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The Timberwolves Might Have Too Many Stars

MINNEAPOLIS — It would take days to compile a full list of all the things the Timberwolves have done wrong during their 13-year span wandering the basketball wilderness.

Management has had long stretches of gross ineptitude. That lack of direction partly explains why the Wolves have cycled through eight coaches in the 13 seasons since they last made the playoffs, including two different men who each held the job twice. Aside from the lack of continuity, there are also the mind-numbingly bad picks. The 2009 draft was especially awful: Minnesota selected two different point guards, Ricky Rubio and eventual washout Jonny Flynn, ahead of a guy named Steph Curry, who’d go on to win two MVPs while becoming the greatest jump shooter in NBA history.

So it doesn’t take much to see why this season — with newly acquired All-Star Jimmy Butler, a handful of solid vets and some of the NBA’s best young talent — is one of the most anticipated campaigns in Timberwolves history. But look closer, and there may be slight cause for concern: Minnesota, owner of the NBA’s longest playoff drought, might suddenly have too much star power on its roster.

The Wolves boast a ton of individual scoring but don’t necessarily have a surplus of players known for facilitating an offense. Consider the fact that the team’s Big Three is made up of Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — a trio in which each player logged usage rates of 25 percent or higher last season.

While it’s not unheard of for an offense to be this reliant on a set of three players — the Warriors and Cavaliers both did it last season en route to the Finals — it’s still unusual from a historical standpoint. Even as the notion of the superteam has spread throughout the league, there have been only six instances of three separate players logging 25 percent usage rates for the same team over the past 25 seasons,1 according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.

Could Minnesota be the NBA’s next three-headed monster?

Teams with three players who posted at least 25 percent usage over the season, since 1992

SEASON TEAM PLAYER ONE PLAYER TWO PLAYER THREE
2016-17 Warriors Kevin Durant Stephen Curry Klay Thompson
2016-17 Cavaliers LeBron James Kyrie Irving Kevin Love
2008-09 Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki Jason Terry Josh Howard
2007-08 Spurs Tim Duncan Tony Parker Manu Ginobili
2001-02 Bucks Ray Allen Glenn Robinson Sam Cassell
1999-2000 Bucks Ray Allen Glenn Robinson Sam Cassell

Among players with at least 30 minutes per game, minimum 50 games

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Still, it’s hard to know whom, if anyone, the Wolves actually compare to — especially now, after having moved Rubio, a pass-first guard who managed to keep his high-scoring teammates fed most nights.

“I get people involved, but he was a fan favorite, and I hear that every day. Seriously, I do,” said Jeff Teague, the Wolves’ new starting point guard, who gets in the paint and scores more than his predecessor. The 29-year-old, one season removed from a career-high 26.6 percent usage rate himself, said he’s been studying film to learn where his new teammates prefer the ball. Teague also cited his experience leading a highly balanced Atlanta Hawks’ offense as reason for optimism in Minnesota.

Figuring out the proper pecking order won’t get a whole lot easier when Teague heads to the bench, either. Three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford, who led the NBA in percentage of time going 1-on-1 last season, figures to be a primary ballhandler when he enters the game as a reserve. All of which raises a question about how this team’s offense — which fell from a top-five team in assist rate with Rubio on the floor to a bottom-10 club with him off the court last season — will move the ball with so many scoring specialists sharing the court at once.

There are a ton of kinks for this team to work through — all things considered, the Timberwolves’ defense could still be pretty bad — but to be fair, the Wolves also have a handful of factors that could play to their advantage. Unlike the LeBron James superteams that struggled out of the gate in Miami and Cleveland in 2010 and 2014, Butler is the only true star joining Minnesota this offseason. And because Towns and Wiggins have played alongside each other the past couple of seasons, the trio’s growing pains may not be as extreme to start.2

Beyond that, Butler is already familiar with Tom Thibodeau’s highly tactical schemes, having played for him in Chicago for the first four seasons of his career. “We’re very fortunate, because everybody already knows the system, which expedites the process 10-fold,” Towns said.

Thibodeau suggested that he wasn’t concerned about who would create looks for whom in this offense. Striking the balance among several talented scorers “is a challenge that all good teams face,” he said. Thibodeau thinks Butler (who, at 5.5 assists per game last season, has upped his assists per game every year) is one of the best playmaking shooting guards in the NBA, and that Crawford, for all his 1-on-1 tries, is a tough cover when defenses trap him in pick-and-rolls.3

“Everyone has to play for each other, to sacrifice, and put the team first,” Thibodeau said. “So if you’re a primary scorer, and the second defender comes, without hesitation, you have to hit the open man. You have to trust each other.”

And again, offense isn’t Minnesota’s chief concern. By all accounts, the Wolves should finish top 10 in the NBA on that side of the ball — but that’s a necessity for them to compete considering how bad their defense could be. The Wolves blew 22 double-digit leads and tied for fourth-worst in the association on that end last season. Butler and Taj Gibson could help the Timberwolves improve slightly on defense (though Rubio to Teague is a downgrade), but expecting a complete turnaround might be asking too much of Wiggins and Towns, who, despite being cornerstones, are still just 22 and 21 years old, respectively.

This shoddy defense gives the Timberwolves’ offense very little margin, particularly late in games, when the club’s fourth-quarter offense goes stale and Minnesota becomes too reliant on perimeter jumpers with heavy, fatigued legs.

The question of who will get the ball in crunch time looms large, especially for a team that somehow lost a whopping 30 games that were within 5 points during the final five minutes of play.

“Obviously I think I’m a great scorer, and that I’m a great weapon. I think of myself as a No. 1 option,” Wiggins said. “We all think we’re the No. 1 option. Not in a selfish way. It’s more that we just know what we can do.”

Footnotes

  1. While playing 30 minutes per game and at least 50 games that season.

  2. Towns connected with Wiggins for seven outlet passes of 60 feet or farther last season, second in the NBA only to Kevin Love — the outlet-pass king — and LeBron James.

  3. Crawford averaged more points per possession than any other NBA player when teams trapped him in pick-and-roll scenarios last year, according to Synergy Sports.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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