The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA playoffs, YouTube had not been created, George W. Bush was in his first term, and Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force in the league. And on Saturday night, the Timberwolves were once again eliminated from the postseason thanks to a loss against the Kings as well as Portland’s victory over the Phoenix Suns.
But this early elimination may be the most disappointing in years. FiveThirtyEight had projected the Timberwolves to win 46 games and grab the sixth seed during the preseason, and some analysts had gone so far as to predict a 50-win season for this team.
Yes, perhaps the expectations for the team was simply too high, as the young Wolves were expected to make a leap many did not and teams as young as they are often don’t win a lot of games. But there are quite a few problems and disappointments surrounding this team which have to be looked at.
In particular, there are three players which the Wolves have to take a long, hard look at, especially at two of the pieces of their supposed Big Three. Kris Dunn was supposed to be a reliable back-up to Rubio this season given his age, but he is averaging more shot attempts than points and has a legitimate case to be the worst rotation player in the league this season.
But if Dunn was supposed to be a back-up, what about Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine? In Wiggins’s case, the good news is that his three-point shooting has improved. The bad news, as Basketball Reference notes, is that the rate at which he draws free throws has absolutely cratered, making him less efficient overall despite his improved shooting. When you further consider how Wiggins takes a lot of long twos and does not do much else besides score, there is a real fear that he will turn into something like New Jersey Vince Carter – a perennial All-Star to be sure, but nowhere near enough to the top 10 or 15 player he was supposed to be.
In LaVine’s case, the Wolves this season were 16-31 with him on the court, but have been 14-14 without him, sparking questions in the Minnesota press about how much value he brings. LaVine is certainly a skilled player, but the Wolves already have two ball handlers in Wiggins and Rubio, and there may not be enough ball to add LaVine as well. The speculation for the past year has been that the poor-shooting Rubio would be the odd one out and get traded. But the Wolves need better defense more than shooting, and LaVine is a much worse defender than Rubio. And even with the ACL injury, LaVine likely has more trade value.
Next season should be an improvement on this year. The players are making more money and we already saw what a difference workers’ compensation made for the Detroit Tigers. The young guys should continue to get better. Minnesota will almost certainly grab a major free agent this summer, as this is their last summer with major cap room given Wiggins’s and LaVine’s upcoming extension. The players will understand Thibodeau’s defensive schemes better.
But after years of rebuilding and failure, the Wolves cannot placidly assume everything will turn their way. They need to take a hard look at parts of this young core, and seriously think about whether all of these young pieces necessarily work together.