How to Fix the Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves are off to a terrible 6-17 start in which they are 1-7 in their last 8 games. It is astonishing to see a team that has as much offensive talent as the Timberwolves, who have the league’s 10th best offense and three 20+ point per game scorers, lose so many games to terrible defensive play.

Perhaps most astonishing is watching this occur under Tom Thibodeau, a coach who’s worst defensive season in five years  with Chicago saw the Bulls finish an above-average 11th best in the NBA. Thibodeau is not only the coach of the Timberwolves, but the president of basketball operations. All of these things really beg the question, what needs fixing in Minnesota?

Step one is for Thibodeau to look past name value. Doing this is what made him successful in Chicago. In 2014, when Thibodeau and the Bulls traded the aging Luol Deng to open up minutes for young, unproven Jimmy Butler, they shocked the world, but it ended up being one of the best moves the Bulls made in recent history. The same thing happened when Thibodeau began to bench the former all-star Carlos Boozer in favor of the blue-collar type reserve Taj Gibson in 4th quarters. Gibson played superb, as the Bulls finished that season 39-18 after their 9-16 start.

Jordan Johnson / NBAE via Getty Images
Jordan Johnson / NBAE via Getty Images

Looking at the Timberwolves, names are all they are at this point. People talk about their potential, but that potential is being wasted every game they decide to not play defense. What’s most upsetting is that their most talented wings, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Shabazz Muhammad, are their worst defenders. Besides sparingly used big man Jordan Hill, Lavine (-3.4,) Wiggins (-4.0,) and Muhammad (-4.3) have the worst defensive box plus/minuses on the Timberwolves.

Those three also have the worst defensive ratings on the team. All three of them currently have defensive ratings of 116. Of players with over 100 minutes played this season, Muhammad, LaVine, and Wiggins are the 2nd, 5th, and 6th worst in the entire 358 player pool. It would be one thing if these were past their prime players without a skilled interior defensive player, but these guys, LaVine and Wiggins especially, are young (21) and highly athletic players playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns: the 6th leading shot-blocker last season with 138 blocks. 

Playing wings who don’t buy into the defensive principles his staff and him have tried to instill is very non-Thibodeau like. Wiggins and LaVine are getting a combined 73.3 minutes per game, while former Bulls first round pick James Johnson only received 9.5 minutes per game in just 13 games before getting traded. Thibodeau was similarly stingy about giving minutes to young players Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, and E’Twaun Moore – at least right away with Butler.

Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

Thibodeau was criticized for it, but he never won less than 45 games in a season, and he made the playoffs with home court advantage every year he was in Chicago. A veteran with championship experience in an excellent defensive system is usually a prime candidate for minutes in Thibodeau’s system, but so far Brandon Rush has only gotten 10.8 minutes per game in 10 games for Minnesota.

Playing Rush, who despite having horrible shooting percentages (25.0% from the field) has a +2.9 points per 100 possessions plus/minus, over LaVine, Muhammad, and Wiggins is the first step in turning Minnesota around. It doesn’t have to be Rush even, it could be Kris Dunn, but all players have to be held accountable for defense. Playing time needs to be given out to those most deserving of it by their effort, not by the labels on their potential.

The Timberwolves have done the best with players who have gotten the least amount of minutes. After Rush’s +2.9 points per 100 possessions. Cole Aldrich (+3.0,) Nemanja Bjelica (+11.1,) Tyus Jones (+12.5,) Jordan Hill (+20.9,) and John Lucas III (+49.1) have the highest plus/minus’ on the team.

Uproxxx / USA TODAY Sports
Uproxxx / USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t to say that these players should straight up replace their young stars in the line-ups, but these players should be intertwined with the offensive stars. The current Timberwolves starting five in 388:26 of playing together are -8.7 points per 100 possessions. Different bench players playing with the starters, however, brought about different results. Here are all the net positive line-ups the Timberwolves have had:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net (Per 100 Poss)
Rk Lineup MP PTS
1 C. Aldrich | N. Bjelica | K. Dunn | K. Towns | A. Wiggins 8:43 +137.5 +.583 +18.8 +.600 +6.3 +15.6 +33.3 +43.8 +12.5 -18.8
2 N. Bjelica | G. Dieng | K. Dunn | Z. LaVine | S. Muhammad 17:11 +39.0 +.141 +6.5 +.182 -14.6 +12.5 +21.1 +19.4 +12.1 -4.7
3 G. Dieng | T. Jones | Z. LaVine | S. Muhammad | K. Towns 9:34 +37.9 +.238 +16.3 +.371 +16.3 -8.6 -20.0 +15.4 +0.3 -6.2
4 N. Bjelica | G. Dieng | K. Dunn | B. Rush | A. Wiggins 10:25 +24.1 +.007 +10.0 +.500 +19.1 0.0 0.0 -7.3 -0.5 -3.6
5 G. Dieng | T. Jones | Z. LaVine | K. Towns | A. Wiggins 34:09 +22.4 +.022 +7.7 +.134 -26.8 +2.1 +5.9 +13.6 +5.4 -9.3
6 G. Dieng | K. Dunn | Z. LaVine | S. Muhammad | K. Towns 10:24 +21.7 +.176 0.0 .000 -4.3 +8.7 +22.2 +13.0 0.0 +4.3
7 C. Aldrich | N. Bjelica | K. Dunn | Z. LaVine | S. Muhammad 59:11 +15.5 +.029 -0.2 +.079 +1.5 +3.5 +8.7 +5.6 +7.1 -8.1
8 N. Bjelica | T. Jones | Z. LaVine | K. Towns | A. Wiggins 15:35 +15.0 +.148 -0.2 -.032 -52.6 +6.7 +17.2 +9.6 -2.1 -1.1
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/13/2016.

Even in a limited sample size, something as simple as putting one or two of the reserves in with the starters created massive amounts of success. The Aldrich-Bjelica-Dunn-Towns-Wiggins line-up outscored their opponents by a whopping 137.5 points per 100 possessions. Obviously that number would regress closer to zero over time, but it’s still very successful and much more so than the current 6-18 Timberwolves. The point is, if the Timberwolves aren’t going to change their starting lineup, than they should integrate their bench more in it during the game.

Gregory Shamus / NBAE via Getty Images
Gregory Shamus / NBAE via Getty Images

If personnel changes alone do not turn the Timberwolves around, then the next step is to look to trade for players who’s identity stems from their defense. Having three 20+ point per game scorers is a luxury – especially when all of them are under 22 years old. LaVine or Wiggins would make for attractive trade bait for a team struggling on the offensive end. If one of those players is used as a piece, there is no reason to think that the Timberwolves couldn’t get a young player with dedication and talent on defense.

Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Rodney Hood, Andre Roberson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, or Victor Oladipo could be acquired with one of LaVine or Wiggins, and they’d likely be able to get some additional pieces as well. LaVine and Kris Dunn were almost traded for Jimmy Butler this off-season; this is the kind of trade the Timberwolves should look to go through with.

No matter what Minnesota ends up doing, it is beyond reasonable doubt at this point that is now almost 1/3 of the way into the season that the Timberwolves need to change something. If Thibodeau does not realize this, or he does not act on this fact, then his employment might be the change the organization makes.

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