By: Dan Slaubaugh
Do you remember when it was assumed the Wolves keeping Ryan Saunders on staff with the Tom Thibodeau administration was a PR move by the organization trying to save a little face after a heartbreaking end to the Flip Saunders era?
Well, two and a half years later, we’ve found out it wasn’t. Rather, part of a long-term plan Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor had for the organization.
32 years young, “Lil ‘Flip” is the youngest (interim!) head coach in the NBA -- and by a wide margin. The next youngest coach is Luke Walton at 38. For added context on Saunders’ youth, 42 active NBA players — enough to field three full teams — are older than Saunders. That includes three on his own team’s roster: Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, and Anthony Tolliver.
The timing of Saunders’ promotion is odd. The Wolves were coming off back-to-back blowout victories and Karl-Anthony Towns is playing the best basketball of his career. However, after reports suggesting the organization feared season ticket renewals would plummet with Thibodeau still at the helm, this looks to be just as much of a business move than a basketball one.
And as KSTP and 1500 ESPN’s Darren Wolfson reminds us all, the Saunders' have a history of dominating the business side.
There were plenty of things that led to Thibodeau’s downfall (Jimmy Butler saga, Andrew Wiggins’ regression, incompetent defense), and his dismissal from the organization was a long time coming. It was a step in the right direction for an organization weighed down by negative energy. But this is still an organization ran by Glen Taylor. That, combined with additional information Wolfson has been feeding us on the Twitter machine, and I am once again concerned this will be a flawed process from Taylor and the Wolves.
If you believe what Wolfson says, which I usually do, it sounds like (as of right now) the feeling in house is Saunders is more likely to be back as a lead assistant than the head coach next season. The tweets also suggest Taylor may have the head coaching gig saved for recently-terminated, former Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has ties to the Timberwolves and Taylor.
While I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to Hoiberg as the Timberwolves next head coach, it’d be foolish if Taylor’s plan is driven by giving Saunders experience as head coach but without the chance to retain that position. In other words, I like the Timberwolves decision to promote Saunders, as long as they haven’t shut the door on him becoming the official head coach next season.
My primary concern would be stability with the players. Too much change is not good, and the youth of this team has seen more change than nearly the entire association. Players can’t keep switching coaches left and right. You can’t tell me that four coaches in five seasons haven’t stunted the growth of Andrew Wiggins’ development and that the players would be thrilled to walk into training camp with yet another brand new face, even if he was a better alternative than Thibodeau.
If Taylor simply isn’t overly impressed with what he sees from Saunders, I think it’s fine and perhaps even smart to bring in a new coach and move Saunders back into an assistant role. But that should not be the predetermined plan.
Concerning Hoiberg, I can already see him waiting to see how the Saunders tryout plays out before he takes another job. He would love coaching in Minnesota because he would feel safe with an owner who is familiar with him, and he wouldn't have to feel like like he was coaching for his job on a nightly basis after a bad situation in Chicago. When it comes down to it, Taylor simply shouldn't have a large say in the next head coach given he’ll likely already know who he wants, lacking a clear mind when interviewing other qualified candidates.
Not all teams are blessed with coaching stability amidst a prolonged rebuild, but the important part is finding the right coach for the next competitive version of the roster. Without a president of basketball operations and stability at general manager, that leaves Taylor in charge of finding that coach.
If you’ve paid any attention to Timberwolves basketball over the last decade and a half, you’ll know that has not proven to yield good results.
Glen, give Ryan a legitimate shot at head coach. That’s all I ask.
By: Jonah Sprinkel
It’s not often that a team in the National Basketball Association trades away their franchise player. It’s even rarer for a team to execute such a deal in the middle of the regular season. Logically, it makes sense to assume there would be an offensive regression for the team that deals away a franchise player. The four most recent and prominent examples of this kind of trade are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jimmy Butler in 2018, the Sacramento Kings and DeMarcus Cousins in 2017, Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets in 2011, and Pau Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008. But first, how are NBA offenses measured and tracked?
Three of the more commonly referenced statistics when measuring a team’s offensive production are points per 100 possessions, pace, and PER. Points per 100 possessions tracks how many points a team would score if given 100 offensive possessions of the ball, a measurement of a team’s efficiency. Pace measures the offensive possessions a team averages in a game, useful for understanding how quickly a team plays relative to other teams. PER, or player efficiency rating, is a standardized, per-minute grade of a player’s production, with said standard being 15.0.
A decade ago, Pau Gasol was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Grizzlies were struggling at the time and felt it was in their best interest to start fresh by trading Gasol. Before the trade, the Grizzlies were scoring 104.5 points for every 100 possessions of the basketball. At the time, the team ranked 16th league-wide. They also averaged 95.82 possessions per game, good for seventh in the NBA. After the trade, the Grizzlies offense dropped to 103.2 points per 100 possessions (27th in the league), and 97.02 possessions per game (fifth in the league). The team got faster, but their offensive efficiency suffered.
