In a recapping some thoughts on the weekend for Monday’s paper, I led off with a few sentences about the Timberwolves. The gist: the sky is not falling after two losses, but that doesn’t mean we can’t classify setbacks at Memphis and Sacramento as bad losses.
Another takeaway: it’s far too early to draw any hard conclusions about this year’s team, particularly in relation to disappointing Wolves teams in the past. That said, we can attempt to understand a little more about what has gone wrong so far to better gauge A) what needs to improve and B) how easy that will be.
1) Three-point disparity. The Timberwolves last season made 287 fewer three-pointers than their opponents (3.5 per game) and made them at a lower rate (33.8 percent for the Wolves, 35.5 percent for opponents).
Coach Tom Thibodeau has noted the disparity between threes made and threes allowed last year, saying in the preseason that the gap basically meant the Wolves were starting every game 10 points behind. Improving on that is a point of emphasis. In three of Thibs’ five seasons in Chicago, the Bulls made more threes and shot a higher percentage than their foes. The other two years, they were basically even. So even if Thibodeau isn’t going to turn the Wolves into the new Warriors or Rockets, he’s knows the value of 3 vs. 2 and coaches accordingly.
With the Wolves so far this season, though, it’s been more of the same thing we saw over the balance of last season. Minnesota has made 13 of 40 (32.5 percent) of its threes, while opponents have made 20 of 50 (40 percent). If you’re scoring at home, that’s exactly 3.5 more threes per game for opponents, and again that 10-point starting gap Thibodeau referenced.
Considering the Wolves have lost their two games by an average of exactly 3.5 points, this is very meaningful. That said, it’s also the kind of thing that might be correctable as the Wolves get more comfortable in Thibodeau’s system — both offensively and defensively.
2) The defense still isn’t there. Speaking of Thibodeau’s system, he has a reputation of being a defensive-minded coach. The Wolves, outside of three-point shooting, were a capable offensive team last year — but they were often a brutally bad defensive team last season. Remaking these Wolves in his defensive image will be Thibs’ toughest task, and so far it’s not going so well.
Through two games, the Wolves rank in the top half of the NBA in the “offensive four factors” (effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage and free throw/field goal attempt percentage). But they’re in the bottom half of the NBA defensively in those four categories.
Combined with the three-point numbers, this is where the “same old Timberwolves” narrative picks up steam. But again, remember: this is a sample size of 96 minutes under a brand new coach. I fully expect the defensive numbers to improve because Thibodeau won’t put up with players who don’t or won’t play defense. Ricky Rubio’s elbow injury against Sacramento (the extent of which isn’t yet known) would hurt in that regard, though rookie point guard Kris Dunn was drafted with a defensive reputation.
3) Free throws. This is a new wrinkle from last year, when the Wolves ranked fourth in free throw percentage (nearly 80 percent) and second in free throw attempts per game (27) — real strengths of the offense. So far in two games, the attempts are robust (30 per game), but the Wolves have made just 42 of 60 overall (70 percent). If they were making at the same rate as last year, they would have about six more points to spread over two games — points that could have made a difference in one or both games considering they lost by 3 and 4 points, respectively.
Of the things that have gone wrong so far, this one is the least worrisome long-term. This is a good free-throw shooting team. They’re still getting to the line. Those misses were costly, but they should turn into more makes long-term.
4) A young team is still learning to build on leads and close out games. This one and No. 5 are a little less concrete. The Wolves have held early leads of 17 and 18 points, respectively, in these two losses. In the NBA, virtually every game is going to tighten from there — but the good teams find a way to avoid giving it all back. The Wolves haven’t been able to stop the bleeding offensively or defensively when they get in a rut (as evidenced by Sacramento’s 24-1 run in the second half).
“The third quarter was a problem, a big problem,” Thibodeau said. “We have to get a lot tougher. That’s what I see.”
Again, that’s easier said than done. Instilling that toughness to finish games — something the Wolves started to do better toward the end of last year — will be another key for the new coach.
5) The burden of expectations. Just speculating on this one, but fans are more excited and optimistic about this Wolves team than at any point in more than a decade. The only squad that comes close is the 2013-14 group that went 40-42 with Kevin Love leading the way.
Players have talked openly about the postseason being a goal. National publications have fawned over the young Wolves. There are real expectations for turning potential into results this season, and that’s a weight much of the Wolves’ young core is unaccustomed to carrying, at least as pros. That burden isn’t going away. If it’s a factor, it’s the kind of thing that players will have to nearly to thrive off of.