Above all, Tom Thibodeau is preaching hard work and consistency to the young Minnesota Timberwolves.
For stretches, the Timberwolves show why they’re perhaps the most intriguing team in the NBA — an athletic, gifted outfit with the previous two Rookie of the Year winners, four other lottery picks, and so much young talent that logic dictates they will eventually have to trade someone for financial and competitive reasons.
However, the Timberwolves have struggled to piece those promising stretches together, as evidenced by their 6-14 record.
After leading the Chicago Bulls to five straight playoff appearances, Thibodeau, who was hired in April, was expected to help the Wolves take the jump from lottery mainstay to playoff contender this year. It appears the climb has been steeper than perhaps he or the NBA world expected.
The Wolves are 13th in the Western Conference, losers of seven of their last ten games. Following a 118-114 loss to the New York Knicks last Friday night, in which the Wolves fell behind by double-digits, mounted a fourth-quarter comeback, then ultimately fell short (for the second straight game), Thibodeau said his team ran the “gamut” of issues on the court.
“We’re gonna keep working at it, I can tell you that,” said Thibodeau.
He continued, “That’s gotta be our mentality: improve. We gotta learn. Winning is hard in this league, winning is hard. … If you wanna win, you look at the teams that win consistently, they do all the dirty work and they put all the things that are necessary into winning. And that’s what we have to learn.”
Thibodeau takes issue with numerous aspects of the Wolves’ execution: help defence, rotations, communication, “home run” shots, an over-commitment to three-pointers. For all of the combined talents of the Wolves’ core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine — improved shooting, ball-handling, and otherworldly athleticism — and others like Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng, meshing these talents has been an arduous process.
Though they’re a top-1o offence, they’re 23rd in defence, allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions. However, for a team that’s currently eight games below .500, their -.5 net rating (difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions), suggests they’re a team knocking on the door of success.
“We’re right there as a team,” center Cole Aldrich told Business Insider before the loss to the Knicks. “We’ve been in 18 games so far, and really, every game but maybe two, we’ve had a chance or we’ve won.”
The Wolves’ temperamental quarter-by-quarter net ratings are indicative of a young, developing team, one struggling with minute-to-minute consistency. They have an 8.2 net rating in first quarters, a 10.8 net rating in second quarters, a -26.6 net rating in third quarters, and a 4.6 net rating in fourth quarters. For 36 minutes a game, the Wolves are winners, outscoring teams significantly. For some reason, third quarters plague them.
“When you have young guys, it’s understanding also what goes into winning, how hard it is to win in this league, and how hard you have to play all the time,” said Thibodeau. “Not some of the time, it’s all the time. This is a hard league.”
Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine are all 21 years old. Though the Wolves are heavy on talent, they’re short on experience. Last season, the Wolves’ chasm between youth and veteran experience seemed to benefit the team overall, despite a 29-53 record. The ’15-16 Wolves employed Kevin Garnett, 39 years old, Andre Miller (before a midseason trade), 39, and Tayshaun Prince, 35. With Garnett, Miller, and Prince all out of the league, the Wolves turned to valuable role players, albeit ones with shorter resumes. This year, the Wolves’ veteran presence comes in the form of journeymen like Aldrich, 28, John Lucas III, 34, and Brandon Rush, 31.
Rush, who spent the last two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, said he’s shared some of his experiences after making two straight Finals with the team, but is not concerned with the Wolves’ slow start.
“I’ve been on winning and losing teams. I’ve been on teams where we started out bad and everything turned out to be great,” said Rush.
“Things can turn around in a heartbeat.”
One night after squandering a comeback against the Knicks, the Wolves managed to cobble together a win, overcoming another double-digit deficit to beat the Charlotte Hornets. The Wolves held Charlotte to just 36% shooting in the fourth quarter, showcasing the commitment to defence that Thibodeau preaches, while shooting 52% from the field, 60% from downtown themselves. They forced overtime thanks to a “home run” three-pointer from Wiggins with 8.9 seconds left. They then took the game in overtime.
This is part of the “learning curve,” as Thibodeau says. It’s a long season, and all members seem to believe that this slow start is temporary.
“We have high character, good work ethic, and I think we will improve,” said Thibodeau.
“It’s a progression of just finding ways to get better each and everyday,” said Aldrich. “And when you look back at the end of the season, you’re like, ‘Wow, we really improved.'”
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