other player? Harrison Barnes. With such a sharp drop from the Wolves top rebounder Karl-Anthony Towns (12.3 rebounds per game) to the second best Gorgui Dieng (7.9 rebounds per game), it only gets worse from there: Ricky Rubio was the next best rebounder, at 4.1 per game. The middle position players need to start rebounding more to take such a heavy workload off of Towns. This can be fixed partly by playing better defense which will lead to more rebound opportunities, but it also has to be a focus for the Wolves on the defensive end.
The final aspect I want to cover, and the other half of the elusive “three and D”, is three point shooting. Its no secret that the Wolves were really bad when it comes to three point shooting, so lets just get the stats out of the way.
As you can see in the graph above, the NBA average for three point attempts per game has (basically) increased every single year since 1999, and it doesn’t look like it will be stopping anytime soon. The Wolves need to get better, and that doesn’t mean jumping into the top ten for three point shooting, but moving much closer to the average in 3PA, 3PM, and 3P% will help. To praise Andrew Wiggins, his 3P% increased by 5.6% from his sophomore season to last season, and if it continues to increase that will significantly help the Timberwolves work their way towards the league averages. Karl-Anthony Towns also has increased his 3P% from his rookie season to last, and last season he shot 43.4% from three after the all star break. Something should be said about the league trend of shooting more and more threes, while the Wolves seem to be going in the opposite direction: big. The issue for the Timberwolves wasn’t their offense last season, they had the 10th ranked offensive rating in the league, and had the 8th best field goal percentage. If the Wolves needed to choose one half of the “three and D” to improve for next season, my hopes would be that they focus on the “D”; getting bigger will help with that.
While there are some obvious issues that need to be addressed immediately for the Timberwolves, there are also many positives that the fans of Minnesota can turn to. Karl-Anthony Towns’ career is quickly projecting into a “top 10 player in the NBA” type career, and he is only 21. Andrew Wiggins has one of the highest upsides in the NBA and he is also just a young pup at 22 years young. The Wolves have a highly regarded head coach, and a front office who seem willing to do whatever it takes to win. We got a new logo, new jerseys are on the way, and the rebrand looks exciting.
Oh, also, Jimmy Butler is a Timberwolf.
Yep, it still feels really good to say that. Just checking.
I do have one last issue to address, but it has nothing to do with the players, the coaches, or even the front office. It has to do with us, the fans. The Timberwolves had the second worst attendance record last year, only ahead of the Phoenix Suns. Maybe one of the reasons we lost more games at home than we won was because on average the Wolves played in front of 3,000 less fans at home than they did on the road. We have an exciting team, with one of the brightest futures in basketball. It is time we start filling the Target Center and giving our team the support, crowd and love they deserve.
After all, we’re going to have to show the NBA what a playoff crowd looks like in Minnesota this year.