Can We Trust the Timberwolves as Contenders Entering the NBA All-Star Break?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 7: Jimmy Butler #23 talks with Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on February 7, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Escaping Thursday night with a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Lakers does little, verging on nothing, to buoy the Minnesota Timberwolves' stock entering the NBA All-Star break.

They came off as a regular-season illusion coming in, and they're up against that same glass ceiling now—a solid playoff-bound team unfit to make its trip into the postseason anything more than a just-happy-to-be-here footnote.

Sure, the Timberwolves flashed guts and gall during their 119-111 win against the Lakers, overturning a 15-point deficit and holding L.A. to 35 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, including an O-fer showing from beyond the arc.

Yes, they reach the All-Star recess in sole possession of the Western Conference's No. 4 seed at 36-25, just a few percentage points behind the 35-24 San Antonio Spurs.

And indeed, they endeavor plenty of reasons for optimism: They field a top-three offense. Their starting lineup owns a better defensive rating than the Golden State Warriors' opening five. Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns have firmly established themselves as one of the Association's five, maybe three, best duos. Butler specifically deserves more leftover MVP love.

He ranks second overall in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, behind only Chris Paul. The Timberwolves run their entire crunch-time offense through him, usually without much invention. And even when that predictability comes back to bite them, even when he's settling for and missing low-efficiency jumpers, he maintains the ability to make crucial stops at the other end—which is exactly what he did Thursday:

Again: These Timberwolves are not without their silver linings. But they don't offer enough of them to be viewed as a potential noise-maker into late April and beyond.

Red flags are everywhere, up and down the roster, particularly on defense. Though they enjoyed a month-long stretch, between Dec. 14 and Jan. 14, through which they ranked seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions, they've since come crashing back down to earth. They're 26th in defensive efficiency on the season overall and 29th through their last 16 games.

Coughing up 111 points to the Lakers, a bottom-five offensive squad, is equal parts troubling and par for the course.

The Timberwolves place dead last in opponent fast-break frequency when committing a turnover and are 29th in the same department after they miss a shot, according to Cleaning The Glass. A team like the Lakers, while generally inefficient, is essentially their worst nightmare. They play at the league's fastest pace and dedicate more of their offense to transition possessions than any other team.

Things don't get much better for the Timberwolves in the half court.

Missed rotations, deaths-by-screens, half-hearted closeouts, awkward switches—you name it, they probably suffer from it. They cannot collectively defend for long enough to coax offenses into difficult shots as a result. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 13: Jimmy Butler #23, Taj Gibson #67 and Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves react during the game against the Houston Rockets on February 13, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: U
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Around 68.3 percent of their opponents' looks come at the rim or from beyond the arc, per Cleaning The Glass. Just five teams allow a larger combined share of shot attempts from those ranges, and only one of them owns a top-12 defense—the Oklahoma City Thunder, who rank 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions since Andre Roberson's season-ending patellar injury.

Minnesota extracts enough stopping power from its starting five. Butler and Taj Gibson are dependable anchors, and Towns has (mostly) improved his defensive decision-making as the year wears on. 

Tyus Jones even provides a nice punch off the bench. He chases rival players with the insistent doggedness of a slightly lighter Kyle Lowry. Plop him beside the other four starters instead of Jeff Teague, and the Timberwolves forfeit just 94.2 points per 100 possessions—a top-six showing among nearly 90 lineups to total at least 100 minutes.

Their depth of resistance ends there. Gorgui Dieng appears to have peaked defensively in 2015-16, and no one else off the bench has the makings of a certified stopper.

No other second unit fares worse on the less glamorous end, which leaves coach-president Tom Thibodeau even less inclined to rely on his non-starters than normal. The Timberwolves' backups have tallied close to 100 fewer minutes than any other bench mob—despite the fact the team has played at least two games more than everyone else.

Compare the performance of their second-stringers to the Toronto Raptors' league-best bench, and the returns are, somehow, even more terrifying. As Dunking with Wolves' Brian Sampson noted:

Leaning on starters as much as the Timberwolves do is not without its consequences. Eighty-two games is a lot. Fatigue factors are real. And their opening five leads all lineups in total playing time by 356 minutes—two more than the NBA's 14th most-used unit has totaled all season.

Thibs has wasted no time picking up where he left off with Butler. He paces all players in minutes per game, which is just asking for trouble. In the Lakers tilt alone, he labored through a blow to the face, jammed finger and left ankle turn. This tidbit from Hoop Mag's Josh Eberley is harrowing:

Gibson is setting a career high in minutes...at the age of 32. Teague, a nine-year veteran, is doing the same.

If the Timberwolves defense doesn't do them in, exhaustion might. And if neither wart catches up with them, their offense could still crack and crater.

Watch them, and the Timberwolves don't emit the vibe of an elite scoring machine. They subsist on top-five free-throw and offensive rebounding rates. Their shot profile is bizarre, if outright bad (via Cleaning The Glass):

  • %FGA At Rim Rank: 24
  • %FGA from Long-Mid-Range Rank: 4
  • %FGA from All Mid-Range Rank: 2
  • %FGA from Three Rank: 29

Fewer than 56 percent of the Timberwolves' attempts are coming at the rim or from behind the three-point line, tying them with the Sacramento Kings for the second-lowest distribution in the league—the same Kings who sport a 30th-place offense.

Faith cannot be placed in a team that has founded its primal identity on ostensibly unsustainable strengths. The Timberwolves' place in the standings doesn't necessarily show it in the aggregate, but they are exhibiting signs—most notably a bottom-10 point differential during crunch time and an unimpressive 14-10 record against sub-.500 squads, the second-worst among the Western Conference's top 11 teams. 

On some level, none of this matters. The Timberwolves are on track to end a 13-year playoff drought.

They're just not built to do much else.

    

Unless otherwise cited, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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