Examining the Timberwolves Early Season Struggles

(Minnesota Timberwolves/NBA)

(Minnesota Timberwolves/NBA)

After showing signs of immense potential last year and the steady development of their young core, many had very high expectations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even after finishing with the 5th worst record in the NBA last year, the Timberwolves sneaking into the playoffs as the 8th seed was a popular talking subject. Through 13 games this year, the Timberwolves have looked like anything but a playoff team. The team is 13th in the west with a 4-9 record, talk about disappointment. The funny thing is that very few people would say the timberwolves deserve a 4-9 record. Every game that has been a nail-biter for them this season, they’ve lost. That includes a 4 point loss to the Grizzlies, a 3 point loss to the Kings and Nuggets, a 7 point loss to the Hornets, and a 6 point loss to the Celtics. The frustrating part for anyone who has watched these games is how consistently the Timberwolves have blown substantial leads. They led by 19 against the Grizzlies, 18 against the Kings, 14 against the Nuggets, and just blew a 15 point lead in the 4th quarter against the Celtics. So it’s not like the Timberwolves have been getting blown out in their losses, and in their wins they are winning by an average of 25.5 points!! So how is a team that boasts so many young, talented players, and flashes so many signs of dominance struggling so much? I’ve narrowed it down to 3 main reason….

1. 2nd half troubles

Let’s look at the average margin for the Timberwolves by quarter.

  1. 1st quarter: +4.0 (3rd in the NBA)
  2. 2nd quarter: +6.2 (1st in the NBA!!)
  3. 3rd quarter: -7.5 (last in the NBA!!!)
  4. 4th quarter: -1.5 (22nd in the NBA)

So, um, this might explain some things. It doesn’t even stop there. Through 9 games this year, the ‘Wolves were 2nd in the NBA in net rating for the 1st and 2nd quarters. They weren’t even that bad in the 4th, owning the 10th best net rating in the quarter. They were dead last in the NBA in net rating for the 3rd quarter. How does this happen? How does a team who is so incredibly dominant in the 1st half, be so terrible in the second?  The easiest explanation is their defense. No one is doubting the timberwolves are an offensive powerhouse. When you boast players like Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns , and Zach Lavine no one doubts your offensive prowess. But defense is an issue, and it always has been. They allow an average of 27.6 points in the 3rd quarter and 26.4 points in the 4th quarter, 4th and 9th worst in the NBA respectively. It doesn’t matter how much you can score. If you can’t make stops in crunch time you won’t be able to beat good teams. Sure you’ll be able to beat the Orlando Magic or 76ers, but that’s not who the Timberwolves should be aiming to beat this year. This is a team that beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors last year, they shouldn’t be aiming to only beat the very worst teams in the NBA. If you’re not able to close out games and make stops, you won’t win games, there’s nothing more to it than that.

 

2. Ricky Rubio has to go

Over recent years, I’ve grown to love watching Ricky Rubio play. I thought he was a perfect player to help nurture our young players, and his sweet passes were hard to complain about. There’s one thing I now know about Rubio. No team is a legit playoff contender when starting Ricky Rubio. Now, that was fine for us these past couple years because we weren’t contending. However, now the Timberwolves are contending. As much as I hate to say it, Rubio is dragging the Timberwolves down. Before even going into the stats, we can already tell Rubio is flawed. He’s essentially a worse version of Rajon Rondo. At least Rondo can rebound. Rubio isn’t very athletic, not very fast, not big enough to grab rebounds, and he can’t shoot….for his life. Now, maybe I would tolerate Rubio if he was only a weak, slow guard who can’t rebound IF he was a somewhat decent scorer. He’s not though, he’s not even close to it. He’s never shot over 39% from the field in his career and he is shooting 30% this season. When you don’t have to worry about the opposing team’s point guard scoring on you, it’s a whole lot easier to defend the rest of the team. Rubio is a nice defender sure, Kris Dunn is still a better defender. Ricky Rubio makes cool passes, the offense does better with Kris Dunn on the floor. According to basketball reference,  the Timberwolves offensive rating is 6.1 points better when Rubio is off the floor. Of the 5 lineups that Rubio has played with that have played more than 8 minutes, all 5 of them are in the negative for points minus opponent points. I know Dunn will eventually replace Rubio as the starter this season, but I really think the change should happen now. The offense is 4.9 points better with Dunn on the court and Dunn is much more athletic, a better defender, and a much more respectable scorer than Rubio. I love Rubio and he’s done so much for this team in the past, but if the Timberwolves want to take the next step forward, Rubio has to go.

 

3. There are finally expectations

I talked about it earlier, people finally have expectations for the Timberwolves. People are expecting them to win games. This is new for the timberwolves. This is a team that has never had any pressure to win. Almost every player who gets significant minutes on the Timberwolves was drafted when the Wolves were in rebuild mode. The players were able to develop their skill without the pressure of having to win games. This year is different, and it’s affecting the young ‘Wolves team. There are no stats to prove it, no conclusive evidence, just logic. The 2011 Heat team struggled when given such high expectations, so did the 2012 Lakers, it would be perfectly logical for the Timberwolves to struggle with the expectations put on them. Look at the Lakers, no one expected them to be this good and many people still put them in the “rebuild mode” category. They’ve played with a freedom that the Timberwolves have not been able to experience this year. If you factor in the Wolves hiring a new coach that is known to be incredibly intense, the theory that the Timberwolves are cracking under pressure makes perfect sense. I expect them to adapt soon and turn their season around, but the expectation to win games is no doubt weighing on the young ‘Wolves shoulders.

 

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