A casual fan may see the Timberwolves sitting at 3-7 and think that this will be yet another season where the Wolves will finish as one of the worst teams in the league — an understandable assumption since they haven’t won more than 33 games since the 2004-2005 season. But a quick look at their schedule and team statistics (and maybe a sweet Ricky Rubio dime or two), will illuminate some justified reasons for optimism:
1. New Coach/Losing Winnable Games:
Besides a 21-point victory over the hapless Washington Wizards, the Wolves have seemingly played down to the level of their opponents in this young season, to a fault. They have lost winnable games to the Cleveland Cavaliers (5-5), Milwaukee Bucks (4-6), Memphis Grizzlies (4-6) and Toronto Raptors (4-7), by an average of just 5 points. In each game they were either winning or a basket away from being tied in the fourth quarter, besides an uninspired effort against the Cavs.
However, the Wolves also played some of the toughest teams in the NBA tight, with narrow defeats to the Thunder (tied with 1:37 to go) and Heat (up 3 with 1:07 left until a questionable LeBron and-1 call tied it up). After this tough defeat they beat the Mavericks by 17 and Spurs by 10 in impressive back-to-back games.
In retrospect it was safe to assume that they wouldn’t have beat two of the best teams in the NBA with such little practice time and a new coach, but they showed their potential by even having a chance to beat such high-caliber teams. With more practices under Rick Adelman the young team should gel and learn ways to pull out victories in the fourth quarter.
The two biggest positives for the Wolves statistically this season have been their improvement on defense and point differential. They are the only team in the NBA with a positive point differential and a sub-.500 record — a solid harbinger for future success and testament to the close games they have lost in the early season.
Defensively, they have improved from worst in the NBA last year (giving up a shocking 107.7 ppg) to 95.1 this year, a stark improvement which ties them with Memphis, Portland, and Milwaukee for 14th in the league.
Offensively, they rank a respectable 12th in scoring at 95.4 ppg and 11th in 3-point percentage, but free throw shooting and turnovers have been issues. They rank second-to-last in the league with 17.6 turnovers a game and force only 14.3 turnovers. Adelman noticed the carelessness with the ball immediately when watching players in practice before the season started. With his stress on ball security, and players hopefully taking it to heart, the turnovers should decrease, leading to more scoring opportunities on offense and less transition buckets for opponents. In terms of free throw shooting, the positive is that the Wolves rank sixth in the league at 26.5 FT attempts per game. The negative is that those opportunities have been squandered, with an unacceptable 71.7 FT percent, ranking 22nd in the NBA. That number should improve, as the Wolves shot 77 percent last year and only added better free throw shooters like Barea and Rubio.
3. The Spanish Sensation
Ricky Rubio deserves his own section because of his spectacular play which has led to him being the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. He leads the Wolves in plus-minus with a plus-52 overall, in assists at just under 8 per game and steals at 1.6 per game, all the while averaging just 29 minutes a game. The Wolves wanted to ease him into the NBA and temper expectations on the 21-year-old phenom, but from his first game it was clear that he was a fan favorite and invaluable asset to the team as a playmaker. His level of play has led to him leading all bench players in the NBA in terms of playing time at 29 minutes a game, as well as playing all but 70 seconds of each fourth quarter this season. He has posted double doubles in three of his past five games, and most recently led the Wolves on a 20-2 run against the Bulls where he compiled 7 assists in the 2nd quarter and scored or assisted on every bucket during the run. Rubio has also been much better than advertised as a shooter, picking his spots to the tune of a team leading .471 3PT% and is third on the team with a .463 FG%. With starters’ minutes (which will come very soon if he continues to play this well), Rubio could come very close to averaging a double-double as a 21 year old rookie, as he owns the third-best assist rate behind only Chris Paul and Steve Nash.
With 66 games in 120 days due to the lockout-shortened season, it seemed reasonable to expect that injuries would occur and teams that were younger and had more depth would have an advantage. The Wolves are the youngest team in the NBA and have one of the best second units (Ricky Rubio, JJ Barea, Derrick Williams, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Tolliver), so this should seemingly give them an advantage during the compressed schedule.
Unfortunately the Wolves have already been bitten by the injury bug, with Michael Beasley spraining his foot, JJ Barea missing games due to a strained hamstring and ankle injury, as well as Martell Webster (back surgery), Brad Miller (knee surgery), rookie Malcolm Lee (knee surgery) having not yet been cleared to play this season. Beasley and Barea should be back within a week and Miller, Lee and Webster are expected back before the midpoint in the season. All three could prove to be important pieces for the bench. Webster can score and shoot 3′s, Miller is a 7-footer with a high basketball IQ whom Adelman has coached before, and Lee was promising in the preseason as a ball-handler and slasher on a team with a gaping hole at the 2-guard.
The final and most glaring problem for the Wolves has been the play of the starters besides Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour. Wes Johnson was able to average 10 points as a rookie and showed promise, but has seemingly lost his confidence and is currently shooting an abysmal 35% as he struggles to keep his starting position. Beasley averaged 19.2 ppg and shot 45% last year but was shooting just 39% from the field and a ghastly 44% from the FT line before he sprained his foot. Darko has been predictably inconsistent, but at least last year he could be counted on for two blocks a game whereas this year he is only averaging 0.8 a contest. The inconsistencies from the starters has left the Wolves in holes early in games which Rubio has often been able to dig them out of, but it is not a recipe for success when your second unit is playing better than your first.
As the team gets to practice and play more together under Adelman, it will improve both offensively and defensively. The turnovers will come down and free throw shooting will improve, because it cannot get much worse. Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams will both see increased playing time, and they could prove to be a dynamic duo for years to come. Beasley and Wes Johnson will hopefully start playing up to their potential, and as the Wolves get healthier and develop chemistry they should hover closer to the .500 mark. With these improvements they can possibly contend for the 8th spot in the Western Conference which is shaping up to be a wide open and competitive race — giving hope to a franchise that so desperately needs it.
About the Author
Written by Jonathan Fawkes
I was born and raised in Brooklyn but I'm a diehard Minnesota sports fan (Twins, T'Wolves, Vikings) because my Dad is from there. I met the best running back in football recently (Adrian "All Day" Peterson) and it was one of the highlights of my life. I look to analyze and drop knowledge about my passion which is sports. Follow me at JFawkes22 on Twitter and e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!