By: Eric Page
As I write this, the Dallas Mavericks are up 25 heading into the fourth quarter of what is looking like it will be their sixth win of the season. That means when the sun rises Tuesday morning, the Wolves will be tied for the worst record in the NBA.
Let that sink in.
The Wolves, with a 6-18 record, have as many wins as the Sixers, Mavs, and Nets just past the quarter pole of the season and are on pace to finish with fewer wins than last year. What a supreme disappointment.
It’s not that we haven’t been here before. Lord knows the past decade has provided countless moments of frustration when Wolves fans sat back on their barstools, sighed, and said, “Man, we suck.” What makes this year different is that the Wolves don’t suck. They are oozing with potential, but they just can’t put it together for 48 minutes. It’s not even right to say we’ve seen flashes of that potential, because we’ve consistently seen full halves of basketball – three quarters Sunday against the Warriors – during which the Wolves look like a top-five team in the league only to collapse again and again … and again and again. It’s maddening to watch a team play so well and then, predictably, so, so bad when it matters most down the stretch.
So, what is it? Why do the Wolves keep building big leads and then falling apart in the second half? Don’t ask Tom Thibodeau. He doesn’t seem to know. “Something’s being missed. Something is not right,” the “very concerned” first-year Wolves boss said after a blowout loss to the Pistons on Friday.
Yeah, no kidding, Thibs. I can see that from my recliner in Iowa.
What I see is a team wildly inconsistent on the defensive end that seems mentally incapable of winning close games. I see a team that has regressed under Thibodeau in ways we all expected it to make progress. I see a timid Kris Dunn (although improving) and an at times confused Karl-Anthony Towns. I see a coach who doesn’t trust his bench (partly for good reason) burning out his starters too early in games. I see guys trying to play hero ball to stop runs but more often fueling opponents’ momentum by turning the ball over or missing shots that trigger transition. And during the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Warriors, I saw a team defeated well before the game was over.
It seems Ricky Rubio saw that coming. “Playing with no heart, with no desire,” he said. “It’s just awful. Right now, it’s just bad.” That was the Wolves floor leader after Friday’s loss to the Pistons, two days before the team blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against the Warriors.
So, here we are. Six and 18, and already it appears the Wolves’ 12-year playoff drought is going to reach a baker’s dozen (insert Jim Mora “Playoffs!?” line here). As crappy as that sounds and as lousy as 6-18 feels, there is reason for optimism.
Let’s start with Zach Lavine. Zach has been the most consistent Wolves player this season, and, in his third year in the league, is blossoming into the player we all hoped he’d be after seeing his production soar after the all star break last spring. He’s carrying a heavier load, playing 38 minutes a game, which ranks second in the league. His shooting numbers from the field are on par with where they were last year, despite the increase in minutes, and he’s upped his free throw percentage to 88%. I heard someone on the Raised by Wolves podcast compare Zach to a young Ray Allen earlier this year, and I actually really like that comparison.
Andrew Wiggins can shoot. Wiggs has cooled significantly since his hot start to the season, but his stroke from 3-point range has come a long way. He’s shooting 38.5% from deep (up from 30% last year) and is making 1.5 3s per night, more than twice as many as last season. His overall field goal percentage has dipped a bit as a result of taking more 3's, but this is all a part of Wiggs becoming a more diverse offensive threat.
The Wolves dominate the first half. This Wolves team comes out of the gate as fast as anyone in the NBA. On the season, their first-half numbers are strikingly good for a 6-18 team: 48.5% fg, 39.6% 3pt, 54.8 pts, and a healthy +3.5 margin. But we all know how the song goes – the second half is a decidedly different story, as those numbers shift to 41.6%, 30.4%, 48.3 pts, and -7.0. The plus/minus in the third quarter alone is -5.8.
As Thibs so eloquently put it, “Something is not right,” which is a good segue to causes for concern.
Is Thibs the coach we thought he was? I’m not sold on Thibs as the right coach to develop a young team. This team is fragile, and I feel like the fan base has been slow to criticize the coach because we feel lucky to have him. We’re like the nerdy guy in high school who got a date with the smoking hot prom queen and is willing to take the abuse just to be seen with her. For a coach who has built his career on his defensive know-how, Thibs is failing early on with the Wolves. A young roster is partially to blame here, too, but progress is hard to see. At times the Wolves defense has been downright awful, especially when blowing leads after halftime. Rotations are slow, and the interior defense is nonexistent. I had expected KAT and Gorgui Dieng to do a better job of protecting the rim, but I’d also expect a better scheme from Thibs. In addition to the defensive letdown, Thibs is living up to his reputation of running his starters into the ground. Lavine, KAT, and Wiggs all rank in the top 15 in the league in minutes played, and they’re getting gassed in the first half. They’re young, yes, but their legs need to be managed more effectively - meaning more productive minutes from the second unit - to have something left in the tank in the 4th quarter.
KAT’s confused. This might not be fair to a second year player averaging 21.6 pts, 10.8 rebs, 2.3 ast, and 1.4 blks, but those numbers seem misleading to me. I feel like KAT has regressed a bit and is trying too hard to be the uber-dynamic player he was hyped all offseason to be. Too often he’s floating around the perimeter, shooting step back jumpers and 3s. I am all-in on KAT being a transcendent talent, the big man of the future in the league, but he and the Wolves would be better served right now if he spent a little more time closer to the basket.
What’s with Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill? I wrote earlier this fall that I thought the offseason signing of Rush and Hill would be good for depth and defense. Man, was I wrong. Hill has only played in three games, and Rush has been a non-factor. I didn’t expect huge contributions from them, but Hill is particularly puzzling. Why sign a guy if his season box line is going to be DNP – Coach’s Decision? It’s not like someone else signed Hill and left him for Thibs to figure out. This was his roster move. Weird.
So, here we are. Six and 18 -the worst record in the league - with a schedule that could leave the Wolves distantly out of playoff contention before the calendar turns to January. This certainly is not what many of us expected.
Something is not right.