It took until April 1st but the Minnesota Timberwolves are now officially out of playoff contention.
Year 1 with Tom Thibodeau at the helm was widely predicted to see Minnesota make the playoffs, with some predicting up to 50 wins on the season. Although I was a little more conservative in my Off-Season Report, I did think Minny would make a significant leap with a great Head Coach mentoring this group of young pups.
The anecdotal evidence is certainly there to support improvement in many individual areas, however the Wolves have failed to live up to the pre-season hype where it counts. The win/loss column certainly looks healthier since the All Star Break, so perhaps it just took some time for this new partnership to gel. Despite the recent surge though, Coach Thibs will only produce a modest improvement on last season’s results; 29 wins versus low 30’s.Whilst it appears on the surface that Minnesota began to improve it’s record post the All-Star break, it cannot be discounted that Zach LaVine’s injury some 20 days earlier is potentially the more important date. The season ending knee injury to LaVine forced Thibs to make a starting lineup change and it appears to be working for his Wolves. With Brandon Rush inserted in place of LaVine, ‘Sota may have stumbled upon a successful formula with only their 5th unique starting lineup of the season.
Without celebrating such poor luck for LaVine or placing full blame on his shoulders for the poor start, it does appear things have picked up following his injury. Comparing Minnesota’s Pre All-Star Record (.386) to their Post All-Star Record (.444) up until March 31st (the official playoffs cutoff) shows a clear improvement. Look at the lineup used in LaVine’s absence however and things improve even further, at .480.
Let’s be straight here; taking LaVine out of the lineup doesn’t just result in more wins for the Wolves. It’s certainly not that simple. Zach was having a career year before going down and a LaVine/Rush talent comparison in a vacuum is a waste of everyone’s time (including the vacuum). NBA basketball however is a team sport and balance on the floor can be just as important as talent. For every Brooklyn fan that tells you talent matters (and they’re not wrong), there is a Clippers fan who can tell you a little something about balance too.Enter Ricky Rubio; the polarising Point Guard from Spain who seems to have been in the league for an eternity yet is somehow still only 26 years old. Prior to the All Star Break, several key stats for Rubio were either at or close to career lows. Drafting Kris Dunn (he’s 23 by the way) and Rubio showing possible regression under the new coach, many were calling time on Rubio’s Wolves career. Then came ‘Post-All Star Rubio’ or as you have probably gathered by now, I call him ‘Post LaVine Rubio’.
Without LaVine on the floor, Rubio appears to have the ball a whole lot more and it’s paying off. Per nbawowy, Rubio increases his usage from roughly 14 to 19% when he isn’t sharing the floor with LaVine which also results in an increase on drives (up 3%). This appears to be helping spread the floor, which is good news for his teammates. Without LaVine, Rubio accounts for 42% of his teammates buckets (versus 33% with) and a whopping 17% increase on buckets from deep (37.5% v 54.5%).
When he isn’t passing to his teammates, Rubio is managing to get up 5 extra shots in the 2 extra minutes he is spending on the floor since LaVine’s injury. At a much improved shooting percentage too. While his shots around the rim are coming at a similar rate (20%) and effectiveness (<50%), it appears Rubio is using the drive to not only setup his team but also his own play on offense. The extra aggressiveness from Rubio and threat of those around him has meant he can find his spots in the mid range far easier within the new lineup. Rubio has increased his mid range shots by 10% to almost half the shots he takes. As a poor shooter overall, that’s important. The drives may not be helping his own numbers at the rim but his aggressiveness is clearly helping those around him. Add to that the fact it could very well be helping him reach the mid range rather than just settling for the deep shot opponents are willing to give him.
When Rubio and LaVine share the floor, LaVine has the 3rd highest usage amongst the 5 starters at 20.6%. Replace him with Rush (9.1%) and Rubio’s usage jump does not account for the entire void left by LaVine. The major beneficiary seems to be Andrew Wiggins, with a usage rate that jumps 9% overall. Yet Wiggins doesn’t suffer a great deal with the increase in load. Although the FG% drops due to 1.5 more attempts a game with no extra makes, all other key stats remain the same. He is involved a lot more in the offense but that involvement is simply helping Rubio’s stats as well as his other teammates it seems.
Case in point, Karl Anthony Towns. Towns’ usage dips 2% when on the floor with Rubio/Wiggins sans LaVine. Yet his total points have stayed roughly the same, where he has 5 extra points in total on a staggering 85 less possessions. Rubio’s improvement within this new starting unit can only be bettered by Towns. The Post All-Star numbers are phenomenal, averaging over 4 more points per game on only roughly 1.5 more shots. The shooting percentages are better across the board and it is no coincidence that is occurring with the ball in Rubio’s hands more, as well as the greater attention on Wiggins within an offensive set. Towns is the true star of the show in Minnesota. His rise has played a major part in this mini late season revival and looks to be just as key going forward.
