Let me start by saying this article is not attempting to say the Minnesota Timberwolves have rebuilt incorrectly. In fact, for a small market team, they have done a fantastic job. This year they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns, who in my mind will – along with the rest of his draft class – lead the NBA back to a league with physical interior play. The previous year they drafted Zach LaVine – who looks like he will amount to becoming a long-time NBA player – and traded a frustrated Kevin Love to Cleveland for future franchise cornerstone Andrew Wiggins. All in all, they have assembled three future core pieces over two years, and more than likely will draft another one this upcoming draft.
So why do they suck? Let me elaborate. Per Basketball Reference, the Timberwolves shoot the least amount of three-pointers per game, they have the second worst three-point shot percentage, the fifth worst field goal percentage, the eighth worst eFG%, the ninth worst offensive efficiency, the fifth worst opponent points per game, and the sixth worst defensive efficiency. In fact, the only things they are remotely good at our forcing turnovers, where they are middle-of-the-pack, and generating free throws, which they are the best in the league at doing.
Let’s dig into what is going on with the Wolves’ team this season. First, it is important to note that Flip Saunders, the team’s previous head coach, died right before the season began. This left persistent NBA treadmill coach, Sam Mitchell, in charge of continuing the rebuild. Thus, more than likely, this unfortunate hiccup has harmed the process.
Regardless, the problems go much deeper, and the light of responsibility needs to shine brightly on one Andrew Wiggins. Key Dae, at SB Nation, recently did a fantastic job of detailing Wiggins’ second year struggles. A few data points and quotes are in order:
Figure 2 Data Via Synergy and NBA.com's Stats Page
So why is this data important? Because it shows that Wiggins has become an incredibly high usage player with no offensive abilities outside of posting-up and getting fouled. But more on that latter. Dae explains the dilemma perfectly:
So, if Wiggins can’t pass, shoots 23% from three-point line, and has a PER of 16.1, what can he do well? Per Dae and others it is focus on being a physically dominant guard who can slash at will. So let’s examine those statistics and compare them with other players that have similar playing styles. In fact, maybe Wiggins’ statistics are not that unusual:
Figure 2 Data Via Synergy and NBA.com's Stats Page
So here is the deal. Wiggins is clearly gifted at being able to score using isolation drives and post-ups, similar to a young Kobe or Dwayne Wade; however, as previously noted, he is a terrible passer. If Wiggins could improve that aspect of his game, his scoring ability will be multiplied, solely because other teams will not be able to double him. Until then, though, Wiggins will be an inefficient chucker. Here is the big dilemma, unfortunately, as Dae notes:
Consequently, until Andrew Wiggins improves his handles, his overall improvement is a lost cause. If this change completely flounders, which is a possibility, than Minnesota’s rebuild will have taken a turn for the worst. Fortunately for Timberwolves’ fans, however, one key piece makes this unlikely: Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns’ Player Impact Estimate (PIE) – a stat conducted by the NBA that accounts for what percentage of a team’s game events a player achieved – is twelfth in the association at 15.7%. In fact, I crunched the numbers, and Karl-Anthony Towns is one of five rookies since the 1996 draft that, in their rookie seasons, had a PIE over 14%. Additionally, he has the third highest amongst those five players behind Tim Duncan and Chris Paul.
This is important because Towns may be able to ease the stress on Andrew Wiggins. It looks now as if Towns will truly be the face of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and not Wiggins. This could ease the defensive pressure the latter receives, which in turn allows for easier scoring. Regardless, had three #1 overall picks in three years not fallen into Minnesota’s lap (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade and Karl-Anthony Towns from their own pick) this scenario would not be likely.
Philadelphia and Orlando started their rebuilding processes three years ago. Neither seems anywhere close to contention. For teams like Minnesota and Sacramento, though, their rebuilds have been going on for the better part of one decade. In that way, the NBA is a bit like association football (soccer), the best franchises are simply the best for a very long period of time, and it takes the worst teams significant years to reach mediocrity. So do the Timberwolves have a promising core? Absolutely. Will they more than likely be competing for a western conference playoff birth in the near future? It is more than likely. But is any of this guaranteed? Not a chance.
Thus, faltering NBA teams are faced with a paradoxical dilemma. If they tank to accrue high draft selections then they are faced with a half-decade window before they can reach the playoffs. Moreover, tanking teams only have a remote possibility of serious title contention one decade from the start of their processes. On the other hand, if you choose not to tank, then your team is stuck on the mediocrity treadmill for a significant period of time. Minnesota traded Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007 and they have been rebuilding ever since. And even now, they are at least one year away from contention. Thus, they have not solved the paradox, they embody it.