When The Cubs Become Wolves: Minnesota’s Rise In The NBA

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 13, 2016

“This is a unique opportunity for us to go for the championship again. Not for one year. Not for two years. But over many years if we can put this together right”: Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If.

Things are not right just yet.

This past summer, while other teams were in the hunt for a meeting with Kevin Durant, or maybe even Al Horford, the Timberwolves shook things up by strengthening their sidelines. Taylor dished out a whopping $10 million to lock up Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. The move, he believed, could lead them to the Promised Land, an NBA Championship, especially with the incredibly young but exceptionally talented roster they put together.

Karl-Anthony Towns has three double-doubles this season and has breached the 30 point mark twice (32 vs Denver and 33 vs Oklahoma City) this season. His decision making ability has matured, as he moves the ball around at 2.9 assists per game and is shooting 52% from the field. He has also added range, lighting it up at an unreal 44% from beyond the arc.

Andrew Wiggins, with the exception of the outing against Oklahoma City, is averaging 24 points a game while shooting a blistering league-leading 64% from beyond the arc, and doing everything right this season to hit the All-Star All-NBA ceiling that both experts and NBA personnel have raised for him, well in time.

Minnesota is ranked fourth in offensive rating and are scoring nearly 107 points a game (ranked 11th). They lead the league in 3-pt percentage (41%) and shooting 46% from the field. On the flipside, they rank 19th in defensive rating with opponents dropping 104 points per game against them (ranked 17th). They have a -1.9 plus-minus rating and, most worrying of all, are allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, nearly tying them with Indiana’s league-worst record.

Therein lies the problem. And the confusion.

The inexperience is hurting

Tom Thibodeau, the defensive savant who relied on airtight defence to help Boston to its first championship in 22 years and who made the Bulls relevant again, has not been able to get his young core to buy into his defensive philosophies.

This should not have been hard at all. After all, as President of Basketball Operations, Thobideau assembled the roster to suit his vision. With all the length and versatility they possess, and nearly every player on their roster capable of switching defensive assignments with relative ease, turning the Timberwolves into a defensive juggernaut should have been easier.

Not that this glaring failure is lost on Thibs.

“Unless we correct the defensive end, it’s going to be a struggle,” he said in a 110-119 loss against the Nets. “That has to become a priority by everyone, otherwise nothing positive is going to happen.”

So what is the problem? Well, experience. Or rather the lack of it.

Minnesota’s most used line up of GorguiDieng/Kris Dunn/Zach LaVine/Towns/Wiggins, does not feature a player who has played more than three seasons. Switch Dunn for Ricky Rubio (who is struggling this season, both with numbers and injuries) and you still have a five-year veteran at best.

Not only does this manifest itself on the defensive end, but also on the offensive end. Minnesota averages just 19.7 points in the third quarter. That average was helped greatly by the 35 points they put up against an underhanded Memphis team, the only third quarter battle they have won this season.

“The third quarter is haunting us right now,” Wiggins said after a narrow 99-102 loss against Denver.

Nikola Pekovic, their most reliable veteran who is out for the season, is sadly, not the answer. While Dieng does not bring the quality that Pekovic does, he is not a pushover. He is averaging career highs in every category, and whatever he leaves off the table can be chalked up to Towns’ and Wiggins’ stats column.

To be fair, we are seven games into the season. And save for Denver, Milwaukee and (maybe) the Sixers, no other team has a better young nucleus to build upon for the future. League veterans know the dearth of teams with young legs and eager hearts to carry them to a ring, and also know the toughness and experience that Coach Thibodeau brings.

All that is needed is to turn some of the chips that Minnesota has, into a couple of reliable battle-tested veterans that help this immensely talented roster to stand their ground in tough game situations.

Safe to say, Thibodeau is not done, and if the management manages to keep the core of Wiggins/Towns intact, the Timberwolves are not way off to becoming the title contenders Taylor said they would.