Some called me a pessimist, I prefer realist, for predicting a 26-win season for the Timberwolves this season. So as far as I am concerned, the 13-30 record thus far is about exactly what I expected.
Even though I never expected this team to be a serious playoff contender this season, I cannot lie and say I did not start fantasizing about playing the Golden State Warriors as the 8-seed in the playoffs after the Wolves started 8-8 with road wins at Atlanta, Chicago and Miami. I, obviously was quickly dropped back to reality as the team is 5-22 since the average start. If you came into the season with playoff expectations and carried them past the first handful of games, let me try to talk you off the ledge.
First off, no, Sam Mitchell is not why the Timberwolves are not going to make the playoffs this season. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but I feel like there are too many fans who actually believe this is true. At the current state, I do not want Sam Mitchell back as the head coach next season and a lot of his decisions drive me crazy, but an interim head coach using most of the same philosophies that were used last season cannot be the one to blame for a basketball team being 17 games under .500.
This roster simply is not good enough to be a playoff team. There is young talent that certainly teases a promising future, but it lacks the NBA experience to compete at the consistent level required to even be a threat to make the postseason. Look no further than the team’s 4-5 record in games in which it has led by 17 points or more. Or the ten times it has seen a double-digit lead turn into a loss. The talent is there to get ahead and beat truly good teams in short spurts. That’s the first step, but this team does not have the instinct on how to react after being “punched in the mouth.” I don’t think there is a way to teach that instinct either. I think it can only be developed in a season like this where the growing pains will certainly be tough.
Another area where the TImberwolves are behind literally every other franchise in the NBA is playing with a modern offense that shoots 3-pointers to open up space for the offense to operate. It has been well-documented that the Wolves’ 15.3 3-point attempts per game ranks dead last in the NBA and they lead the league in long two-point shots. It is easy to place blame on Mitchell for this, and he does deserve a share of it, but let’s take a look at the personnel.
Damjan Rudez, Adreian Payne, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nemanja Bjelica all shoot above 37.0 percent from long distance and have the ability to stretch the floor. But the team still lacks the sharpshooting wing(s) that can make a semi-contested outside shot. Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Ricky Rubio are all hovering between a serviceable 33.0-35.0 percent clip, but no one other than LaVine is a serious threat to pull-up and hit a shot over a defender. Add in that Andrew Wiggins outside shot has regressed to 24.0 percent and he has dropped below 23.0 percent since the all-star break last season and you can certainly see the options are limited.
I will be the first one to blame Mitchell’s offense for not stretching four or five of those long two-point shots behind the arc, but it would be nice to see the front office catch up with the rest of the NBA and find a sharpshooter to help, at the very least, pose a threat of an outside shot.
Perhaps the most disappointing reason the Timberwolves are not up to par with the rest of the NBA quite yet is the inconsistent levels of defensive play. Overall, the team has been better this season on defense, but at times it seems as if the effort is not quite there. Off the top of my head, I can think of three or four games within the last month where it seems like nearly every other possession the defense is on ice skates just recklessly chasing the ball resulting in an open 3-pointer. I hear this way too often “wow, team’s always just get hot against Minnesota!” Well, yeah. Most professional basketball players will make their wide-open jump-shots. Help defense is important, but sometimes it seems like there is too much relying on help and not enough individual accountability on defense.
Now that we know, barring a minor miracle, the Wolves will miss the playoffs for yet another season; it should be imperative for the Wolves front office to develop a plan moving forward. This is something, with the brief exception of the 12-18 months leading up to this season, that has been missing for the majority of the last decade.
Aside from the obvious cornerstones in Wiggins and Towns, the team needs to decide which other players are going to be a part of the mix and what is needed to make necessary improvements. From there, the team can move on from players that do not project into the future plans and focus can be shifted towards the development of the future. Developing a core of more than just 3-4 players is an important aspect that the Wolves failed to do all throughout the Kevin Love-era that saw a make-shift roster nearly every season.
Not only is deciding which players to keep around is important, but finding a semi-consistent role should also be a priority. This mainly applies to the use of LaVine. He has made strides as a point guard (I mean, could it have been worse?) but it seems fairly obvious his skillset is better served playing off-the-ball rather than being counted on to set up teammates. I’ve gotten the impression that the decision to keep forcing LaVine back to the point guard spot has been a combination of necessity and a desire from the front office. I get that Tyus Jones is not ready for the NBA yet, but I would rather see him struggle in whatever minutes Andre Miller cannot handle than see LaVine be pressed into a position that halts his development as a scorer.
Finally, going back to the point about the defense I made above, I would like to see a more-consistent effort on the defensive end. Simply taking accountability for the man in front you, limiting easy lay-ups and playing through the final whistle at end of quarters are a few easy ways to establish a winning defensive attitude to carry into next season.
No, the 2015-16 Timberwolves are not a playoff team and they never were going to be. The team is too young, inexperienced, and behind the curve in most areas of the modern-NBA. However, the pieces are in place to make a return to being a playoff-relevant franchise for the first time in a long time, but having the pieces in place guarantees nothing. There is still room to improve and if the Wolves want to even be a contender in the 2016-17 campaign, it would be wise to start addressing those areas now.