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The Sum of Their Parts: Inside the Minnesota Timberwolves Machine

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are a story. No, I mean they’re literally a story.

There is a cyclical structure to most stories revolving around the main character that is called The Hero’s Journey. If you haven’t heard of it, some of the narrative pattern’s earlier steps are as follows: the call to adventure; the meeting of a mentor; and the arrival of tests, allies and enemies.

The main character at the beginning of almost any story is brimming with potential, and usually undergoes a substantive change as they make their way through the tale.

Any of this sounding familiar?

The Timberpups are, collectively, that main character. They’ve heard the call to adventure (the hype surrounding them), they’ve met their mentor (Tom Thibodeau), and we all know about how their tests have turned out.

But it’s not atypical for a character to struggle early on in their story. In fact, it’s to be expected. How do you learn to become a master swordsman when you were a farmhand not long ago? Time and practice.

This is where the Wolves are, currently. They’re struggling. Because not long ago they were a bottom-feeding team with much less hope. And then, suddenly, they had the title of “The Next Big Thing” thrust upon them, and they were given expectations so lofty that LeBron James himself might have smiled. Under these expectations they have crumbled, taking loss after loss to disappointing opponent after disappointing opponent, and now here we are in early January and the Wolves have precisely 14 wins under their belt.

One might say they’re not the master swordsman everyone thought they should be.

But it would be foolish to surmise that they will never reach their potential. It might be difficult for some people to believe in our want-it-now-want-it-fast society, but having a brand new coach attempt to instill a fresh, winning culture and a new system can be a rough process.

As it is with any workplace, certain personalities fit the situation better than others. While a great coach, Thibs might not actually be the right guy to groom a young, growing team like the Wolves. Indeed, he might have had much more success on a team with an established winning culture and which only required minor tweaking to its style of play. Unfortunately for Thibs, there weren’t many options in that regard. You can’t blame the guy for wanting the next best thing: a team with the potential to become a contender.

Also, it gets mentioned often enough, but when talking about the Wolves’ lackluster season so far, it’s important to remember that the three best players on the team—Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine—are all 21 years of age. They haven’t been in the league forever, although sometimes it feels that way. How can one expect them to do anything other than grow at this stage? That’s what you’re supposed to do as a 21-year-old in the NBA: get better.

Instead, the Wolves were asked for more. A playoff berth? A fifth—even fourth?!—seed?

When has the best player on a playoff team been 21 years old? Rarely, if ever. Besides, the Wolves don’t even know which of those three are the leader of the team. It’s generally agreed  upon that the leader is either Towns or Wiggins, although some ruckus has been raised about LaVine because of his lack of fear during clutch moments.

So which is it, then? Towns or Wiggins? The buzz around the NBA Twitter world seems to be that Towns is the better player. And yet, there have been games where players on the Wolves have mentioned how Wiggins is their leader.

In short, everything has been too much. The Wolves aren’t ready.

But what about the actual on court issues?

While Ricky Rubio has taken a lot of flack this season, it has become readily apparent that he is actually just a chosen scapegoat for a larger issue: team defence.

The Wolves currently rank 24th in the league in defensive rating; they are often late on rotations, and on closeouts they sometimes look like they don’t even care, allowing for opponents to shoot with more than enough space.

While Towns has still been an okay rim protector this year with the percentage of his field goals defended at the rim being 48.6, it hasn’t mattered very much. In fact, Minnesota’s most used lineup and the most used lineup in the NBA by far—consisting of Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio, and Gorgui Dieng—has a defensive rating of 111.2 and an overall net rating of -3.9. Of NBA lineups that have logged at least 300 minutes together, the only one worse defensively is the Toronto Raptors’ starting lineup of DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry, who boast a defensive rating of 113.6.

The only worse Minnesota lineup (-6.2 net rating) is when they replace Rubio with Dunn. Go figure.

No matter what they try, the Wolves just can’t keep themselves from being scored on. They’re always a step slow, whether it be due to age, effort, or personnel.

GIF via A Wolf Among Wolves Blog

And if you think teams are just killing them on the boards to get easy buckets, well, you’d be wrong. The Wolves aren’t only just a good defensive rebounding team, they’re also a good offensive rebounding team. They’re currently fourth in the league in total rebound percentage at 52 per cent, and are also fourth in the league in second chance points per game at 15.

