When the Minnesota Timberwolves arose from their hibernation during the NBA's 2017 All-Star break, they were already out of the playoff picture. Laying claim to a 22-35 record, they fell well outside the pace for No. 8 in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
Fast forward a year, and everything has flipped around.
The 'Wolves now have the feel of a playoff lock. They're in prime position to end a postseason drought that dates back to the 2004 Western Conference Finals.
Minnesota is 10 games back of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, which project to be the only two squads to finish with better records post-All-Star break. The Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs must deal with a pitiless schedule, while the Oklahoma City Thunder are navigating injury issues of their own in Andre Roberson.
The path is clear for Minnesota to jump up 10 spots in the standings in a single calendar year. And that leap is almost all thanks to an untamable offense.
Minnesota's World-Beating Offense
During the 2016-17 campaign, Minnesota scored a solid 108.1 points per 100 possessions, behind just nine teams. It had a high turnover rate but compensated with plentiful second-chance opportunities and league-average shooting.
This year, the 'Wolves have seen their offensive rating soar to 111.3, behind only the Rockets (113.2) and Warriors (113.7). They've arrived as an unquestionably elite unit, capitalizing on a strong offensive rebounding percentage, better shooting from all over the floor and a newfound desire to hang onto the rock.
The importance of that last part can't be overstated, and credit head coach Tom Thibodeau. New addition Jeff Teague has the team's worst turnover percentage (18.2 percent), but the strides made by the roster's seven returning members—and the addition of a high-usage Butler who turns it over, on average, just nine times per 100 possessions—has done the trick:
- Cole Aldrich: 15.1 turnover percentage in 2016-17 to 8.5 turnover percentage in 2017-18
- Shabazz Muhammad: 7.6 to 3.0
- Tyus Jones: 16.0 to 13.4
- Nemanja Bjelica: 13.4 to 11.6
- Andrew Wiggins: 9.4 to 8.8
- Karl-Anthony Towns: 11.3 to 11.0
- Gorgui Dieng: 12.7 to 12.5
To all the other NBA teams hoping to make major strides next season, use this as a blueprint. Your offense will get better if you incorporate new additions who care for the ball, and get universal turnover improvement from your incumbent players. Easier said than done.
"Your margin of error is obviously smaller on the road, so I think you go in and have to eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself," Thibodeau told the Associated Press in early February, per USA Today. "That's why we always talk about defending, rebounding and keeping your turnovers down."
Conversations about Thibs always revolve around two concepts: his formerly unique, pack-the-paint defensive schemes and his penchant for running his players into the ground with excessive workloads. In his defense, he's trying to change the former and adjust to the perimeter proclivities of the modern NBA. The latter...well, that ain't changing.
But particularly in 2017-18, Thibodeau should get more credit for adding veterans to a youthful Minnesota roster and teaching everyone how vital it is to avoid beating yourself. They're now excelling in myriad areas, with one notable exception.
The 'Wolves can't stop giving Wiggins opportunities to take over possessions.
The Wiggins Dilemma
On the surface level, the fourth-year swingman seems to be having another potent offensive season. One year after dropping a career-best 23.6 points per game, he's averaging 17.5 while sharing touches with a drastically upgraded cast of running mates. Basketball games are won by scoring points. He's scoring a lot of them.
Unfortunately, offensive production isn't as simple as the points-per-game argument might make it seem.
Wiggins' numbers come while he shoots 43.8 percent from the field (narrowly avoiding career-worst output because of his 43.7 field-goal percentage as a teenager). He's knocking down just 31.5 percent of his triples. He's making only 63.4 percent of his freebies—nowhere near the 76.0 and 76.1 percent clips earned during each of his first three go-rounds. Those marks, along with a baffling insistence on hoisting threes when he can't hit them consistently, all combine for a career-worst 50.4 true shooting percentage that falls well shy of the league average (55.7 percent).
Now, for some perspective.
Fifty-one qualified players are averaging at least 15 points per game in 2017-18. Not one of them has been less efficient than Wiggins, with Carmelo Anthony (50.9) and Dennis Schroder (51.5) coming closest. If we loosen the restrictions to include all 133 men posting double-digit points during their typical outing, only Avery Bradley (49.6), De'Aaron Fox (48.0), Dennis Smith Jr. (47.4), Josh Jackson (46.8) and Marcus Smart (46.7) have inferior true shooting percentages. That's not the ideal assortment of scorers with whom you want to be lumped in.
That grouping is a natural result of infuriating shot selection. Wiggins, as you can see in the above video and the below example, still falls into the trap of taking long, contested twos early in the shot clock. He also frequently attacks in isolation—only 30 players have more plays falling into that category—but sits in the 17.6 percentile for points per ISO possession.
Of course, these negatives are before we factor in Wiggins' passing limitations, since he's failed to show any development as a distributor throughout his NBA career and has just three more assists than turnovers on the season. Not per game. Total.
The No. 1 pick of the 2014 draft still has plenty of untapped potential. This isn't meant to be viewed as an unrelenting attack on the efficacy of his basketball skills, especially when he routinely showcases his extreme athleticism with high-flying rim assaults. He also engages in the occasional takeover stretch when his shot is clicking and he's taking the right looks.
