We’re nearing the halfway point in the 2017-2018 NBA season and the Minnesota Timberwolves have proven to provide fans a roller coaster experience. What can we expect as we move forward?
No matter how many incensed fans or delusional NBA followers think that this year’s Minnesota Timberwolves team is underperforming, there is one unarguable statistic that puts every gripe into context: 50. That number is the current win total pace that the Wolves are on.
Pessimists can be caught arguing that this number is drastically inflated by the easy schedule and close game luck that they have experienced so far this year. Optimists say that with a roster that employs three new starters and drastically altered rotations from last season, such tribulations should be greeted with overwhelming joy. Realists will sit somewhere in the middle, agreeing that the record is probably indicative of the overall talent the Timberwolves have at their disposal, yet could be improved if they took care of business against inferior teams.
Moving forward, Minnesota faces a daunting test as the January schedule drastically increases in difficulty. Over this stretch of games, we should be able to truly see what this team is capable of achieving.
Where do we sit now?
As the New Year approaches, the Timberwolves find themselves 22-14 and the fourth seed in the Western Conference with an overall record that puts them at the seventh best mark in the entire league. It should be noted that as a general rule, many intelligent NBA people point out that the standings at Christmas time are usually suggestive of what the end of the year rankings will look like.
The Wolves just had their second five-game winning streak of the season snapped on Thursday against Milwaukee. It was a game that exemplified what the Timberwolves have been so far this season: mostly good with some incredibly vexing moments mixed in.
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The first two-and-a-half quarters allowed them to gallop out to a 20-point lead, which was slowly and brutally coughed up over the final 18 minutes of game action. Within the confines of a single contest, Minnesota showed an ability to dominate in a way that few NBA teams are capable, as well as demonstrating their unfortunate downfalls of prolonged stretches of hero ball and porous defense.
The responsibility Tom Thibodeau has is to ensure that these dominant stretches come in much more prolonged waves than the team-wide lulls do.
The positive news is that sometimes losses like the Bucks game are a good thing. Without the sting of defeat, coaches and players are many times not fully incentivized to change the way they do things. If the Wolves were to keep giving away massive leads but finding ways to win in the end (like they did in the previous game against Denver on Wednesday), they would still undoubtedly point out that they need to move the ball better offensively and clamp down on defense when they get ahead by so much. However, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, their drive to actually fix these problems wouldn’t be quite as thorough.
As the competition level stiffens, the importance of executing at both ends when holding a big lead will become increasingly important. Teams like the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and OKC Thunder hold the firepower to wipe away double-digit leads in the blink of an eye and take full advantage of lapses in focus. Let’s hope that games like Milwaukee open the Timberwolves’ eyes to make sure these lapses are few and far between.
Recipe for consistent success
Think of an NBA basketball team as a big pot of soup. An assortment of ingredients goes into this soup, each with contrasting flavors and consistencies that impact the overall texture and taste that it has. The chef has the responsibility of deciding how much of each ingredient to put into the pot in order to maximize how good the soup ends up being. It’s a constant balancing act to figure out how each ingredient impacts its counterparts and what is the ideal recipe.
In this analogy, Tom Thibodeau is the chef. He must decide how to mix and match his players in order to maximize the overall success that this team is able to reach. We’ve already seen ebbs and flows to this process, such as Jimmy Butler beginning the season by taking a step back in dominating the offense in order to allow Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins room to flourish.
There are several other components to this recipe. How is Jamal Crawford best utilized in order to utilize his talents and hide his flaws? How many minutes are ideal for each player to have their maximum positive impact on the game without wearing them down? How does Nemanja Bjelica best compliment the lineups that he is most commonly found playing with?
These questions create a never-ending process of tinkering and adjusting in order to seek maximum positive results. We are still just in the middle stages of this development, with many alterations and modifications still to come while figuring out how this roster can become the best possible version of itself.
Jeff Teague’s knee injury throws a wrench into balancing of this recipe. No matter what your views on Teague are, taking out an important cog in your lineup is detrimental for overall team cohesion in the long run. The step from Teague to Tyus Jones may not be noticeable (Jones actually has a much better net rating of 5.3 than Teague’s 2.9), but the more unsettling aspect of the injury is who takes Jones’ minutes as the backup point guard?
The unavoidable fact is that several more adjustments are going to need to be made over the final 40+ games of the 2017-18 season. The hope is that these adjustments will not be injury-induced, and that rather Thibodeau finds a way to enhance the performance of the overall roster through team chemistry and proper allocation of minutes.
Progress has been palpable so far this season. Players are slowly growing more comfortable within their roles and a clear pecking order, with Jimmy Butler firmly at the top, has been set. It will be fascinating to see how this progress holds up against teams that are able to exploit weaknesses and expose vulnerabilities in the upcoming weeks. The hope is that by the end of the season, all of these trials and tribulations will lead to the Wolves finding their best recipe for consistent success when the playoffs (yes, I said the P-word) hit.