The Minnesota Timberwolves are a hard team to figure out and are the most frustrating Western Conference contender.
On the one hand, the Timberwolves currently occupy the fourth spot in the Western Conference — one game ahead of the Denver Nuggets in the win column — and three games behind the San Antonio Spurs in the win column for the third seed.
On the other hand, Minnesota has plenty of question marks that could test their playoff aspirations in March and April. A lot has to change for the Timberwolves to end their 13-year playoff drought. But 28 games into the season, there are plenty of reasons to both like their chances and question their ability to sustain this early season pace.
Minnesota Timberwolves Are Most Frustrating Western Conference Contender
For a team that is coached by defensive wizard Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves have not played a whole lot of defense this season. Minnesota is ranked 24th in defensive rating (107.7). They are even worse when teams run the floor and especially in the fourth quarter.
First, the Timberwolves have allowed opponents to shoot 59 percent from the field when they run their transition offense, the highest rate in the league. Then during the all-important fourth quarter, the T-Wolves own the league’s worst defensive rating (114.7).
Minnesota’s inability to get stops in the final quarter was on display again on Wednesday. With the nation watching on ESPN, the Timberwolves squandered a six-point lead with 3:22 to go at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. Jimmy Butler hit some clutch three-pointers to force overtime, but the 76ers outscored Minnesota 18-12 in the extra frame and won the game, 118-112.
Despite playing good defense for most of the second half, the Timberwolves could not get stops when they needed them the most. Philadelphia scored on each of its final six possessions in regulation and took advantage of soft interior defense in overtime.
Ben Simmons scored numerous times on cuts to the rim. The Timberwolves displayed a lack of awareness, leaving Dario Saric and others wide open on the perimeter for threes. When Philly ran the offense through Joel Embiid, the Timberwolves’ issues were particularly exploited.
It is hard to figure out why a team that is led by two great defensive players, Butler and Taj Gibson and coached by Thibodeau have played uninspired defense, but there are a few trends that likely can account for their struggles thus far.
Karl-Anthony Towns has developed into one of the best big men in the league, but his lack of effort on the defensive end is inexcusable. Towns currently ranks 68th out of 73 centers in the NBA with a -0.06 defensive real plus-minus this season.
It is widely known that Towns and Thibodeau do not have the best relationship with each other. This season, Towns has touched the ball less on the offensive end and some, including Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, believe this has affected his play at the other end of the court.
When Towns is not involved offensively, he can lose focus on the other end of the floor. It’s up to Thibodeau, Butler and the rest of the Wolves to get their most gifted offensive player more touches in situations where he can do damage.
But regardless of how good the Timberwolves’ offense has been, they are not going to go anywhere in the playoffs — and may fall out of the postseason picture altogether — if they do not play better defense.
Usage of Starters
Thibodeau has made it clear that his team’s defense has to get better, but nobody has expressed his frustrations publically more than Butler.
“You can’t want to outscore the opposing team,” Butler said. “We’ve got some phenomenal scorers, guys that can put the ball in the basket better than a lot of guys in this league. You’ve got to want to guard, give that second effort, show when you’re supposed to show. We can’t just make up stuff ourselves on that end of the floor.
Butler has the right to blame himself and his teammates. But while the players should be held accountable, Thibodeau has overused his starting five.
The Timberwolves’ starting five of Butler, Gibson, Jeff Teague, Towns and Andrew Wiggins have played the most minutes per game this season (25.4). The Charlotte Hornets‘ starters are the next closest, averaging 18.9 minutes per game, but that is almost five minutes less compared to the T-Wolves.
So it should not surprise anybody that the T-Wolves’ bench has played the fewest minutes per game (13.0) of any team in the NBA. Butler and Wiggins each average about 37 minutes a game, which places both in the top six players in the NBA. Thibodeau often only plays eight players per game and so far has only used a ninth player once in December.
Maybe the Timberwolves are playing poor defense late in games because the starters play too many minutes and are tired when the game is on the line. That is just an observation, but it has materialized on many occasions.
The Timberwolves have been the most frustrating contender in the West to watch this season because their record could be so much better if they did not have to outscore teams every night.
Towns’ 22 double-doubles are tied for first in the NBA with DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans, and Jimmy Butler has averaged over 27 points a game in December. The T-Wolves rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating (108.4) and the starting lineup has compiled a plus-6.9 net rating. But the starters are a minus-7.4 per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter.
Just imagine how good the Timberwolves would be if the starters played less, the bench played more. Their defense would likely improve and the best players would likely have more energy when the game is on the line.