NBA

Minnesota is Shooting Through Their Early Struggles

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a 5-12 record. That’s not great. In fact, let me be a hypothetical complainer for a second…

That’s a terrible record! They were supposed to be the breakout team this season! The last two No. 1 picks/Rookies of the Year are on the team! Tom Thibodeau is the coach now! They’re supposed to be in the playoffs already! And they dunk so well!

Yes. But unfortunately this

https://vine.co/v/5FIalKvWLIA

doesn’t directly translate to wins, nor do any of the other perceived complaints above.

But the good news is that Minnesota isn’t just a group of dunkers. They’ve got serious skills that show up in the box scores, but not yet in the win column, and a bounty of incredible young ballers. So it’s likely that frustrating lack of wins will begin to change soon.

Records Can Be Misleading

Starting with the best and most direct good news for Minnesota: they’re playing like a 8-9 team, not a 5-12 one, according to Basketball Reference’s Expected W-L. That record would vault the Wolves from 13th to 10th in the West, sitting just behind the Lakers and Trail Blazers. This falls in line with bball ref’s Simple Rating System, an all-encompassing stat that puts Minnesota just below average as the 18th-best team in the league, instead of the 27th-best their actual record shows. The team’s Net Rating is just a hair on the negative side and they’re only being outscored by .9 points per game. Simply put, they’re not playing anywhere near like a 5-12 team.

Three-Point Shooting Is Improving

The team’s overall percentage is up almost two percentage points from last season, from below 34% to nearly 36%. Those two points add up over 82 games and make a giant difference. Though the team numbers are looking up, it’s even more important to look at individual numbers from players that needed improvement for Minnesota to have a shot at the playoffs.

Zach LaVine continues his transformation as a reliable three-point shooter. His sky-high small sample size numbers have cooled to a very respectable 38% from behind the arc, slightly lower so far than last year’s percentage but well above the 31% of his rookie year. Andrew Wiggins is on a similar trajectory. After following his 31% showing on triples his rookie year he actually got worse last season, dropping to 30%. Wiggins went nuts and shot 54% on triples through 11 games but since cooled down to still-excellent 40%.

For a team that’s still growing together and learning to adjust to NBA-level defenses, this sharpshooting from the three-point line is vital because…

Threes Open Up Everything Else

Wiggins and LaVine shoot four and six threes per game, respectively. Add in another four from the center Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s shooting nearly 40% by the way, and that’s nearly 60% of threes taken by the three best players. Quality shooting from outside creates quality looks inside. Quality inside games draw defenders inside to make outside looks easier. It’s a deadly cycle that torments defenses and one that Minnesota is grasping quickly.

The fear this creates in opposing defenses has both mitigated the poorer shooting from the point guards and bench players and freed up space for them to drive and run effective pick and rolls. Gorgui Dieng is shooting 53% overall. Town is shooting 51% overall, despite nearly a quarter of his shots coming from three. Also thanks to an absurd 62% from the restricted area, where another third of his shots come from. (KAT is really, really good.) That many scoring weapons from so many areas make it infinitely easier for non-shooting point guards to create.

Speaking of Point Guards…

Neither Ricky Rubio (37%) nor Kris Dunn (32%) can really shoot. For most offenses this would be a fatal flaw but Minnesota now has the talent to withstand it. Rubio has always been essential to the Wolves because his passing creates looks for others that no other point guard can give. He’s even more useful now that his finishing at the rim and midrange game are approaching competent levels. He doesn’t need to be more than that to contribute, his Offensive Box Plus/Minus is above average.

Dunn, on the other hand, has plenty of work to do. His percentages are embarrassing anywhere outside of three feet and his assist to turnover ratio is lagging. Of course this is all expected from a rookie point guard and improving his shot won’t come overnight. When surrounded with a bounty of scoring options, however, Dunn has every opportunity to find open men easily while avoiding mistakes.

So there’s no danger yet of Dunn taking over the team. There shouldn’t be, at least. Dunn’s on/off court splits are actually slightly better than Rubio’s, but Dunn’s minutes against bench units skew that number. His and the team’s stats fall across the board in the five games he’s started this season, excepting one excellent drubbing of Memphis. Again, this is all reasonable from a rookie, and he has a path laid out for him in Minnesota by Rubio.

His defensive numbers are better than his veteran teammate’s which keeps him playable, and he can learn from what Rubio has and hasn’t done. He can’t simply learn the Spaniard’s natural knack for passing, but seeing the open man ahead of time and deceptive tactics can be picked up. Learning when not to try the passes Rubio can attempt is worth learning, too, as well as a decent midrange jumper. Continued improvement in the coming months could make a big difference as Minnesota needs scoring from the bench.

Going Forward As A Team

There’s reason yet to panic or get pessimistic about this team or its playoff hopes. The desired Thibodeau Effect hasn’t completely stuck yet, and that’s okay. The main areas of improvement are defense, turnovers, and third quarter collapses, not an unexpected thing from such a comically young team. It’s only a matter of time before the screaming from the coach makes its impact.

For now, it’s the offense from the young studs surrounding their veteran creator keeping the team afloat. Minnesota is 11th in Offensive Rating, ahead of such playoffs teams as the Hornets and Thunder. They’re second in Free Throw Rate, ensuring a supply of freebie points every game. Surprisingly, the Wolves only have the 9th most dunks but you can argue they have the most incredible ones, which keeps fans and the young players engaged.

They aren’t producing enough wins yet, but they’re exciting and quite often great. Although it may be disappointing now, it’s easy to see that things will are going to get better. Most likely sooner rather than later.

*stats via basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats

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