With the ball back in Rubio’s hands a lot more, Minnesota appear to be playing at a faster pace (95 vs 92.6) and there is a heavier reliance on their true stars. Rubio is managing to use the threat of Wiggins on the wing whilst making Towns a whole lot more effective down low. It’s a dangerous trio and while the Wolves haven’t exactly become world beaters just yet, it seems they may have found a better formula. With Dieng playing largely the same role with or without LaVine and Rush being a very small factor in his absence, the Wolves have found a new way to produce the same results on offense with two near-non factors at the other two starting positions. How could that help them moving forward?
At roughly $14 million per, for the next 2 seasons, this recent version of Ricky Rubio is definitely worthy of keeping around. Add him to the core starting nucleus of Wiggins and Towns and you have a solid three to build your squad around. In order to improve further, the front office will need to look to find the right pieces at the 2 and the 4 and also bolster their bench. Luckily, I have a 3 step plan for these Wolves.
Step One: LaVine as a 6th man. All cards on the table, I will admit I’ve wanted LaVine as a 6th man going all the way back to pre the 2014 Draft. His injury has created a unique opportunity that may not have been viable otherwise, with a move back to the bench likely to be rebutted by a fully healthy LaVine. However, coming back from a serious knee injury will allow the Minny brass to bring LaVine along from a cushy bench role in the second half of the season.
From there, you just have to hope you can convince LaVine that this is where he belongs. It is no surprise (at least to me) that of the 10 best 4-Man combos for the Wolves this season, the only one LaVine features in is with 3 other bench players. No combo with any of the other stars and LaVine is a net positive. Further to this, in 49 games last season off the bench (compared to 33 as a starter) LaVine managed to average the same rebounds, assists, steals and blocks despite averaging 10 less minutes.
LaVine is a player who needs the ball and a move to the bench that is more permanent than just for his rehabilitation will benefit him and the team longer term. Minnesota has the chance to get near identical production on two different units going forward, from their two 21 year old wings. While Wiggins is thriving as the second option behind Towns, LaVine will be able to take control and beat up on second units as the 6th man.
Step Two: Find Vets for the 2 & 4. Dieng joins LaVine on the bench unit as your first backup big and automatically the bench becomes better. That leaves openings at SG and PF within the starting unit and luckily, the Wolves have money to burn. Armed with roughly $25 million in cap-space as well as the option to medically retire Pekovic, they should have no problem finding candidates to join this young exciting team. As illustrated above, good 3&D options would be perfect for this team.
Plan A should be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and James Johnson in my opinion. While there is every chance Detroit matches a max offer on KCP, paying him big money now while your core are still on their rookie deals would be smart. Johnson, at age 29, could also be a smart buy that doesn’t coincide with when you will have to give your current guys big raises. Try retain Omri Casspi, while you’re at it.
There are plenty of good Plan B’s; JJ Redick, Kyle Korver, Tim Hardaway Jnr, Tony Snell, Patrick Patterson, Amir Johnson and ex-Thibs player Nikola Mirotic will all be available.
Step Three: Trade Kris Dunn. No rush on this, particularly while LaVine recovers but Dunn appears to be the odd man out. With yet another high draft pick coming in from a PG heavy draft (although I like Bridges for MIN), Dunn will not be happy with whatever role is given to him. Tyus Jones would also appear to be a much better option to play off LaVine and guard opposing backup PGs.
Minny could wait until the trade deadline in ’18 to bolster the bench depth or perhaps look to package Dunn with the Pek contract in the summer, should they still require a starting SG or PF after free agency. The 4-man options are a little more thin in Free Agency, so perhaps they target someone like Mirza Teletovic by dangling Dunn. We all know Jason Kidd still hasn’t found his PG disciple to help mould yet, despite many attempts to date.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are unveiling a new logo in just a few days (about time!) on April 11 and the suggestion is that they may go back to a more traditional image for next season. “New Era. New Look” is the tagline. No better time to bring back a more traditional lineup too.
The major building blocks are already there in the form of Wiggins and Towns for the team to be built around. Rubio may have played himself into a continued future as a Wolf but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s played LaVine out of one.
As LaVine returns from injury around the All-Star break in 2018, it will be the perfect time for him to go it alone within the second unit. If the two are to co-exist long term, it appears they need to separate for the betterment of the team. The NBA is full of lone wolves, it’s just about how you can maximise their skills to improve the pack around them. If Minnesota can get it right, they may end up with a roster that is dangerous for the full 48 minutes you have to face it.
POTENTIAL 17/18 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES DEPTH CHART