Before Carmelo Anthony was traded by the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks in 2011, the Nuggets held the NBA’s best offense with 112 points per 100 possessions. They also ranked third league-wide for possessions with 96.16 a game. After Anthony’s departure, Denver dropped to sixth in the league in both categories on 110.9 points per 100 possessions and 95.96 possessions per game. While the team maintained a nearly identical pace, their production fell off very slightly.
The DeMarcus Cousins trade is one of the more dramatic stories as the news of his trade broke moments after he stepped off the floor from the NBA All-Star game in 2017, traded by the Sacramento Kings to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Kings felt it was time to move on from Cousins, a central figure in many of the teams issues. At the time of the trade, the Kings ranked 18th in the league offensively with 107.0 points per 100 possessions. They were ranked 27th in pace with 95.05 possessions per game. Once Cousins was gone the Kings dropped to the 24th best offense with 105.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they became a faster team with the 16th ranked 96.38 possessions per game. The Kings demonstrated the largest increase in pace, however their offensive production dropped.
Jimmy Butler was traded by the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 12. Butler’s trade was controversial due to ongoing issues with teammates and team management. Before trading Butler, the Wolves owned the league’s 17th ranked offense with 107.7 points per 100 possessions and had a pace of 103.14, ninth best in the NBA. In Butler’s absence, the Wolves have climbed to 12th ranked offense with 110.6 points per 100 possessions while becoming the 16th ranked team with a 100.11 pace. They are the only team to score more points on fewer possessions since trading their franchise player.
What sets the Timberwolves apart from the other three teams in terms of overall offensive improvement? Seven or eight players make up a standard rotation for an NBA team, though Tom Thibodeau would argue the ideal number is five. Memphis’ eight had an average PER of 13.91. Denver’s average was 15.68, Sacramento’s was 12.78 and Minnesota’s was 16.11. All averages are sans their franchise player and include players traded to these teams. Though this metric does have its flaws, Minnesota has the best eight players of these four teams. The increase in pace can be attributed to Thibodeau and Saunders, though mostly Thibodeau simply because he's coached more games this season, utilizing the strengths of the players available.
It's been an odd year for the Wolves. The Butler drama kicked off the season and left an ominous taste in the mouths of those observing. Then their head coach and president of basketball operations was fired mid-season immediately following a blowout victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. That's not to say it's been all bad. Derrick Rose is a fan-favorite comeback story. Ryan Saunders has provided the "Minnesota boy" angle that every local adores. Karl-Anthony Towns is an All-Star for the second year in a row. The addition of Robert Covington looks to be a needle moving acquisition, provided he can stay healthy. Finally, the Timberwolves are better off, at least statistically, without Jimmy Butler.
By: Jonah Sprinkel
Last Sunday, the Minnesota Timberwolves may have begun the process of righting the ship with their 114-112 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just before that, the team went one for six, including a winless four game road trip. For a team that had, or may still have, playoff aspirations, the Timberwolves must take advantage of the opportunities to make up ground when they arise. The next three games against Chicago, Atlanta and Miami are a prime example of an opportunity for this, but the Wolves must take it one game at a time. First up, the Bulls.
What: Wolves @ Bulls
When: 7:00 PM CT
Where: United Center
Where to watch: Fox Sports North
Where to listen: 830 AM WCCO
What to watch for
The worst offense in the league: The Chicago Bulls cannot put the ball in the hoop Their best scorer, Zach LaVine, is currently out with an ankle issue. Outside of him, Lauri Markkanen is leader in points per game with just over 17. The team ranks last in the league in offensive rating, trailing the 29th ranked team by over 2 points per 100 possession. No other team trails the team ranked above them by more than 1.25 points per 100 possessions. If the Wolves can’t slow down this team, I give up.
Point guard injuries: Both Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose missed time with ankle injuries. The duo continues to be listed on the injury report, though Teague is expected to miss much more time than Rose. So long as both remain sidelined, or even anything less than healthy, the point guard position will prove to be an exposable weakness for the Wolves, regardless of the opposition.
KAT’s slump: Karl-Anthony Towns is and will continue to be the focal point of the Wolves offense. When the best player on a team goes into a slump, the team will be hard pressed to come up with a win. Through the last three games, in which the Wolves have gone 1-2, the Kentucky product is averaging nearly 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and a block with a 38/21/82 shooting split. The team was lucky to come out of OKC with a win, more lines like this from Towns and the Wolves will need more of that luck.
Minnesota: PG Tyus Jones, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Robert Covington, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
Chicago: PG Ryan Arcidiacono, SG Kris Dunn, SF Justin Holiday, Lauri Markkanen, C Wendell Carter
Minnesota: Jeff Teague – OUT (ankle), Derrick Rose – Day-to-Day (ankle)
Chicago: Zach LaVine – Questionable (ankle)
The Timberwolves should be able to build on their most recent win and create a two-game winning streak. The Bull simply don’t have the talent to keep up with the Timmberwolves. At least that is the hope.
