Yes, it’s early in the NBA season.
And yes, the Minnesota Timberwolves are a young team.
And yes, they’re playing for a new coach, who has brought in new systems, a new style, and new standards.
But it has to be said: Minnesota should be better than this.
This season was supposed to be the Timberwolves’ breakout year. With the talent on Minnesota’s roster — which includes a possible transcendent superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns — and a weakened Western Conference, you could see the Wolves making a jump into the postseason in 2017.
But those playoff aspirations are dwindling away before 2016 has ended. After Tuesday night’s 105-91 loss to a Spurs team that started Nicolas Laprovittola at point guard, the Timberwolves have a 6-15 record and hold a better chance of landing another Top 5 pick than the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
A slow start isn’t unforgivable, especially for a young team with a new coach, but there’s little indication that the Timberwolves’ poor play to start the year is merely an early-season funk.
Watching the Timberwolves play, you have to ask: Where’s the athleticism? Where’s the excitement? Where’s this talent that can’t be denied? Is this the team that was supposed to make the leap this season?
Tuesday night’s game would have been a great time to show the world that, yes, the Wolves are still worthy of the hype.
We didn’t see that, though.
This is not the team we expected to see.
The Spurs are a hard team to beat, no doubt, but they were shorthanded for Tuesday night’s game and they are a squad that thrives in the half court. They can play an up-tempo game, but really they want to slow the contest down.
The way you beat San Antonio is to make them run — you blitz them. That had to be a welcome message to a young, athletic, and raw team.
So why did Minnesota only have nine fast break points Tuesday?
Why did they play at a low-90s pace?
Because that’s the way that Tom Thibodeau wants them to play.
And that’s the way it’s always been with Thibs. And if that doesn’t change, the Timberwolves will probably never reach their full potential.
Thibodeau was handed full control of the team this past offseason — he’s both the head coach and the general manager. It was a necessary concession if Minnesota wanted Thibs, and after a year of aimlessness, the Timberwolves brass decided it would be a good idea to bring in someone who could provide this young team discipline — particularly on the defensive end. Thibodeau has a well-earned reputation around the league as a defensive genius — he’s credited with innovating a strong-side overload defense that can smother dribble-drive point guards, as well as a two-man scheme for stopping a side pick-and-roll.
It’s heady stuff, but it works — Thibodeau made the playoffs all five seasons he was head coach of the Bulls.
So far this season, Thibodeau’s defensive changes haven’t taken. That’s not unexpected, but Minnesota is allowing 107 points for every 100 possessions, the sixth-worst mark in the NBA.
For now, the Timberwolves’ best chance to win games is to dominate on the offensive end — something they are capable of doing, if only they were playing in a system that leaned on the team’s best players.
But they’re not, and it’s unlikely that will change.
And that’s the crux of the Timberwolves’ problems.
The Timberwolves are putting up points this season — they average 105 per 100 possessions — but they’re playing a relatively old-school style with new-school players.
It’s no longer the age of the high pick-and-roll — NBA offenses need to be more complex than that now — but someone forgot to tell Thibs.
The Timberwolves give Towns plenty of touches, sure, but they don’t run the offense through him, their best player. The offense isn’t run through Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine either.
Instead, Minnesota’s offense is manned by point guard Ricky Rubio, whose style of play is reminiscent of Rajon Rondo’s — a player who Thibodeau coached in Boston. He can’t shoot and he doesn’t necessarily have the ability to draw defenders inside the 3-point arc, but he is an excellent passer in the open court, should the Timberwolves ever find themselves there.
And because neither Rubio or his backup, rookie Kris Dunn, can stretch the floor or command double or triple teams, the Timberwolves lead the league in shots taken against tight defense (a defender within two feet at release) this year.
Still, Minnesota scores. Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine are just that good.
But could you imagine how good they’d be if they played in a progressive offensive system — a kind built for three players of their skill and upside?
It’s ridiculous that they have to overcome their own offensive scheme. Right now, the Timberwolves’ young stars are being stifled by an offensive system that is becoming more antiquated by the week and run by players that defenses don’t have to respect, and given everything we know about Thibodeau, he’ll probably ride that system for the next five years.
Even after 21 games, it’s abundantly clear that Thibodeau is beholden to his schemes — they have been successful elsewhere and he won’t concede that they might not be successful in Minnesota in 2016 and beyond.
Remember, Thibodeau has full control over the roster. Why adjust systems when you can adjust personnel?
But so long as the Wolves run high pick and roll with Rubio on most every play, Minnesota won’t achieve its offensive ceiling. He’s not Derrick Rose in his MVP-winning prime.
Furthermore, it’s unlikely that Rubio could be moved for the impact point guard this Minnesota offense needs. Dunn, the fifth overall pick in the past draft, might be that point guard down the line, but so far there’s been little to back up that hypothesis.
Unless they want to move Wiggins or LaVine, the Timberwolves will need to make the point guards they have work.
That said, if the Timberwolves are in the same position this time next year, there will be loud calls for radical changes. (That’s a long ways away though.)
Of course, Thibodeau could simply tweak the Timberwolves offense — he could play through Towns in the high post, or run Wiggins as a four-out point guard until the Timberwolves can find the right guy to take over at point guard this offseason, but Thibodeau has shown little flexibility over the years unless his hand was truly forced. (Like when the Bulls ran their offense through Joakim Noah in the high post when Rose was injured in 2014.) It’s not going to happen.
Which leaves Minnesota, a team blessed with a generational offensive talent and star-caliber second options, sitting in neutral.
This Minnesota team is a grand experiment — these players could develop into a squad of Warriors killers or it could be another batch of wasted potential.
It’s a big-picture game — patience is key — but in the short term, this Minnesota team has only been frustrating and disappointing, and change doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.