The Little Timberpups are growing into Timberwolves
After last year, where the young Timberwolves went 31-51 despite having numerous young talents started to raise questions in Minnesota, ranging from questioning the legitimacy of their core to the front office not being able to sustain this young team to be a contender. All that talk is silenced now, replaced with their 34-22 record, becoming a very dangerous team in the already juggernaut filled Western Conference.
The most obvious change leading to this turnaround has to be the arrival of Jimmy Butler, who has reinforced the culture that Thibodeau has been trying to instill during his tenure. Butler took charge of the team from the very start of the season, sacrificing his own personal stats in order to show the young kids what it really means to put in a winning effort.
Despite playing the most minutes, Butler plays every minute as if it's the only time he'll ever play in his life, playing hard from the opening buzzer to the final minutes, and always getting in the middle of everything.
That type of hustle and grit is exactly what the young Timberwolves need if they want to seriously contend for a championship soon. Butler has been in contending teams, and knows what it takes to win, but rather than lecture them about it, Butler instead elects to give them vivid images instead.
The total impact he has on the Timberwolves defense is absurd: when Butler is on the court, their defensive rating is 104, good for third best in the league; off, the rating jumps to 115, easily the worst in the league. The big disparity between him being on the floor and off the floor has to do mainly with the chaos and unease Butler sows into opposing offenses, by way of his unrelenting hustle.
His rotations and help defense are both excellent, but the biggest impact he has on the defense is as a leader. He is constantly running his mouth on defense, keeping everyone in order and calling out screens and switches.
Off the court, Butler has been even more vocal, not afraid to voice his opinions through the media, calling out the team on their lack of conviction or effort, especially so after a loss against the cellar dweller Magic, saying that the team needed to "humble our damn selves" and "they played harder than we did". His tough love is exactly what the Timberwolves needed, as last year they clearly didn't always put forth their best effort, and it showed in their record.
Now, combined with fellow Thibs transplant Taj Gibson, similarly defensive-minded, Butler has become a mentor for the younger players, specifically Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. As a result, the talented duo have now started to blossom into the potential they always had.
Towns in particular has improved his all-around game, even in the face of lowered scoring opportunities, or perhaps because of them. His defense in particular has been steadily improving, in spite of last year, where he seemed clueless on the less glamorous side of the court.
He is starting to use his athleticism to keep up with smaller players trying to take him out to the perimeter, and using his size and length to contest any jumpshot with relative ease.
Despite his stance being completely flat-footed and turning his hips far too often, he is still able to keep up with Chris Paul for almost an entire possession, forcing the airball on the expiring shot clock. If he can start applying proper technique and start toughening up, he'll be the kind of defender that whole schemes are made to avoid.
In the present though, Towns struggles to use proper technique, and compensates with athleticism, which can be problematic when he faces against more athletic guards, as they'll be able to exploit him easily. It isn't like he is a rookie either, so this problem is evidently deeper than simply not knowing how to go into a proper defensive stance.
However, in more typical big man defense, he struggles much more. Down low, he is barred from utilizing his quickness for the most part, and doesn't have the technique to back it up either. Not only that, but he also doesn't have the strength required to hold his ground against opposing bigs. As such, he gets completely torched in the low post.
While the post game has declined in the modern NBA, his weakness down low may cause certain teams to base their whole gameplan around exploiting his weakness, especially if they have a talented post player like Joel Embiid or LaMarcus Aldridge. As such, he needs to either bulk up to avoid getting bodied on the inside, or make a concerted effort to deny the ball from getting down low in the first place.
Even though his post defense leaves quite a bit to be desired, his help-side defense has improved noticeably. Using his quick feet and long arms, he's able to save more than a few buckets by running through picks to get to the basket.
He does sometimes get overaggressive and start hunting for blocks instead of playing good defense, but that is a problem that can only be fixed with more experience. As he develops, he will only get better on defense, and is already a plus in multiple facets.
His offense, on the other hand, is still just as fantastic as ever, scoring 19.9 points per game on astounding efficiency, shooting 54/41/84. If he keeps up his efficiency, he'll qualify for the 50/40/80 club as its youngest member, and while not as prestigious as the famed 50/40/90 club, still is an exclusive group of only 43 players since the 3 point line was instituted in the 79-80 season.
However, what makes this efficiency frustrating is that he's not getting nearly as many touches as he should. He only averages 13.7 field goal attempts on the team, third on the team. Instead, he's often been used as a decoy in set plays in order to open up the rest of the floor for the offense.
In this play, Towns is on the weak side of the play. Due to Towns' ability to score from anywhere, Serge Ibaka is forced to shadow him everywhere he goes. Due to this, Ibaka's usual presence at the rim is now empty, and what remains is a simple two-man game between Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson to get an open layup on the drive by Gibson.
Even though Towns can undoubtedly take on a heavier workload, Thibodeau may be trying to save Towns' energy, a deviation of milking his starters of every last drop of basketball he can. Previously criticized for overplaying his stars during his previous tenure with the Bulls, perhaps Thibs is learning from their early breakdowns, and lightening the load on Towns.
While this team is not a full blown contender yet, they certainly are building up the chops to become one, and with Jimmy Butler stewarding Karl-Anthony Towns' growth, the Timberwolves may become a title contender for years to come.