Wolves thoughts: Turning potential into production

Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves.(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Tom Thibodeau of the Minnesota Timberwolves.(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The last 15 games have provided Minnesota Timberwolves fans a glimpse of what it feels like to be a supporter of a highly successful NBA franchise. What makes this recent run so exciting?

The last three weeks have been perhaps the most invigorating segment of Minnesota sports fandom over the last several decades. It continued Sunday night as the Minnesota Vikings sustained their incredible season with the “Minneapolis Miracle” play that stunned the world, which was then immediately followed by a primetime ESPN showdown where the Timberwolves dismantled yet another Northwest Division opponent in the Portland Trailblazers.

The energy permeating from the city of Minneapolis was beyond palpable as the amount of purple littering the Target Center seats combined with the continuous and raucous ‘Skol’ chant brought a collective vigor to the Timberwolves’ arena that is not seen very often in recent years.

This only prolonged a stretch of excitement over the recent juggernaut that this year’s Minnesota Timberwolves team has become. Nightly sellouts for home games have become more assumed than infrequent. Every player has seemed to find their correct role and thriving in ways that help the team win. Tom Thibodeau has loosened the reigns on his rigid rotations and found ways to exploit opponent weaknesses that weren’t consistently seen over his previous year and a half at the helm.

And you may wonder what is perhaps the most encouraging part about all of this? The fact that it might not only be sustainable, but there could be room for even more growth.

Where are we now?

The San Antonio Spurs lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks on Monday afternoon by a score of 102-99, dropping them into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves for third place in the Western Conference with a record of 29-16. Even though that only lasted a day, after Minnesota’s disappointing loss to the Orlando Magic, the Wolves are very close to a coveted spot which would presumably lead to avoiding the Golden State Warriors until the Conference Finals.

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That is not a paragraph that even remotely makes sense to people who have followed basketball for the last 13 years. It makes even less sense when typed after the halfway point of the season has passed.

But, against all odds, here we are.

A combination of factors has led to this dramatic rise. The easiest reason to point to is the arrival and somehow continuous improvement, of a franchise-altering talent in Jimmy Butler.

Butler has evolved from a superstar who was feeling his way through the early parts of the season, to a guy who decided to take on a bigger scoring load and dominate fourth quarters while becoming a half-joking candidate for the MVP award, to now a legitimate conversation piece when describing the NBA’s highest honor for a player. The stats are impressive (21.5 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game, 2 steals per game), but the more impactful aspect of his presence is the change of culture he has seemed to instill – no small feat when talking about shifting the mindset in one of the lowliest franchises in all of professional sports.

Other factors have undoubtedly played key roles as well. Taj Gibson’s rock-solid play on both ends of the court and veteran leadership in transferring Thibodeau’s teachings in a more hands-on way to his teammates has been invaluable.

Jamal Crawford, while sometimes a liability on the defensive end and not always a net-rating star (currently at -5.6 for the year), has brought a sense of veteran suave-ness to the group that hasn’t been seen for years. He has single-handedly won the Timberwolves multiple games this season with late-game heroics and clutch shot making.

Jeff Teague has played well, despite his moderate unpopularity from the fan base for an assortment of (somewhat) understandable reasons. Gorgui Dieng has come on as a solid to above-average rotation piece who always seems to make a positive impact. Nemanja Bjelica has had a roller coaster season thus far, with plenty of positive moments surrounded by blunders and lackluster play, but he is a player whose success seems to be a major catalyst from turning this team from ‘pretty good’ to ‘scarily good’.

The transformation from potential to production

The thing that always made this year’s rendition of the Timberwolves so intriguing was the combination of veterans who were known to excel in Thibodeau’s schemes with elite young players who had copious amounts of space to grow. The current talent was enough to thrust the team easily into the Western Conference playoff picture. The mouthwatering aspect, however, was how good they could be if the top-end young talent evolved from offensive wunderkinds into all-around game-changers.