By: Seth Toupal
By: Dan Slaubaugh
Whether you have seen Robert Covington play for two minutes, or watched every single o.ne of his defensive highlight tapes on YouTube, his impact on the court is obvious. When Covington was traded to the Timberwolves on Nov. 10, minds started racing about what this new era of Wolves would look like. Well, Minnesota fans, we are 13 games into the new era, the Wolves are 9-4 in those games, and things are trending upward.
So what is it that Covington does so well to help the Wolves win? Let us dive in.
Covington the spot-up shooter
Need a spot-up bucket? Covington has you covered. The 6'9" sharpshooter is hitting a career-high 39.8 percent on catch-and-shoot triples.
A below average three-point shooting team for much of their existence, the Wolves are experiencing a renaissance from downtown this season and Covington has been a big part of that. Since the trade, the Wolves are shooting 38.3 percent from deep - second best in the league. Before the trade, the Wolves ranked 16th in three-point percentage (35.7).
Effective spot-up shooters are a premium in today's three-point obsessed league. Covington has helped transform the Wolves offense to a more modern-looking one with his knock-down touch and gives the Wolves exactly what they needed - a three-point sniper who doesn't need the ball to be effective.
Covington the all-world defender
What we knew after the trade: Wolves were getting an All-NBA wing defender.
What we didn't know after the trade: Wolves were getting a top three Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
His ability to guard defenders one-on-one, switch, generate deflections, and help defense awareness has transformed the Wolves defensively. Before acquiring Covington, the Wolves ranked 29th in the NBA with a 114.3 defensive rating. Since acquiring Covington, the Wolves rank fourth with a 102.1 defensive rating. In that time frame, Minnesota has faced enough quality offenses (Blazers, Pelicans, Rockets, Celtics, Nuggets, Grizzlies) to the point where it's reasonable to suggest it sticks.
With Covington on the bench, their defensive rating drops to 116.8 -- 1.7 points lower than the league-worst Cleveland Cavaliers. Basically, the Wolves are elite defensively when Covington plays and dreadful when he's doesn't.
When dissecting what makes Covington so good defensively, it's not just his length, lateral quickness, and instincts, but also the contagious energy he brings. And the team is feeding off it. Karl-Anthony Towns - who's 12th in blocked shots this season and trails only Rudy Gobert in contested shots - and Andrew Wiggins have been noticeably more engaged defensively, as has the rest of the team. That engaged energy has propelled Covington to the top of the leaderboards in both steals and deflections.
"Robert makes plays. That's what he does. He's First Team All-Defense for a reason," Towns said after Minnesota's comeback victory over Houston last Monday. "He does things that a lot of people in this league can't do, not from a physical standpoint, just an IQ standpoint. He has that itch for the ball, especially on the defensive end."
Everyone has stepped up their game on defense, and while it's important to give credit to the entire team because basketball is a team sport, Covington's charisma and leadership was the oil change Minnesota's engine needed to excel. Just imagine how motivating it is to watch your teammate meet centers halfway in the air and rip away potential dunks!
Given Minnesota's defensive transformation defensively with him, there's a case to be made he should be the leader in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
The domino effect of Covington
While the team boasted a top-five offense last year, they weren't gelling through the team's first handful of games. Towns deserved more touches. Wiggins looked uncomfortable as ever. Rose provides a spark but sometimes can get a little shot-happy. With Jimmy gone, there's a clear hierarchy now, and it starts with Karl-Anthony Towns at the top.
We're back to witnessing how elite Towns can be offensively on a nightly basis. The man can just take over games at will. Since the trade, he's averaging 22.5 points and 12.9 rebounds on 51.2 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three. Reiterating from above, part of what makes Covington valuable offensively is his ability to contribute without having the ball, which allows for more touches for both Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Per NBA.com, the Wolves have been more efficient offensively since the trade -- averaging two more points per 100 possessions. Towns has especially benefited in a post-Butler era, as his workload AND efficiency has increased - averaging 16.4 attempts per game on 51.2 percent shooting compared to 14.9 attempts on 45.9 percent pre-trade.
The Wolves ceiling over the next five years rests on the shoulders of Towns and Wiggins. It's those two who will be making a combined $54+ million/year through 2022-23. It's those two who have the most upside. So, putting them in the best environment possible to reach that upside seems only rational, right? Right. At that, Covington and Saric are more than willing, and capable, of helping them reach it. "We've got so much love for each other", Towns said after the Rockets win. Figuring out how to make Towns and (especially) Wiggins tick is crucial to the team's future. "Love", aka great chemistry, is a good start.
I don't think I could actually run out of good things to say about RoCo. He allows Tom Thibodeau to sleep peacefully again free from nightmares about constant defensive lapses. He's made Towns a happy man again.
To the Wolves franchise, he has injected life.