The problem is that they get scored on so often that there aren’t many chances for them to rebound at all. While they crash the glass well on the defensive end, they are a miserable 29th in the league in total defensive rebounding at 31.2 boards per game.

Perhaps more than anything else, the most difficult thing for the Timberpups might be the fact that the NBA is in the midst of a crazy scoring boom. Teams are launching more threes than ever and yet the percentage of made threes isn’t going down. Now that the court is so spread out, it’s become tougher than ever to guard opponents. As Zach Lowe noted in his recent article on the subject, there are currently three teams—the Warriors, Raptors, and Rockets—outscoring the 2008-09 Suns, who were the best offensive team in their season, one which sported a league average of 105.4 points per 100 possessions; that’s tied for the highest amount ever.

The Wolves allow opponents to drop an average of 104.5 points per game on them, good for 15th in the league. For a young team still finding their way in the NBA, it’s tough enough without teams starting to become borderline impossible to guard.

Of course, poor defence isn’t the only issue—it’s just the most major. How about Wiggins being out-rebounded consistently by much smaller point guards, or Rubio’s significant drop in three-point percentage, or Kris Dunn’s shot chart being redder than the walls at the end of a slasher flick?

No, this isn’t the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But that doesn’t mean that one of the three 21-year-olds should be traded, or that there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. There have been teams whose cores grew into a championship caliber team given time, with the most recent example being the Golden State Warriors, who won in 2015 with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, who had all been on the team for three years—and who were all at least 25 years old—by that point.

So let’s not fret too much about the Timberwolves. Not yet. After all, they’re still in the early stages of telling their story, and so much has yet to be written.

Joshua is Editor-in-Chief at Press Basketball. His love of the sport started with watching a LeBron James game in 2003, and he quickly took a shine to his Canada-based Toronto Raptors. His NBA-related words have been found at Hoops Habit, NBA.com's HOOP magazine, and Raptors Republic. He loves words with a passion and is always writing. Joshua is a published author, poet, sportswriter, and film critic.

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Featured Article

Ride The Wave

Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers. Things were good then.

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Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers, drawing in a decent support team and a lot of talk that the West was looking incredibly dominant next to a “weaker” East. Things were good then.

Five months later and things couldn’t be farther from that idylistic picture. The East thrived without the King and GMs put together some of the most noteworthy teams in a while. And the Lakers? The Lakers currently sit in the 11th spot of the Western Conference with very little hope of making it to the playoffs. They’re a team that is constantly attacked for their lack of chemistry, skill, and effort. For the first time in a long time, LA became synonymous with “hopeless”.

This wasn’t the future we saw for the King.

On the heels of a night filled with one of his greatest achievements ever, the Lakers as a team walked away with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. A night that began on a high note went out on one that was equivalent to sour candy. Furthermore, a frustrated team left an arena, hopped on social media, and found a bevy of congrats for their star player, while enduring the storm that came with another Lakers loss.

It seems that James’ stardom has reached a tipping point, one that makes him a GM one moment, the King of the league the next, and finally the biggest point of contention within the locker room. The most notable thing is that it is clearly wearing him down. Chris Martin let us know that “nobody one said it was easy”, but you’ve got to ask yourself, does it have to be so hard?

The answer is unfortunately, yes. It’s always going to be this way, and there is no fighting the current, but there is beauty in riding the wave. Embracing that moment when the wave comes crashing down on you is important, because it’s always going to happen, but your attitude will always be remembered. LeBron rides high, and keeps things in the positive light for the media, but he’s got to realize that they are writing his story, and he doesn’t have to play into their’s. Ride the wave, and take the loss in stride with all the great that has come with it, but take the loss because your part of a team that is.

The wave has crashed down, but the current will bring another.

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Year 15 | A Mini Documentary

Year 15 of a legacy…

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What’s to come for the man on top, and what got him here?

It’s Year 15 of a man’s career, but it’s also Year 15 of a legacy…

Created by Tristan Laughton | Twitter: @Ctrice

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Editorial

Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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