By: Jonah Sprinkel
The Wolves have changed dramatically over the last several seasons with the building of Mayo Clinic square and the new practice facility, the additions of Tom Thibodeau serving both as head coach and President of Basketball Operations and Scott Layden as GM, the incredible renovations to Target Center and of course the basketball additions of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford. After years of toiling away as a low tier franchise, Minnesota finally has a basketball team worth getting excited over.
Another change for the Wolves are the results on the court. With a 126-118 win over the LA Clippers on Monday, the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves tied their win total from the 2016-17 season. The Wolves currently hold the fourth seed in the West and with the All-Star game quickly approaching this season is beginning to draw to a close. As the team’s leadership and fans look to the playoffs, it’s also important to remember just how much this squad has grown.
The 2016-17 NBA season feels like a lifetime ago. During that season the lineup of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns logged the most minutes per game for the Wolves. In 880 total minutes that group posted a 107.4 offensive rating and a 109.7 defensive rating for a -2.3-net rating. If we compare that to other NBA teams league wide, this lineup ranks 22nd in offense, 17th in defense and 23rd in net rating. This led to the Wolves 31-51 record.
I’d like to take a moment to remind you that the 2017-18 Minnesota Timberwolves have a winning record in late January and are on pace to be a top four seed in the Western Conference playoffs. When is the last time Wolves fans have been able to say that? Hint, a guy named Michael Olowokandi was on the roster. Sadly, he was not one of those All-Stars.
This season the Wolves most used lineup consists of Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns. Without seeing any statistics, you already know just based on the names here that this is a better basketball team. In 832 minutes together, this lineup has a 111.3 offensive rating, 103.4 defensive rating with a +7.9-net rating. Compared to the remainder of the league this ranks sixth in offense, second in defense (!!!), and third in net rating.
The difference in last year’s team and this year’s team is like night and day. While there were some significant growing pains early this season, the Jimmy Butler-less losses to Indiana and Detroit come to mind, this team has rounded into shape at the right time. Of course, the growth and success of this team would not have been possible without the addition of Jimmy Butler. However, give Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford their due because each of them fills a hole that has been left wide open in previous years; quality, capable role players.
Due to a very rough 20-game stretch in November and December, Wiggins’ per game numbers won’t look great in comparison to last season. His points per game are down over five points while his shooting numbers have also taken a noticeable hit. I don’t believe Wiggins has regressed. I think it’s a matter of having to defer to Butler as well as fit alongside Butler. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Wiggins, as the younger player, should defer to the older, more accomplished teammate. However,I would go so far as to say that the cause of Wiggins rough stretch is due to his and Butler’s stylistic overlaps.
Recently, Wiggins has been rounding into form as the third man on this squad. Since December 23rd, Wiggins has averaged 19.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, two assists on 46.4 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from deep. I should note that Wiggins’ struggles at the charity stripe have continued with a lousy 65.1 percent over this stretch.
With Butler sidelined since the 20th of January Wiggins has shown that he is more than capable of being the scoring leader on a nightly basis. This team will continue to be extremely dependent on Butler. But with Wiggins growing in the wings it’s hard not to get excited about the potential of this team if Wiggins begins to truly flourish in his role.
Towns’ growth as a player earned him an award this winter. For the first time since 2004, the Wolves will send two players to the All-Star game; Towns and Butler.
Towns’ points per game may seem down when placed next to his previous two seasons. But, if we dig a little deeper we’ll see that Towns’ usage percentage is the lowest of his career and is down 5.5 percent from last season. Once again, this simply having to share the ball with Butler. That being said, Towns’ rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all remained consistent while his three-point percentage has improved by nearly five percent.
But, the real growth lies in the on/off numbers. During the 2016-17 season the Wolves had a 112.8 offensive rating with Towns on the court and a 104.8 offensive rating with him off the court, +8.0. On the other end, the Wolves posted a 113.6 defensive rating when Towns was on and a 107.1 defensive rating when he was off, -6.5. The Wolves were +1.5 points per 100 possessions better with Towns on the floor. This didn’t matter though, as the Wolves were a net negative no matter where Towns was.
The 2017-18 season is a different story. When Towns is on the court the Wolves post a 117.1 offensive rating and with him off the court they log a 104.3 offensive rating. Good for a +12.8. On the defensive end the Wolves have a 109.0 rating with Towns on and a 112.0 rating when he is off, a +3.0. This season, the Wolves are +15.8 points per possession better with Towns on the floor versus off.
Fun, bonus stats
With all that said and done, I’m happy we can have the words “winning basketball” and “Minnesota Timberwolves” in the same sentence again. It’s been a long time coming. The Loss That Shall Not Be Named is still fresh in the air of Minneapolis. The winning ways of these new Wolves will not heal all wounds, but they can help to ease the pain. Now if only Jimmy Butler would come back from injury.