The season began slowly when it came to this aspect of the team. Karl-Anthony Towns seemed to stagnate on the defensive end, to put it lightly, and seemed to be overthinking on defensive rotations and struggling with abysmal footwork to a point where the national media took notice. From the first game through the Philadelphia 76ers game on December 12th, Towns defensive rating sat at an uninspiring 108.1 (worst of everyone in the starting 5), culminating in this social media exchange with Joel Embiid.

Apparently, Wolves fans owe Embiid a thank you card, or a tweet of approval, or maybe just a big ol’ hug, because after that exchange, Towns became an absolute madman on the defensive end of the floor. Since that date, his defensive rating is 101.7. Essentially, that means that the Timberwolves are playing defense like the third best defensive team in the entire league when he is on the floor. That is no small thing when he is averaging 35.7 minutes per game.

Add this drastic improvement to the concurrent, yet more moderate, growth of their other young star: Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins suffered through a miserable month of December where he saw his shooting percentages and scoring averages plummet along with his overall impact on the game. However, over the last 10 games the fourth year wing out of Kansas has righted the ship to average 18 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game (all up from his season averages). Maybe more importantly, his defensive impact has seemed to take a major step forward as his rating on that end over that 10 game sample-size sits at 96.5, which is elite no matter how many Wiggins haters try and tell you otherwise.

It is over this stretch of games that Wiggins has outplayed stars like Paul George and C.J McCollum. He has also shown more consistent flashes of doing the stat-stuffing things such as getting deflections, steals, and assists all while seeming to find a groove when it comes to his role alongside fellow wing Jimmy Butler. The Wiggins we have seen over the last ten games is enough to make any true Timberwolves fan giddy, as the talent that is dripping off of him finally seems to be showing itself with increased regularity in ways that are majorly impacting the game.

And finally, we get to the forgotten diminutive point guard who has defied his critics through utter domination of advanced statistics and whatever the hell Real Plus Minus (RPM) is. The truth is, Tyus Jones has blown even his biggest supporters out of the water by his play this year.

He leads the team in net rating at +11.1. He leads the team in defensive rating at 101.0. He leads the entire NBA for point guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 2.90 and is fifth in the league in Real Plus Minus at his position with a mark of 4.43 (behind Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul – no, that is not a typo).

To somehow take it a step further, when Jones plays with the other four starters his net rating is a whopping 28.0 (over a 249 minute sample size!). To put that into perspective, the Golden State Warriors lead the NBA in net rating at a clip of 10.7. That means when Jones plays with this group, they are over 17 points per 100 possessions better than perhaps the most talented team ever assembled. Yeah…there is no set of superlatives that will do that statistic justice.

The bright future

What are the ages of those three players mentioned in the last segment of this article? Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are 22, and Tyus Jones is only 21. Those are perhaps the most important two building blocks for the franchise over the next 10 years, and a vital supporting piece that looks to be, at worst, a high-end backup point guard in the NBA. All three of these players have shown significant growth, especially recently, and only figure to improve by leaps and bounds as they mature into their primes.

Add in Jimmy Butler, who will hopefully (fingers crossed) sign an extension to stay in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, and there is reason for gross optimism as to the direction this franchise is heading.

Yes, in a couple of years the Wolves have the chance to vault into the luxury tax in order to build a legitimate contender. Yes, injuries in professional sports are as unpredictable as they are crippling, and can rapidly send franchises into a tailspin. Yes, I realize that getting this excited about a team that is notorious for unavoidable let downs and misery is generally not a smart idea.

But with the way this team is currently playing, and still seeing room for improvement from some of it’s most important pieces, why shouldn’t there be an unprecedented level of hopefulness as to what they have the opportunity to achieve?

Over the last month, the Timberwolves have shown the capability of being one of the top three teams in the NBA judging by net rating and overall record. This is over a significant sample size that is enough to project at least something close to that for a whole season. After a recent five-game home stretch that saw Minnesota win all five contests by double digits all while winning 12 of their last 15 games, it is easy to see how fans might think this is the climax of what they can see out of the Wolves.

Next: Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler's budding bromance

But hey, with the Vikings making miraculous plays, and the Wolves playing at an elite level, who is to think that this isn’t just a continued upswing for the eventual climax in the coming months and years?