But right now, his offensive struggles are mitigating the team's maturation on the scoring side.
Though they are tallying an additional 1.4 points per 100 possessions when he's registering minutes, that's largely a byproduct of playing massive minutes with the team's best offensive players. Teague, Taj Gibson, Butler and Towns all have larger on/off differentials, and Wiggins, per PBPStats.com, has spent 1,067 of his league-high 2,204 minutes alongside all four. Even more telling: 1,439 of his minutes have come in conjunction with the team's two best players.
KAT and Butler are Superheroes
Wiggins' numbers may be ugly.
But that's not to say he's devoid of value on the scoring end. In fact, he claims a (barely) positive figure in ESPN.com's offensive real plus/minus, indicating that he does help his squad win games with his work. It takes gumption and ability to fill such a high-usage role, and the ugliness of his shooting splits doesn't negate the job he does keeping defenders on their toes with both his willingness to fire away and overpowering athleticism.
"His impact on winning has been far greater this year than it was last year, and that's the most important stat there is," Thibodeau claimed, per the Pioneer Press' Jace Frederick, in mid-February. The relevant article as a whole is about defensive impact, and I'd like to believe that's what the head coach was focusing on. But Wiggins' offense has had some merit all the same.
For that matter, so too has the work of other unheralded members of the roster. Gibson and Nemanja Bjelica, though they get their buckets through drastically differing approaches, have both been efficient power forwards. Teague and Tyus Jones have provided poised production at the point. The ageless Jamal Crawford is still racking up off-the-dribble highlights and supplying plenty of string music:
But everyone pales in comparison to Towns and Butler. Just take a gander at the leading scores for this outfit in NBA Math's offensive points added:
- Jimmy Butler: 200.47 OPA
- Karl-Anthony Towns: 183.81
- Taj Gibson: 48.97
- Jeff Teague: 26.41
- Tyus Jones: 17.59
Put another way: Every player on the roster, other than the two All-Stars, has combined for 11.92 OPA. No reasonable comparison exists between the supporting cast and the leading duo. Nor should one.
Butler hasn't been troubled by the transition away from the Chicago Bulls and is averaging 22.4 points and 5.0 assists while shooting 47.6 percent from the field, 35.8 percent from downtown and 86.5 percent on the stripe. Not much about his game has changed; his shot locations remain quite similar to what we saw in the Windy City, and he's attacking in similar manners.
Towns, meanwhile, has grown immensely.
Though his scoring average has dipped to "only" 20.2 points per game, he's showcasing a new assortment of abilities that makes him an offensive machine. Players standing 7'0" aren't supposed to boast arrays of tools this varied, as the 22-year-old can knock down 42.1 percent of his 3.5 shots per contest from beyond the rainbow while earning regular trips to the free-throw line and perplexing defenders with his moves in the post.
With a mind-numbing 64.9 true shooting percentage, he's been the 13th-most efficient scorer throughout NBA history among all qualified players toppling the 20-points-per-game benchmark, trailing only two seasons from Stephen Curry, four from Charles Barkley, two from Kevin McHale and one apiece from Amar'e Stoudemire, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant and Reggie Miller. Talk about some Hall of Fame company at such a young age.
Nothing about the Minnesota offense is particularly intricate, and much of what the 'Wolves run goes counter to current NBA trends. Only the New York Knicks take fewer triples. Just two teams fire away a higher percentage of their shots from between 10 and 16 feet, while only three throw up more twos from even longer distances.
Thibodeau just has his troops playing to their strengths while doing the little things well, which has resulted in wide-ranging success. Minnesota only ranks No. 10 in effective field-goal percentage (an outcome likely derived from eschewing triples), but it sits at No. 2 in turnover percentage, No. 4 in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 2 in free throws per field-goal attempt. That's demonstrable mastery over the Four Factors and a universal recipe for success.
Oh, and the 'Wolves are—not unexpectedly—even better with their two stars on the floor.
Butler and Towns have shared the floor for a whopping 1,746 minutes this season, and they've produced a 114.3 offensive rating. Remember, the best season-long mark belongs to the 2016-17 Dubs (113.2). Not only are they tremendous individual producers, but they're producing some harmonious results when working in concert:
So long as these two All-Stars remain healthy, the 'Wolves aren't going to see their scoring skid. They're too dominant together, and Thibodeau's heavy-handed approach ensures Minnesota only has to work on its contingency plans for so long during any given contest.
And yet, imagine how cataclysmic the scoring unit could be if this squad figured out how to maximize Wiggins' talents as the leader of a unit operating without Butler and Towns—a situation that currently yields a 102.6 offensive rating, per PBPStats.com. For that matter, think about the jaw-dropping numbers this pack could produce if it knew how to make Wiggins more valuable alongside the leading contributors, or if he made the long-awaited leap that would justify his already inked max contract extension.
The 'Wolves are already challenging the much-ballyhooed offenses of the Western Conference front-runners—not necessarily in spite of Wiggins' anchor effects, but, at the very least, without him providing too much of a positive impact.
If that changes, the Association might soon have another legitimate title contender, defensive deficiencies be damned.